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After six days, much quicker than expected, Hayden was up, alert and headed home. Almost immediately, Lowe says he started getting calls from players and coaches asking whether Hayden would play again. It was a question that would torture the 22-year-old—but one with a surprise answer.
Within three months Hayden started working out at the Plex facility in Houston, first on an elliptical machine and a stationary bike, and then easing into running and lifting. At one point, he was down to 165 pounds, but he and trainer Danny Arnold set their sights on Houston's March 18 pro day, an ambitious goal.
At the February combine in Indianapolis, Hayden didn't work out, but he did meet individually with more than half the NFL's teams and told each of them he was on track. A month later he delivered.
Perhaps you've read of the dazzling pro-day performances of Barkevious Mingo and Geno Smith, but Hayden's was truly something to remember: Four months after having his chest cracked open, he was back up to 190 pounds and ran that 4.33-second 40. Hayden pulled his hamstring on a second run, but intrigue had already set in. Suddenly he was back in the first round of mock drafts (SI.com's Don Banks had him at No. 29, to New England, last week), and NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock moved him back up to No. 3 in his cornerback rankings, behind only Alabama's Dee Milliner and Florida State's Xavier Rhodes.
Forty time and all, teams will still heavily weigh Hayden's medical condition. Lowe says that when the sternum heals, "he should be as good as ever," but drafting the medical miracle still suggests risk. "Every team is different when they evaluate injuries," he says. "A lot depends on the medical staff's and the G.M.'s past experience. If a G.M. has been burned by medical risks in the past, he may stay away from a Marcus Lattimore or a D.J. Hayden."
To Hayden it matters little—whether he is picked in the first or second round, or whether he goes undrafted and gets stashed away by some team that wants to give him more time to heal. "I just can't wait to put my helmet on," he says.
Back in November, Hayden's injury was by far his biggest weakness. Now, given his focus, and the fortitude it took him to recover, it just might be his greatest strength.