Senior College Football Columnist

One season past miraculous 2011, Cougars experience true miracle


Dead. That's what D.J. Hayden was, the moment he went up to defend a pass in practice on Nov 6.

Eleven-on-11 drill. Full pads. Dead. Had to be. Almost certainly. Arms extended, mid-jump, reaching for the ball, Hayden exposed his ribs, lungs and something called the inferior vena cava. In a confluence of accidental tragedy, teammate Trevon Stewart, a safety, also went up for the pass, then buried his helmet into Hayden's sternum.

The impact left Hayden woozy, looking like he'd had the wind knocked out of him. It was simple instinct that caused trainer Mike O'Shea to cart off the transfer from Navarro Junior College rather than help him walk off.

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"He started telling me that he had blurring vision and he was getting faint," said O'Shea, an amiable 20-year veteran at Houston. "Once he told me that, I knew."

O'Shea knew only that it was something more serious than Hayden having to catch his breath. He didn't know the cornerback was near death, with a 5 percent chance of survival.

Those who even know the nature of the injury merely say, "Google it." It's too massive, too fatal to even consider for football. A rupture of the inferior vena cava results in death 95 percent of the time. It takes a lot to damage the main vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. The injury is seen almost exclusively in auto accidents.

And yet, that's what was happening to Hayden as the ambulance sped to the hospital. The 22-year-old, in the prime of his life, was bleeding out.

"He was talking in the ambulance the whole time," O'Shea recalled. "One of the keys was, in the ambulance, the dispatcher heard all the signs and symptoms and said [Hayden] needed to be transferred to a trauma hospital. ... If we don't go there, he doesn't make it."

There are a lot "ifs" associated with Hayden this week of Thanksgiving. If O'Shea doesn't have that instinct accumulated over decades. If that trauma center -- Memorial Hermann Hospital -- wasn't close and rated one of the best in the world.

If doctors don't open up Hayden the same way they would a patient for heart surgery and perform a delicate 2½-hour procedure. If not, well, then Hayden would be dead, almost certainly. Google it.

"This has never, ever really been seen or reported [in football]," said team doctor Walter Lowe, chairman of the department of orthopedic surgery at University of Texas Medical School in Houston. "It's a motor vehicle, battlefield injury. Even when you get to the hospital, it's not always a great outcome."

The surgeons actually had to look for the injury once they got in. There were 15 units of blood involved. Family, friends and teammates gathered in a waiting room. A Fellowship of Christian Athletes rep showed up. They didn't know if they needed to console each other or celebrate a miracle.

"After the surgery, they came out and told us," O'Shea said. "As soon as the doctor came out, everyone was on their hands and knees and said a prayer together. It was a gift from God, a touching moment -- a miracle is what it was."

Hayden made it through intensive care. Then he made it out of the hospital -- six days later. Another miracle. Hayden spoke to his teammates. He's back home recovering. They're even talking about him playing football again, but that seems relatively unimportant now.

Lowe estimates the injury will take three to four months to heal. It would be another miracle for Hayden to be ready for the NFL combine.

"It's such unchartered waters," Lowe said.

Even though Hayden is out of college eligibility, coaches close to him say don't underestimate him making a return in the NFL. Colleague Bruce Feldman reports that several Texas A&M staffers who had worked at Houston say NFL scouts had told them Hayden had potential first-round tools. They also he's good enough to start for them in College Station for the 9-2 Aggies and he'd be one of the SEC's best DBs.

But the kid will be OK, at least it seems that way. Hayden and his parents haven't spoken publicly yet. You can't blame them. Going into the last week of the season, the Cougars already know they aren't going to a bowl. That, after a miracle season in 2011 (13-1). Well, not quite a miracle considering the current circumstances.

What's important is one of the best recruiting pitches in existence.

"We tell recruits' parents we hope we never have to use it, but we're 10 minutes from the best medical facility in the world," O'Shea said.

Hayden's case is a shout-from-the-mountain-top moment for every training/medical staff in the country. Schools must have an emergency action plan for athletes in place. It has cost players their lives in the past.

"On the football field you never say, 'That will never happen again,' " Lowe said. "You go in understanding you could see anything and everything. The fact that it has never happened in football before, it's going to be very unusual to ever to see it again.

"When guys don't look right, their heart rates are high, you kind of have to presume the worst."

A few years ago a player collapsed in the Houston weight room. Luckily, there was something called an AED nearby. That's an automated external defibrillator, one of those things that jumpstarts the heart. The kid survived and recovered completely.

O'Shea, Lowe and their staff, then, are responsible for saving two lives.

"God is good," O'Shea said.

A devout Catholic, O'Shea goes to church a lot. Every day he rises at 5 a.m. to be at work by 7. On some days he stops by a downtown cathedral, with all its grandeur, to give thanks. It's something we should do more often, not only this week.

"I'm going to light a candle," he said. "You've got to give thanks, without a doubt."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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