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If you go by the numbers—six career interceptions and six forced fumbles as an All--Conference USA cornerback at Houston, and a 4.33-second 40 at his pro day on March 18—D.J. Hayden is a first-round NFL draft pick in most books. But Hayden has another set of numbers working against him as April 25 approaches: Between 95% and 99% of people die from the injury that he suffered during a routine practice on Nov. 6, 2012.
Back then the Cougars were in the midst of a disappointing 5--7 season, but that wasn't enough to turn off NFL draftniks, who were intrigued by the juco transfer's size (5' 11", 190 pounds) and athleticism. Opines one NFC scout who'd given Hayden a first-round grade before his injury, "He's not just fast; he has loose hips and great feet. He can stay with guys on the outside, but he's agile enough to cover guys in the slot. He's also physical and not afraid to tackle. He can play in multiple schemes—man, press, zone. You don't see that in every top cornerback prospect."
And there was Hayden, showing off those skills, breaking on an underthrown pass at that November practice. As he closed in on the ball, so did safety Trevon Stewart, and as Stewart jumped, his left knee collided with Hayden's chest.
No one knew it at the time, but the impact tore halfway through Hayden's inferior vena cava, a large vein with a diameter slightly larger than a quarter that pumps blood from the lower half of the body into the heart.
Hayden had no history of injuries—that's one of the reasons why Cougars training staff acted so quickly. "D.J. was the best athlete on the team," says Houston's Michael O'Shea, a medical trainer with 40 years of experience at D-I colleges and in the NFL, "so when he was [struggling] to catch his breath, my gut told me something was wrong."
O'Shea's instincts led him to cart Hayden into the locker room for a closer look. ("Normally, I would let the player take some time to gather himself, take a shower while I attend to other business," says O'Shea. If he had, "we probably would have found him on the shower floor, dead.") Hayden was growing increasingly tired, informing O'Shea that his vision was blurring. The trainer suspected blood loss and called 911, hopping into an ambulance with his player. "We were headed to one hospital near campus," explains O'Shea, detailing a crucial twist of fate, "and at the last minute they decided to go to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center instead," which was better prepared for injuries like Hayden's.
"This was the only hospital in Houston that could have saved D.J.," explains Walter Lowe, the Cougars' (and Houston Texans') team doctor. At Memorial, a renowned trauma center, Hayden received a FAST (focused assessment with sonography for trauma) scan. The test, which gives doctors a much quicker picture than a CT scan of what's going on inside of a patient—Lowe equates it to the no-huddle offense—revealed that Hayden's abdomen was filling with blood.
With instructions from their patient, who was now in shock, to "make sure you don't mess up my abs," surgeons cracked open Hayden's chest, revealing a tear most commonly seen on battlefields or in car accidents, and which typically proves fatal as blood builds up in the chest, causing pressure that stops the heart from beating. In another bit of strange luck, the collision had also torn Hayden's diaphragm, allowing blood to leak into his abdomen, thus alleviating the chest pressure.
While family and teammates paced outside, surgeons operated to stop the bleeding, then started a whole-body blood transfusion. In case the repairs didn't take, doctors kept his chest open overnight.
Hayden spent the next three days in ICU, suffering further injury when medicine that was supposed to go into his veins leaked onto his left wrist and hand, causing a burn that required a skin graft.