Cornerback D.J. Hayden excels at Houston’s Pro Day months after near-fatal heart injury

Doug Farrar
March 19, 2013

Draft prospects have their scouting combine tests interrupted or cancelled by injury all the time -- that's just an unfortunate fact of life. But we can't remember any precedent for what happened to Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden during the 2012 season, and it makes his performance at Houston's Pro Day on Monday all the more remarkable. Per the school's official website, Hayden burned a 4.33 40-yard dash on his first attempt, and pulled up with a slight hamstring tweak on his second attempt.

Before the 40, Hayden registered a 33.5-inch vertical leap, and a 10-foot broad jump. He didn't participate in the bench press, because he's still recovering from the emergency heart surgery he underwent last November. Yes, you read that right. Less than a year after emergency heart surgery, this kid ran a sub-4.4 40.

At the combine, Hayden explained exactly what happened.

“It was a regular day at practice [November 6]. We were doing team versus scout team. They threw the ball my way. Me and the safety ran into each other. His knee hit me in my chest. I fell to the ground. It felt like I got the wind knocked out of me. When I was breathing, I just wasn’t breathing right. [The doctor] took me inside. He was asking me these questions and I was getting real cold.

“I’m looking around and I’m getting real sleepy. My left eye goes pitch black. I can’t see out of it. I can see a little bit out of my left eye. I’m praying, ‘Lord, help me get out of this one.’

“They rushed me to the hospital and did a scan on my stomach and my chest. They saw a lot of blood in my abdomen. They thought it was my liver or my spleen.

“The doctor said he was going to have to cut me open. I said, ‘Okay, just don’t mess my abs up.’ So they cut through my sternum and saw the [inferior vena cava], the main vein to your heart, was torn. He put some sutures, in stitched it back together, closed me back up, and here I am today.”

Well, it's not quite that simple. Had Hayden not received medical attention when he did, the injury could have been fatal.

“Not then," Hayden said, when asked if he thought at the time that he could have died. "I didn’t think it was that serious before I woke up. I woke up and saw it on the news. Then I was looking at the scar and all these bandages and all these machines I’m hooked up to and I realized I was truly blessed. They told me what happened was 95 percent fatal. I’m truly blessed to be here right now.

“My mom, at first they didn’t take it too well, but then some of my teammates came and saw me. My friends and family came and saw me. They took care of me real well.”

Alonzo Highsmith, senior personnel executive for the Green Bay Packers, told the Houston Chronicle that he'd never seen a player with an injury like this.

"It's the most unique injury in the history of the draft," Highsmith said."The only people that ever had it aren't alive, and doctors have never seen it."

Hayden's agent, Jeff Nalley, said that his client has four private workouts and seven visits scheduled with NFL teams, and 27 teams attended the Pro Day.

Before his injury, the 5-foot-11, 191-pound Hayden was enjoying a spectacular season. He was second in Conference USA with four picks, and he'd returned two of them for touchdowns. According to the team's website, just 45 of 362 opposing pass attempts were directed his way, and just 11 of those 45 were completed. Hayden also amassed eight pass breakups, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Even with the injury, he was selected to the C-USA first team at the end of the season.

Doctors originally projected a one-year recovery, but they didn't have much of a history to go on with this -- as Highsmith said, most people who suffer this injury aren't around to complete in anything. If Hayden's medicals all check out, it's possible that he could be a second- or third-round pick. Some teams will take him off their boards because of the risk, but there's no questioning this guy's determination.

"Teams asked if I will be scared to get out there again," Hayden told the Chronicle after his Pro Day drills.. "I told them I needed to get hit one time. I just need somebody to come smack me."