Lions' Hayden dodged death in 2012 on-field collision

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Lions cornerback D.J. Hayden shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t be in Detroit, he shouldn’t have made it to the NFL, he shouldn’t be alive.

Exactly five years ago, on Nov. 6, 2012, Hayden nearly died playing football.

The story was reported when it happened, and in even more detail after he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 2013, but it’s a story worth revisiting, both because it’s unbelievable and many Lions fans may have not heard it.

In what was an otherwise routine moment during the Houston Cougars’ late-season practice, Hayden, a senior and top prospect, collided with teammate Trevon Stewart while attempting to make a play on an underthrown ball. Hayden took a knee to the chest and it quickly became clear something wasn’t right.

Houston trainer Mike O’Shea’s quick thinking saved valuable time. He didn’t let Hayden walk to the locker room, instead calling for a cart. He also didn’t let Hayden shower and had an ambulance called.

O’Shea was honored with the Excellence in Athletic Training Award from the Southwest Athletic Trainers Association that year for his efforts and selected to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Hall of Fame in 2014.

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O’Shea hopped into the ambulance to accompany Hayden that afternoon and It became clear during the ride there was internal bleeding. Hayden was cold, suggesting he was going into shock, and he vision in his left eye suddenly went black. The ambulance was rerouted from its original destination to the local trauma center. Not long after arriving, Hayden was under the knife.

With the severity still not clear, Hayden still had the awareness to joke with the doctors not to mess up his chiseled abs.

Once inside, the surgeons looked for bleeding around the liver and spleen — logical locations given the nature of the collision — but they found none. The leak was higher up in the chest and turned out to the be the inferior vena cava, the massive vein that carries blood from the lower body back to the heart.

The artery had been torn and Hayden had lost much of his blood supply. Common in car accidents and battlefield explosions, the injury is fatal between 95-99 percent of time, depending on the medical opinion. Stitching it back together was like sewing wet tissue paper, the surgeon later told Hayden. The procedure lasted 2.5 hours.

Hayden, 27, shouldn’t be here, but everything went perfectly. As perfectly as it could, considering the circumstances.

The biggest hurdle was surviving the procedure, but the months to follow were no picnic. Despite leaving the hospital after only six days, a much shorter stay than similar cases, it was a long battle to regain his strength and abilities. Walking up stairs pushed him to his limit, he lost 25 pounds and his football career was understandably in jeopardy.

But four months later, the doctors gave him the good news, a full recovery was likely, and that included returning to football. By February, he was back up to 190 pounds, his playing weight, and he ran a blazing 4.33-second 40-yard dash at his pro day.

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The question was no longer whether he’d play in the NFL, but how high he’d go in the draft. The Oakland Raiders answered that question quickly, trading down from the No. 3 overall pick to the 12th spot and selecting Hayden in the first round.

There still were some lingering complications, even after the draft. In May, Hayden needed a second surgery to remove some scar tissue from the initial procedure, which had caused an abdominal obstruction. But that didn’t prevent him from participating in his first training camp and making his preseason debut in August.

And his heart hasn’t troubled him since.

Things didn’t work out for Hayden in Oakland. He never lived up to his lofty draft status prior to signing with Detroit as a free agent this offseason. But he’s been quietly productive in the new environment. He’s not a starter, but he’s averaging nearly 30 snaps per game in 2017, rotating with Nevin Lawson at cornerback. Hayden has made 20 tackles and broken up three passes entering tonight’s game against the Packers in Green Bay.

Hayden politely declined multiple interview requests for this story. He did note he rarely reflects on the injury that took him to the brink of death five years ago these days, although he can never escape the scar that runs the length of his torso when he looks in the mirror. And his annual youth camp in Houston is named “Play Your Heart Out.” It’s that same sense of humor that displayed concern for his abs on the operating table.

Which, in case you were wondering, survived too.