ALAMEDA – Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden woke up Wednesday morning to a text message from his mother. The content was simple, straightforward and dead right.
Be thankful for what you have.
Hayden was especially thankful on this morning, the anniversary of a near-death experience. He took a hit to the chest during a University of Houston practice that ruptured his vena cava.
Hayden could’ve died that day. With an injury that severe, Hayden probably should have died.
We know this story well. Hayden defied odds, made a full recovery and was drafted No. 12 overall by the Raiders.
“I’m truly blessed to be alive right now,” Hayden said. “I’m truly blessed to be in the NFL, playing the game I love.”
That’s even true after Sunday’s troublesome performance against the Philadelphia Eagles, when he allowed three pivotal receptions for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
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Hayden was deflated after that game, and declined to speak with the press. He discussed the game, what he needs to improve and where it fits in the grand scheme. Compared to what he went through last year, it’s a blip on the radar. In terms of his football development, it’s an important moment the Raiders hope Hayden learns from.
“There hasn’t been a corner that has every played the game and never had one of those games,” Raiders coach Dennis Allen said. “The great ones are able to respond to it and come back from it and we have a lot of confidence in D.J., that’s the reason we took him where we did. I think he has a bright future in this league. He’s learning on the job, and that’s part of what happens when you play out there on the Autobahn.”
Hayden has replayed those big plays in his mind and has come to one conclusion. Save a touchdown pass where he tripped, he was oh, so close to breaking up each pass. His coverage is generally solid, but he isn’t making the right moves with the ball closing in. Hayden knows that he'll get picked on until he solves that problem.
“It’s about how you respond to it,” Hayden said. “I could’ve made both plays. I just have to finish the play. If would’ve finished, who knows what the outcome would’ve been.”
That’s been eating at him, but Hayden knows he must move on to avoid getting beat again Sunday by the New York Giants. Veteran defensive backs, including Charles Woodson, have been encouraging him to keep faith in his ability. It’s helped.
Hayden is ready to move on and excited about the prospect of a new opponent. He’s ready to make plays he hasn’t in the past. Breaking up passes was a strength in college, but it hasn’t translated to success in the pros, where even the smallest misstep can get you beat.
“This is the NFL. Everybody is fast and strong and can make plays,” Hayden said. “I just have to get better and step up to the level of competition and maximize my potential.”