University of Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden was on his way to a stellar senior season with the Cougars this past fall. A premier defensive player with four early interceptions, the star out of Missouri City's Elkins High School was on the fast track for a shot in the NFL.
But, during a routine Monday practice at the Cougars' facility in November, Hayden's life flashed before his eyes.
"I think about it every day," Hayden said. "I see my scar, my hand and think about it all the time. I thank God I'm here and give glory to Him."
Hayden took a knee to the chest during a practice drill. At first he felt he had the wind knocked out of him, but it was far more serious than anyone had imagined.
The injury, it turns out, was extremely rare. After being rushed to an emergency room, tests revealed a life-threatening condition. Hayden's vena cava, the large vein that runs from the legs to the heart, was torn. Internal bleeding ensued. He underwent two major surgeries.
"I remember my left eye went black and my right eye had these little dots. It was scary," said Hayden.
The fatality rate, Hayden and his family later learned from doctors, was 95 percent for injuries like this. That news hit home for Hayden, who knew he was fortunate to be alive and blessed to have a new lease on life.
"After a few days following surgery, the doctors came and broke it down for us," Hayden recalled. "They were clear to me and my family, and I just busted into tears and starting crying."
Fast forward two months and Hayden is living and loving life. It's a new chapter for him and a re-focus of his longtime goal, a shot in the NFL
"Two months ago if you asked me this, no way I would have believed it," said Hayden. "I'm here working out and getting the opportunity to do what I love."
Hayden has partnered with Plex Performance owner and longtime trainer Danny Arnold to take that next step
"The challenge will be the will of the individual," Arnold said. "We don't have that with D.J. at all. He's here twice a day giving it 100 percent since he was cleared a month ago."
Hayden, who has regained 15 of the 25 pounds he had lost , works out twice a day -- morning and afternoon -- slowly regaining the form that had made him an NFL prospect.
Arnold has trained hundreds of college and NFL players and admitted his relationship with Hayden is something he's never experienced, but he's embracing the journey step by step with a young man he said will not give up.
So what is Hayden's next step? It's preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine in February, where prospects put their skills on display. Arnold and Hayden believe with medical clearance already in place, the sky is the limit.
"For this to happen to me, I would be truly thankful," Hayden said.