Cornerback D.J. Hayden might go in the first round of this week's NFL draft. The football staff at the University of Houston can't believe he's alive.
They go through the checklist of fortunate decisions and outcomes that saved Hayden's life on Nov. 6. Hayden was hit on a fairly routine play in practice. He was drifting over to break up a pass. Safety Trevon Stewart jumped for the pass. His knee hit Hayden in the chest. Collisions like it happen regularly in full-pads football practices.
"It's a hit you see all the time," Houston's athletic trainer Mike O'Shea said.
"It was a routine play," Houston coach Tony Levine said. "It was a collision I've seen happen to the naked eye probably thousands of times."
O'Shea witnessed the hit and saw Hayden go to his knees and figured Hayden probably had the wind knocked out of him, perhaps fractured a rib. Or figured at worst, he injured his spleen. Nobody knew that Hayden tore a vein near his heart and was in serious danger of dying.
Here's where the Houston personnel starts listing all the crucial moments.
If the training staff didn't make the decision to have him ride the cart into the football building, and had him walk in instead, he would probably be dead.
If O'Shea had Hayden rest for a bit or take a shower, which isn't unusual, he would probably be dead.
If O'Shea hadn't seen the play because he was tending to another player or looking at another part of the field, when Hayden started talking about losing vision in his left eye on the training table, he couldn't immediately rule out a head injury and Hayden would probably be dead.
If O'Shea, without having any way of knowing that Hayden was suffering a life-and-death heart injury in his training room, not followed his instincts and called 9-1-1 immediately, Hayden would probably be dead.
If the first responders in the ambulance hadn't changed their minds once they got Hayden in the ambulance and took his vital signs, and decided to go right to the trauma center instead of another hospital, Hayden would probably be dead.
If Hayden had gone to another school after junior college, and not one in Houston with one of the world's best trauma center about four miles away, he would probably be dead.
If his thoracic diaphragm hadn't also torn, which caused blood to drain into his stomach, Hayden's heart would have suffocated and he would probably be dead.
If primary surgeon Dr. Ron Albarado hadn't happened to be at Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute at that moment, and wasn't able to perform the delicate task of repairing the tear in Hayden's inferior vena cava, the large vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body back to the heart ("They say it's like sewing wet toilet paper," O'Shea said), Hayden would probably be dead.
There is a 95 percent fatality rate with that injury, which is usually seen in car accidents. That injury had never happened on a football field before, and the hit that produced it wasn't unusual. Had any of the above steps changed, the resulting delay would have been fatal. He was minutes from dying.
Hayden was historically unlucky and then lucky beyond belief, all in the same afternoon.
"The more you talk about it, the more unbelievable it is," O'Shea said.
Every action over that short span following the injury helped save Hayden's life.
"I have a whole new outlook on life," Hayden said at the NFL combine. "All the stuff I took for granted, I don’t take for granted any more whether it’s family, friends, God – I’m cherishing every moment because you never know when your time is up."
When coach Tony Levine sat with Hayden in the hospital the nights after the injury, he wasn't concerned about Hayden's NFL future. Nobody was thinking about football.
"For a couple days it was his life people were talking about," Levine said.
Hayden's weight dropped from 190 pounds to about 165. Over the next few weeks he started to slowly bounce back from his emergency heart surgery, even though there were still questions about whether he could play in 2013. He started riding a stationary bike, jogging a bit and lifting some weights. The weight started coming back. He went to the combine to meet with teams but saved his workout for Houston's pro day.
He ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the pro day on March 18. He proved he was back, and his draft stock was soaring again.
Many mock drafts project Hayden going in the first round of the draft on Thursday. On Doug Farrar's Shutdown 50, Hayden ranks as the No. 15 prospect. On Greg Cosell's mock draft at Shutdown Corner, Cosell has Hayden going to the Dolphins at No. 12.
"It'll be a great story," O'Shea said about Hayden getting drafted. "Just to be alive is a great story."
The people who know him at Houston talk about a hard-working cornerback with incredible talent who also was unanimously named team captain after just one year with the Cougars. They have trouble putting into words what his comeback means to them and everyone else at the school.
"It was heartbreaking to see what he went through in November," Levine said. "To see him work his way back and to see him reach this point with his health, with all his goals in front of him is ... satisfying isn't the word, because I know he's not satisfied yet."
Levine pauses for a moment as he tries to sum up his overwhelming feelings about Hayden's miraculous comeback.
"I just feel so great for D.J.," Levine said.