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Sunday, October 1, 2023


Hayden’s speech propels team forward

Senior D.J. Hayden surprised his team with a visit on Monday afternoon’s practice. Hayden spent six days in critical condition after tearing a major vein that leads to the heart.

Senior D.J. Hayden surprised his team with a visit on Monday afternoon’s practice. Hayden spent six days in critical condition after tearing a major vein that leads to the heart | Rebekah Stearns /The Daily Cougar

Senior cornerback D.J. Hayden was wheeled to the door of the Carl Lewis Auditorium in the Athletics/Alumni Center, but he walked in, surprising his teammates.

“Seeing him come in walking — at first he was laying in the (hospital) bed, and he was down — so seeing him walk in on his own with a smile on his face — I think it brought life to everybody,” said senior linebacker Phillip Steward. “This week is going to be a good week because D.J. made it through this tragedy. We shouldn’t be complaining about little stuff.”

Hayden gave the same reassuring message to fans who are concerned about him.

“Never stop praying, and I’m OK,” Hayden said in a text message. “I’m just a little sore, and I’m in the healing process now.”

Hayden was released from the hospital Monday after he suffered a life-threatening injury. He tore his inferior vena cava at practice when he collided with another player. According to Head Team Physician Dr. Walter Lowe, only 5 percent of those who sustain this injury survive.

After his release, Hayden asked head coach Tony Levine if he could deliver a message to the players. He told his teammates not to take things for granted because one moment can change a season or, in his case, a life.

Hayden spoke for 15 minutes before a team meeting and cried. When the speech concluded, his teammates gave him a standing ovation and a group hug, Steward said.

Hayden’s injury has affected Levine directly because the team is like his family, and the players are his kids, he said.

“I look at our 125 football student-athletes the same way I look at my four children,” Levine said. “Getting in my truck, driving over to the hospital, waiting for the surgeon to come out and say where your child is at and how he’s done — that’s real life, as my dad would say.”

Steward and Hayden’s personal lives have changed in the wake of Hayden’s injury, too. Hayden returned to the home he shares with teammate Steward on Monday with a new addition. Hayden’s mother has moved in to help.

“We have a momma at the house now,” Steward said. “With her being around, the house is going to be clean — or cleaner than it has been. We’re going to have some home-cooked meals. It’s going to be nice having her around.“

The week’s emotions were tough for UH players, especially those in the secondary, to deal with amidst the distractions and pressures of Homecoming Week. The Cougars still have to travel to Marshall on Saturday for a game they have to win if they want to become bowl-eligible.

Redshirt junior defensive back Thomas Bates filled in for Hayden last week. He was tested early but provided energy to the defense and played well, Steward said.

Junior cornerback Zachary McMillian, Hayden’s roommate on the road, said Hayden’s appearance at the Athletics/Alumni Center helped him deal with the severity of the situation.

“When he came back, you could see everybody had a sigh of relief to see that he is back and walking around,” McMillian said. “It’s amazing to me that he is walking around after having such a major surgery. It speaks to what kind of man he is.”

Lowe said he has progressed well, but even after being able to walk, Hayden still has a long road ahead. He said Hayden’s sternum will heal in about three months, and he can resume normal activities in three to four months.

“I go back to last Tuesday when, after stretching, when we called the team together for huddle. D.J. gave them a 30-second motivational talk, broke them down and then they split up into their groups,” Levine said. “The first part of practice, 20 minutes later, a collision occurs and his life changes.”

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