DJ Hayden has a story to tell. He has a badge of honor that says he has the heart (so to speak) to make it back form death's door to become a top NFL prospect.
Once Hayden was completely cleared by doctors, he participated in the Houston Pro Day and wowed scouts with his abilities as well as his 4.3 40-yard dash. Suddenly, he had pounced onto the NFL map, going from a mid-round flyer pick to a solid first rounder. Mike Mayock even had him ahead of previous top cornerback prospect, Dee Milliner.
The Raiders attended Hayden's Pro Day and also liked what they saw. They liked him enough to invite him in for a closer look. First up was to see if he checked out medically.
"Of course we researched the health issues," said McKenzie. "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 gonna have to mentally go through it now, that's the only issue we had... It showed how competitive and how aggressively he went after it to try to get back to his old self."
For Hayden, it has been a long rollercoaster ride from a top college cornerback to major heart surgery to a first round pick.
"When I was first out of the hospital... my mind, was spinning everywhere," said Hayden. "I was real depressed. I didn't even think I would walk again. I wasn't even thinking about football. But Dr. Alvarado, he told me that I'd be able, there was a chance that I'd be able to play again once my sternum and my stitches and all that healed. So, right then and there I kind of knew in the back of my head, I was like, ‘Yeah, I'll be able to play again.'
He would still have to convince NFL teams he would be able to come back with no fear of another serious injury. Every team in the NFL poked and prodded him and he passed the tests.
"The doctors was amazed when I walked in the room and they saw my scar, they was just amazed. And I told my story at least 300 times. And 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 do just do it myself and just play."
He hasn't been hit since his injury - at least not by an player on the field. But he admits he has been taking hits all the same.
"I'm definitely looking forward to getting hit because I just want to see how it feels. But I should be fine. I've been play fighting with all my friends and they've been punching me in my chest and I can they're punches so I'm pretty sure I'll be all right. I just have to get out there and shake the rust off."
As McKenzie says, the chest injury is a "non-issue". They focused on his playing abilities.
"The guy can cover," said McKenzie. "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."
Dennis Allen echoed McKenzie's thoughts on Hayden.
"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. 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.
"The guy's all football. He loves football. He's going to be a guy, obviously, you've seen with what he's been through, that he's willing to work, and those are all things . . . a lot of people talk about character, this guy's the type of character that we're looking for."
Reggie McKenzie went on to say he passed the eye test. Saying he passed all the areas he looks for in a prospect.
"What I look for is is he approachable. Does it seem like he will be one of those guys that's going to be coachable and be a worker. Does he really like football? Is he going to come and get after it. He definitely showed that... You watch him play you can tell the guy loves football. But sometimes you also like to look in a guy's eyes when he tells you answers and he passed."
That makes sense. Cheating death can be quite the wakeup call.