DJ Hayden doesn’t want to be known as the guy who almost died. The Raiders sophomore cornerback has had to re-live a harrowing nightmare from that University of Houston practice where a hit ruptured his inferior vena cava and left him fighting for his life.
It comes up so often and has for so long, at every health-related milestone along the way. First he had to prove himself physically able to play again and explain he was a draftable commodity in one interview after another.
Even after selling himself worthy of the Raiders’ No. 12 overall pick in 2013, the Silver and Black gave him a bright red jersey, signaling to the world he still wasn’t right, unfit for contact. Then he got hit and played in his first game and made his first interception. Inevitably, each milestone was related back to that November day in 2012, and how it felt in the context of that life-altering moment.
Tuesday might’ve been the last one. Hayden’s 2013 offseason program was cut short by a second surgery linked to the first. He had scar tissue removed from his abdomen after just one OTA session, a setback that kept memories fresh.
Hayden is the pinnacle of health now, with nothing holding him back from reaching potential coach Dennis Allen considers to be great. He’s 5-10 pounds heavier, carved out of granite following an offseason strength training hard.
The Raiders hope Hayden can become a full-time starter in 2014, the elite cover man his athleticism forecasts. The health is there. All he needs is the confidence to do so.
Hayden says it’s already present. By all accounts, Hayden 2.0 is vastly improved.
“I think he’s light years ahead of where he was at this point last year,” Allen said. “Not just from a physical standpoint, but really from a mental standpoint too. I think he realizes now that everything’s going to be fine, he’s going to be OK, and now he can really focus on getting better as a football player.”
That wasn’t always the case. The abdominal surgery ate at Hayden’s psyche, especially as OTAs continued while he was incapacitated.
“Here are all my teammates out there working and I’m hooked up to IVs,” Hayden said. “It might mess up anyone’s head a little bit.”
The season wasn’t a complete wash. There were moments of brilliance, including a contest against San Diego where he was targeted five times, allowed one short reception with no yards after the catch and sealed a Raiders victory with a fourth-quarter interception in his own end zone.
Sustaining supreme confidence was Hayden’s main hurdle. It impacted his play some, despite public demands from Allen and coordinator Jason Tarver to trust his ability and play more aggressive.
It was easier said than done. Passivity got Hayden beat some in key moments, including a performance against Philadelphia where he, in part at least, allowed three big plays and two touchdowns.
Hayden never got a shot at redemption. He didn’t play after that Eagles game, eventually placed on injured reserve with a sports hernia that was surgically repaired
“It definitely sucked,” Hayden said. “Those were the cards that I was dealt, so I just had to play them right.”
Hayden maximized an offseason period stolen from him as a rookie, and seems poised to meet expectations bestowed on a first-round pick. He’s bigger, stronger and faster, with an important lesson learned from a difficult year.
“You’ve got to just let stuff go,” he said. “You can’t go back in the past. If something happened, you’ve just got to focus on the next play.”
Or the next season, which is what he’s doing now. He borrowed Allen’s term, and said his confidence is “light years ahead” of where it used to be, an encouraging sign for a team that desperately needs Hayden at the top of his game.
“I like what I’ve seen out of DJ so far,” Allen said. “He still has a lot of things to learn, still kind of a quasi-rookie out there, but I’m looking forward to his development and I think there are some good things in store for him.”