ALAMEDA (AP) — D.J. Hayden’s remarkable comeback from a near-death experience has taken him to the first round of the NFL draft.
The Oakland Raiders selected the former Houston cornerback with the 12th overall pick after trading down nine spots to get a second rounder from Miami on Thursday night.
Hayden was just moments from death last November after an on-field collision with a teammate in practice tore a blood vessel off the back of his heart. He was rushed into immediate surgery for a tear of the inferior vena cava, the large vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body to the heart.
The injury is 95 percent fatal in the field, according to doctors, and is most commonly associated with high-speed motor vehicle injuries.
“I was just wondering if I would walk straight again,” Hayden said. “That’s what was on my mind, just walking straight again. I wasn’t worried about life after football, life after college, I was just worried about walking.”
But after a week of self-described depression, Hayden’s spirits were lifted when doctors told him he would have a chance to play football again once his sternum and stitches healed.
Hayden did recover and was cleared by doctors before running a 4.4 40-yard dash at Houston’s pro day in March to help cement his status as Oakland’s selection.
“Of course we researched the health issues. Now, everything we got back from that standpoint was more than positive so it became a non-issue for us in that regard,” general manager Reggie McKenzie said. “He’s going to have to mentally go through it now, that’s the only issue we had”.
Hayden said he is looking forward to getting back on the field and hitting people again to show he is fully recovered. McKenzie said Hayden will be ready to practice as soon as the team’s rookie minicamp early next month.
“The doctors were amazed when I walked in the room and they saw my scar, they were just amazed,” Hayden said. “I told my story at least 300 times. The real, main concern was how would I feel getting back out there. And I just told them I have to get out there and shake the rust off myself. I can sit there and tell them anything they want to hear but I have to actually go out there and just do it myself and just play.”
McKenzie said the Raiders were ready to take Hayden with the third overall pick if they didn’t get a suitable offer to move down. When Miami offered the 42nd overall pick to give the Raiders a second-round pick they lost in the Carson Palmer trade in 2011, McKenzie jumped at the chance.
McKenzie said he was nervous at times that Hayden wouldn’t be there at No. 12, especially because the New York Jets were targeting a cornerback at No. 9 after trading Darrelle Revis. The Jets took Alabama’s Dee Milliner, leaving Hayden for the Raiders.
“The one quality that you look at when you’re looking at corners, is you’re looking for guys that can cover, and this guy can cover,” coach Dennis Allen said. “He can cover man-to-man, he’s got great speed, he’s got great quickness, he’s got the ability to play both off and press coverage, and really one of the things I really look at is, how does the guy make plays on the ball, specifically the ball down the field, and he does a tremendous job of that.”
Hayden was Oakland’s first first-round pick since taking linebacker Rolando McClain eighth overall in 2010. The Raiders traded first rounders the past two years in deals for Richard Seymour and Palmer.
McKenzie made his first premium pick since taking over the Raiders from late owner Al Davis last year and targeted a porous defense. McKenzie did not pick until 95th overall last year in his first draft with Oakland.
Oakland went 4-12 in its first season under McKenzie and Allen after back-to-back 8-8 seasons the previous two years. Only three starters are returning from a defense that allowed the fifth most points in the NFL last season.
The Raiders signed veteran cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins to one-year deals this offseason but were still looking for a long-term solution at cornerback.
“The guy can cover,” McKenzie said. “Point blank, he can cover. He can find the football so he does what we’re looking for in a cornerback — he’s a good cover corner who can get his hands on the football.”
Hayden played 22 games at Houston, intercepting six passes that he returned for three touchdowns. He also recovered three fumbles and forced six before his senior season was cut short by the injury.
The Raiders have struggled to find impact players in the draft in recent years, especially in the top of the first round. Running back Darren McFadden (2008) and kicker Sebastian Janikowski (2000) are the only of Oakland’s own first-rounders still on the roster.
McKenzie cut three former top 10 picks this offseason in defensive back Michael Huff (2006), receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (2009) and McClain.