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While every NFL player is tough, D.J. Hayden takes things to the next level. While the Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback has developed into a legitimate pro, he established his toughness during his time at the University of Houston. There, a tragic accident could have ended the young star’s career, in addition to his life.

Yes, you read that correctly. D.J. Hayden could have died on the field during college but overcame the odds to beat death. Today, he’s an eighth-year NFL pro who has earned more than $27 million in salary.

D.J. Hayden’s road to the NFL

These days, D.J. Hayden takes the NFL field every Sunday with the Jacksonville Jaguars. During his college career, however, he played for some much less glamorous squads.

After high school, Hayden headed to Navarro College; while junior college wasn’t the biggest stage, the cornerback still seized the spotlight. He spent two years with the Bulldogs, winning an NJCAA title and building a reputation as a talented defensive player. Schools like Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss came calling, but Hayden decided to transfer to the University of Houston.

With the Cougars, Hayden’s star continued to rise. As a junior, he recorded 66 total tackles and two interceptions in 13 games. While his senior season was interrupted by an injury—we’ll discuss that momentarily—he did enough to catch the attention of the Oakland Raiders. The organization selected him 12th overall in the 2013 NFL draft. His football career and his life, however, almost ended before going pro.

Cheating death in college

Virtually every football player will suffer at least one injury during his time on the gridiron. For D.J. Hayden, however, a seemingly innocuous collision during a passing drill almost turned into a fatal accident.

“They threw the ball my way. Me and the safety ran into each other. His knee hit me in my chest,” Hayden explained at the NFL combine, according to Griffin Gotta at SBNation. “The ball was more on my side. I was running. I wasn’t going to jump, but he jumped, and then he hit me, and I went back, and he went forward.”

At first, Hayden though he merely needed a moment to catch his breath. This was more than a simple case of having the wind knocked out of him, though.

“I’m looking around, and I’m getting real sleepy,” Hayden continued. “My left eye goes pitch black. I can’t see out of it. I can see a little bit out of my left eye. I’m praying, ‘Lord, help me get out of this one.”

It turned out Hayden had torn his inferior vena cava, a major vein that carries blood to the heart. As noted by Frank Schwab at Yahoo Sports, the injury has a “95 percent fatality rate with that injury, which is usually seen in car accidents.” Everything fell into place for Hayden that day, though, and he made it to the trauma center, underwent surgery, and managed to survive.

D.J. Hayden has gone on to make millions in the NFL

On that fateful day in Houston, D.J. Hayden could have died on the football field. Since then, though, he’s made the most of his second chance at life.

As mentioned above, the Oakland Raiders selected Hayden with the 12th overall pick of the 2013 NFL draft. He spent the first four years of his career in the Bay Area before joining the Detroit Lions in 2017 as a free agent. After one season in the Motor City, he signed a three-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

While he hasn’t turned into a game-breaking star, Hayden has still made a nice living in the pros; according to Spotrac’s contract data, he’s earned just over $27 million in NFL salary and will take home an additional $6 million during 2020.

In 2012, D.J. Hayden stared death in the face but didn’t blink. Returning to the football field would have been a victory in of itself; becoming a legitimate NFL player and making millions sounds like a real-life miracle.

Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference and Pro-Football-Reference