Freakish Practice Injury Nearly Kills Houston Cougars' D.J. Hayden

Football is a violent, dangerous sport. But when watching a running back break free of the line of scrimmage and bust into the open and sprint 40 yards for a touchdown, the violence and danger can be forgotten. The perfect spiral into the outstretched arms of a receiver sprinting down the sideline brings shouts of joy and awe to the crowd who has forgotten the crunching of bones back where the ball was snapped.

It's a game where the skill players seek out open swatches of green turf only to be met by a jarring hit. Or the blitzing linebacker laying a forearm across the head of the quarterback. Or two offensive linemen ganging up on the defensive end, one going high and one going low.

Players suffer concussions in every game. Defensive backs can and have paralyzed receivers who dare to stray too far into the middle of the field. Bones are broken. Limbs twisted. The evidence mounts of football players dying earlier than most people due to the hits they take weekly. Yet it is the players who play injured, who leave it all on the field, who are celebrated by culture.

But the game still has the capacity to shock in the suddenness of the injuries. The severity. The sheer freakishness of it all. Such as what happened at the University of Houston on Tuesday evening. While the city was settling in to watch the election returns, the Houston Cougars were practicing for their homecoming game against Tulsa tomorrow afternoon.

During a drill, star cornerback D.J. Hayden collided with one of his teammates. And he almost died. That wasn't known on Tuesday night. What was known was that Hayden was carried by ambulance to Methodist Hospital after suffering an unknown injury. But when a university issues a press release about a player being taken by ambulance directly from practice to a hospital, the news isn't good.

The Cougars issued a detailed press release yesterday. The news was good in that Hayden was still alive. The news was good in that UH training staff, medics, and doctors were able to keep Hayden alive because according to Walter Lowe, M.D., University of Houston Head Team Physician, nearly every other person suffering an injury like Hayden's die before they can reach a hospital.

Hayden suffered a tear of the inferior vena cava, the large vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. It's not one of those injuries that occur in football games, or practices.

"This injury has never been seen or reported in association with a football injury and is more associated with high speed motor vehicle injuries," Lowe said yesterday. "The type of injury D.J. had is 95 percent fatal in the field and we are all very thankful for the coordinate response from the University of Houston trainers, EMS paramedics, the trauma team at Memorial Hermann and operating surgeon Dr. John Holcomb."

Hayden's at Methodist Hospital. As of yesterday he was alert, and in stable, but serious condition. His season is over, but his teammates, the 4-5 Cougars, still have three more games to play.

This is an important game for the Cougars. A victory over the Tulsa Golden Hurricane brings the team one game closer to qualifying for a bowl game. A win brings them one game closer to a winning record. But what happens to the team this weekend. Do they hit as hard? Do they run as fast? Can they forget Hayden's injury and play as if nothing matters but getting the football into the end zone?

Football is a beautiful sport. It is second only to hockey in terms of pure athletic grace meeting brute force. That's part of the appeal of the sport, for the fans, for the players. The knowledge that an athlete can make a dizzying spin move toward freedom only to stopped by an onrushing wall of bone and muscle.

I intended to use my space today talking about the Houston Cougar basketball teams, both opening up their regular seasons today, the women at Mississippi State and the men hosting Florida A&M today at noon. James Dickey and Todd Buchanan have assembled two teams deserving attention as they head into their final season of Conference USA basketball. And hopefully the fans will finally turn out to Hofheinz Pavilion and give them some of that same support they provide the football team.

But for now, the attention goes to D.J. Hayden and his teammates. Hayden is recovering from a horrific, freakish injury. His teammates are recovering from what they witnessed. Who knows what is going to happen at Robertson Stadium tomorrow afternoon. But it's at times like this, under these circumstances, that it needs to be remembered that football, whether pro, college, high school, is more than just a game, more than just a sport.

For some, the snap of the football can truly be life.

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