For cornerback D.J. Hayden, the ability to thrive in one-on-one situations sets him apart.
It was teamwork, though, that saved his life.
Hayden, drafted 12th overall by the Oakland Raiders last month, nearly died on the University of Houston practice field Nov. 6, when a seemingly routine collision resulted in an injury that left doctors and trainers in utter disbelief. He suffered a torn vein to the heart, an injury that most often occurs in motor-vehicle accidents or on the battlefield, and, his doctors say, has a mortality rate of 99 percent.
But for the urgent precision of medical personnel — coupled with some unbelievable good fortune — he almost certainly would not have survived.
"For me to almost lose this, and now to be back on this field ..." Hayden said by phone recently from Raiders mini-camp. "I'm just blessed."
The injury happened when Hayden, 22, a team captain and All-Conference USA first team player, crashed into fellow defensive back Trevon Stewart as they were converging on a deep pass from opposite directions. Hayden took a foot to the chest during the collision and knelt on the ground, apparently with the wind knocked out of him.
"When I went over to him and he caught his breath again, he complained about his chest hurting," trainer Mike "Doc" O'Shea recalled. "I thought, 'Well, maybe it's a fractured rib.'"
Then came the first in a series of make-or-break decisions. Rather than having Hayden walk back to the locker room as he might normally have done, O'Shea called for a cart. The trainer cannot explain precisely why he made that choice. Maybe it was his nearly five decades of experience, but he doesn't rule out divine intervention.
"Something told me to stay with him in the locker room, not let him shower," O'Shea said. "And if those things wouldn't have happened, he wouldn't have made it."
No one knew at the time that Hayden had suffered a tear to two of the three layers of his inferior vena cava, a large vein that carries blood up from his lower body to the right atrium of his heart.
"Never before in the history of organized sports has this ever happened," said Dr. Walter Lowe, head team physician for Houston. "With that many tackles and hard hits, you couldn't count them — something in the millions or tens of millions. This injury has never been reported on a football field, or basketball court, or wrestling match. So it's very odd."
In the locker room, Hayden was internally bleeding to death. The way it looked to him, the lights were quickly dimming.
"(O'Shea) was asking me these questions, and I was getting real cold," Hayden said. "I'm looking around, and I'm getting real sleepy. My left eye goes pitch black. I can't see out of it ... I'm praying, 'Lord, help me get out of this one.'"
Then, more good fortune. O'Shea called for an ambulance, and there happened to be one in the area heading to a non-emergency call. It arrived at the stadium within two minutes.
Instead of heading to the hospital where injured Houston players might typically go, O'Shea and the paramedics opted to rush Hayden to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, a level 1 trauma hospital. There, was the proper equipment to quickly assess the injury — and doctors who routinely perform these types of life-saving surgeries.
"I thought it was some type of spleen or liver laceration," O'Shea said. "But once they got him into surgery, they found out it was the inferior vena cava."
Lowe said that 95 percent of those patients never even make it to the hospital, and even then the chances aren't good as the total mortality rate rises to 99 percent. The delicate job of repairing the vein is akin to stitching together wet tissue paper.
Something else helped saved Hayden. When he was injured, the sac around the heart was punctured. That allowed accumulating blood to drain into his abdomen. Had the sac not been perforated, the pooling blood would have suffocated his heart within minutes.
The team of trauma surgeons Ron Albarado and Phil Adams, and chief resident Laura Kreiner, performed the 2-hour operation on Hayden, who opened his eyes hours later to find himself in intensive care with a stapled incision that ran from his navel to the top of his chest.
"I didn't think it was that serious before I woke up," he said. "I woke up and saw it on the news. Then, I was looking at the scar and all these bandages and all these machines I'm hooked up to. I realized I was truly blessed.
"My mom, at first (she) didn't take it so well. But then some of my teammates came and saw me. My family and friends saw me. They took care of me real well."
Whereas some such survivors spend weeks in the hospital, Hayden was back home in six days. He was wobbly and weak, and eventually would drop to 167 pounds from his playing weight of 191, but he was alive.
"At first I could barely sit," he said. "I couldn't lift my shoulders ... I could barely walk. My back was hunched over. It took me forever to sit up straight."
In those early days, he figured his promising football career was done.
"The first couple days I was really depressed," he said. "I thought I'd never play football again. But the doctor told me that after three or four months I should be able to play again. I was like, 'OK, I have hope.' But there was always doubt in my mind. I was questioning myself: 'Why did this happen to me?' I even questioned God, because I was in a whole different state of mind."
Hayden said a long talk with team chaplain Mikado Hinson "brought my spirits up so high. Without him, I probably wouldn't be here today."
Less than four months later, Hayden had put the weight back on, was strong again, and ran the 40-yard dash in a blistering 4.33 seconds. Once again, teams began to consider him a possible first-round pick.
For many, a gnawing question remained: Could another such injury be around the corner?
"There have been a lot of late nights up worrying about that," Lowe said. "I actually presented this situation at the NFL combine to all of the NFL team physicians. When I was done I said, 'Does anybody have any ideas or thoughts on clearing D.J. to return to play football?' And the room was deathly silent. There's no experience to fall back on.
"But when you really look at the anatomy and physiology of a surgical repair of a vein, a big vein, once they're healed they're healed."
Clearly, the Raiders are confident Hayden is fully back. They were prepared to select him with the No. 3 pick, but opted to trade back to No. 12 and select him there.
"Of course we researched the health issues," Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie said. "Now, everything we got back from that standpoint was more than positive so it became a non-issue for us in that regard. He's going to have to mentally go through it now, that's the only issue we had."
Now, seven months after the injury, Hayden said he has put it behind him and is ready for the next stage of his life. He'll always have the scar, though, a reminder of that day when one moment went horribly wrong and everything else went so perfectly right.