HOUSTON (AP) — D.J. Hayden had gone up for the same pass hundreds, if not thousands, of times and taken harder hits.
This one was different: It left Hayden on the ground, then on a knee as he attempted to catch his breath.
Seconds earlier, the senior cornerback for the University of Houston jumped to defend a pass during full-pads drills as the team prepared on Nov. 6 for its homecoming game against Tulsa. His arms stretched out, lifting up his shoulder pads just enough to expose his ribs and lungs. Trevon Stewart, a true freshman safety, sent Hayden crumpling to the ground with a knee to his sternum.
Standing nearby on the sideline, UH head athletics trainer Mike O'Shea immediately ran to Hayden, who complained of chest pains and struggled to breathe, signs of a possible fractured rib or punctured lung.
O'Shea's first thought was to have Hayden, 22, make the short walk to the team's training room in the Athletics/Alumni Center. But the emergency cart parked nearby caught his eye.
"Something told me to put him on the cart and take him in," said O'Shea, who has 50 years of experience, including 17 at UH. "Something said, 'You looked at that cart for a reason.'?"
That would be the first of many decisions by UH staffers, first responders and trauma surgeons that saved precious minutes — and ultimately Hayden's life. In the trauma world, it's called "The Golden Hour" — the critical time between when a serious injury occurs to when a patient receives life-saving medical care.
It was approximately 5 p.m. The clock was ticking for Hayden.
In a matter of minutes, Hayden arrives in the UH training room and takes off his shoulder pads and No. 2 jersey.
O'Shea wants Hayden to shower and go for X-rays but abruptly changes his mind when Hayden's condition appears to worsen. Hayden feels faint. He feels weak.
"I can't breathe," Hayden says. "I can't see."
"Something is not right," O'Shea says.
Haj Takashima, UH's assistant athletics trainer, calls 9-1-1 at 5:23 p.m., less than 15 minutes after Hayden is hurt.
D.J. Hayden's mom, Tori, was among those showing their support for the cornerback during Houston's Nov. 24 game at Robertson Stadium. D.J. and Tori were on the sidelines just 18 days after a blow to his sternum during a UH practice left him in a fight for his life.
Takashima calmly gives the dispatcher directions to the university and a brief description of Hayden's symptoms during the 2-minute, 37-second phone call. "Help is on the way," the dispatcher says.
EMS personnel Jason Anderson and Jeremy Smith get the call at Fire Station 25, on Scott Street a few blocks from the UH campus. So do Kevin Zigal and Robert Delgado, paramedics/firefighters at Fire Station 18, a mile-and-a-half from campus.
Both emergency vehicles arrive at the same time, taking a small access road between the university's baseball field and Athletics/Alumni Center before stopping in front of a side door.
Zigal and Delgado perform a quick assessment of Hayden, who is cold and pale, signs he is going into shock. Sweat is pouring off his body from head to toe.
They determine nothing can be done at the university, so Hayden quickly is taken out on a stretcher and put in the ambulance. He's conscious and alert, looking around to see what's going on.
Mikado Hinson, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes campus director, approaches the open doors at the back of the ambulance. He grabs Hayden's foot.
"Bro, we'll be praying for you," Hinson tells Hayden. "We'll be with you every step of the way. God has you where he needs you."
Hayden nods. Then the door closes.
On the five-mile drive to the hospital, Hayden is in obvious pain and unable to get comfortable. He leans one way and the other. He wants to sit up and then lies back.
His blood pressure is extremely low, almost non-existent. It's a sign he's bleeding out. Paramedics have trouble establishing an IV in his arm.
In the back of the ambulance, Zigal is on a radio in constant communication with the Houston Fire Department's base station, which assesses situations and determines the best hospital destination based on a patient's condition.
Zigal updates the base station, which makes the decision to reroute Hayden.
Back on campus, Chris Pezman, UH's assistant athletics director for football operations, calls Hayden's mother, Tori, who is at her Galleria-area office. She does not answer her cellphone. Pezman next calls Hayden's uncle, Mike Clark, who is at home in Missouri City.
When Tori Hayden arrives back at her desk, she sees the missed call. The phone rings again. It's Clark, who tells her D.J. has been hurt in practice and is on the way to the hospital. Details remain sketchy.
Tori Hayden grabs her purse and rushes out the door. Outside the building, she removes her high-heels and races up five flights of stairs in the parking garage.
She frantically weaves through Highway 59 traffic on the way to the hospital.
At Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute, a Level-1 trauma center rated one of the best in the world, chief resident Dr. Laura Kreiner is about to walk out the door for the end of her shift. Dr. Ron Albarado is in the hospital on a 24-hour shift when he gets a page. It reads: Code 3, the designation for an incoming patient in critical condition.
The information doctors receive from the ambulance is that Hayden has taken a hit to the chest. They initially believe it's a liver or spleen injury — serious but "fairly straightforward to take care of and operate," Albarado says.
It's 5:55 p.m. — roughly 45 minutes since the injury occurred — when Hayden is admitted to the hospital. The trauma team is waiting, with gear on, when Hayden arrives in Trauma Bay 6.
Hayden shows no external signs of injury. No broken bones. No visible bleeding.
In what amounts to a pit stop that takes less than five minutes, Hayden undergoes X-rays and an ultrasound, which show blood in his abdomen. A trauma team member gives Hayden blood to replace the large amount he already has lost.
A phone call is made to staff in the second-floor operating room, telling them Hayden is on the way.
A doctor approaches Clark, the first family member to arrive at the hospital, in a waiting room and asks for consent. They still don't know the extent of the injury and need to open Hayden's chest, similar to open-heart surgery.
"Do what you have to do," Clark says. "Just save him."
An elevator takes Hayden to the second-floor operating room. On the way, still alert, Hayden cracks a joke with one small request: "Please don't mess up my abs."
In surgery, Kreiner makes an incision that runs from just below Hayden's throat to the tip of his belly button. At that point, doctors get their first up-close look at the damage.
It isn't a liver injury.
It isn't a spleen injury.
The impact of the collision has torn the inferior vena cava, the main vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body to the heart.
Now with a better view, Albarado maintains temporary control of the bleeding with one finger during a critical seven-minute span. A second trauma surgeon, Dr. Phillip Adams, assists in the procedure.
"We have one shot at getting it right," Albarado says.
Albarado begins the delicate process of repairing the vein, which he describes as attempting to "suture pieces of wet toilet paper together." One misstep likely means instant death.
As a result of the injury, Hayden suffers a small break in his diaphragm. The break allows blood to deposit into his abdomen, buying Hayden a few extra minutes and ultimately saving his life. Without it, Hayden quickly bleeds to death and his heart stops.
To replace the blood he's lost, Hayden is given 23 units of blood products.
By the time Tori Hayden arrives, D.J. is in surgery. She waits, along with Clark, in a room down the hall. And begins to pray.
"It felt like a lifetime," she says. "It was like we were waiting forever."
The surgery lasts less than two hours. Afterward, Albarado ushers Tori, D.J.'s father, Derek, and Clark into a private area. He tells them the extent of the injury and that Hayden remains in critical condition. But he is alive.
Tori begins to feel faint and sits down.
"No, no this can't be happening," she says.
Down the hallway, O'Shea suggests the large group — UH players, coaches and support staff — huddle in prayer.
"No, we're going to get on our knees and pray," O'Shea says. "We're not going to stand up."
They all take a knee.
Hinson leads the prayer.
Around 1 a.m., Tori Hayden finally sees her son.
He's on a respirator to help his breathing. Hayden's eyes briefly open before shutting.
At his bedside, Tori is grateful her son will live.
"All I could do is thank Jesus," she says. "He could have died. I could have lost my son."
On Nov. 12, six days after the near-fatal injury, Hayden was discharged from the hospital.
From the car, he called UH head coach Tony Levine and asked if he could visit the team. Levine rescheduled the regular Monday afternoon meeting and told the team it would have a special guest.
Levine pushed Hayden, still weak from the injury, on a rolling chair to the back of the Carl Lewis Auditorium. He got up and, wearing a UH T-shirt and cap, walked down the aisle to the front. Teammates gave Hayden a standing ovation.
Hayden spoke for 15 minutes and reminded his teammates to take nothing for granted, that second chances are not guaranteed.
He was one of the lucky ones.
Dr. Walter Lowe, the UH team physician, said the injury never had been documented in association with football and is mostly common in high-speed motor vehicle accidents. It has a 5 percent survival rate. Most people who suffer the injury never make it to the hospital.
"Another 5 to 10 minutes and he may not have made it," Albarado said. "Time runs out."
Hayden walked to a grease board and attempted to explain what happened. He drew a lopsided heart and squiggly line that represented the inferior vena cava.
"That's what broke," Hayden said as the room burst into laughter.
In the nearly three months since the injury, Hayden has been cleared to begin working out several times a week with fitness and conditioning guru Danny Arnold at Plex in Stafford.
Hayden has been invited to next month's NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, which showcases the nation's top draft-eligible college players.
There is no doubt in Hayden's mind he will play football again someday.
"I'm just glad I'm still here," Hayden said.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com