Hayden came back to host his second annual camp and launch his foundation to see to it that kids who might not otherwise have the chance get to learn from a pro athlete.
If the atmosphere at the camp could be described in one word, I’d say it’s “family.” Well, maybe also “hot” because the sun was blazing even though the camp started early in the morning.
“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go! I know we aren’t walking!” The commands blaring through the bullhorn are being well-received by the football players running onto the field at the University of Houston’s Athletics/Alumni Center.
The aspiring athletes quickly fall into formation, warming up with lunges, sprints and back pedal exercises. It’s only 8 in the morning, but it doesn’t take long for beads of sweat to start bubbling across the foreheads of this ambitious group of athletes.
But are they really listening to that voice coming through the bullhorn?
“Of course. They don’t have a choice. I’m very convincing,” Zachary McMillian says, with a smile.
It turns out McMillian is a close friend and former teammate of the man these 100 or so players are here to see – Oakland Raiders cornerback and former UH standout D.J. Hayden.
A few minutes later, they’re huddled around him as the NFL star opens the activities with a simple demand, “Work hard. Make plays.”
It’s a theme summed up in a few words that would set the tone for the rest of the day at Hayden’s Second Annual Play Your Heart Out Football Camp.
The free camp gives kids ages 10-14 the opportunity to learn techniques and sharpen their skills on both sides of the ball, whether their dream is to be a starting quarterback or a linebacker.
“When I was younger, I didn’t really go to camps like this and I wasn’t a part of them,” Hayden says. “For me, to have it at the University of Houston, it’s just giving back. For them to see me doing what I’m doing lets them know that they can do it, too.”
No doubt, boys like 13-year-old D.J. Pena have taken notice.
“It’s the first time I could see an NFL player up close. It’s good that he came from Oakland down to Houston to teach us kids how to play football,” Pena says.
The connection to Hayden could be closer than Pena and the other middle-school students at the camp might think.
The offensive and defensive drills they’re running on the practice football field are similar to what Hayden and his teammates were doing on the nearby Carl Lewis Field almost three years ago. The field was also the place of a serious accident where one moment could have been Hayden’s last.
“He went down and we didn’t think anything was wrong,” McMillian says. “We moved the drill up, we kept going and he was out there on the floor.”
On November 6, 2012, Hayden had suffered a life-threatening injury. During a passing drill, a teammate had crashed into Hayden, accidentally hitting him in the chest with his knee. That collision would result in a torn inferior vena cava – the main vein that pumps blood from the lower half of the body to the heart.
The injury is typically 95 percent fatal and one that is often seen in high-speed car crashes. However, Hayden went on to make a full recovery, becoming a first round draft pick, selected by the Oakland Raiders in 2013.
Now two years later, Hayden is healthy and looking ahead to the start of the football season.
“OTAs (organized team activities) were great with the whole new coaching staff,” Hayden says. “With head coach Jack del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr., I feel like we’re going to do some special things this year.”
But before Hayden rejoins Raider Nation for training camp, he has some unfinished business to tend to at the home of the Cougars.
That’s because his camp also serves as the kickoff of his DJ Hayden Foundation.
“Whether it’s helping kids with clothes or anything they need, we’re just giving back to them,” Hayden says. “My foundation will be giving back to underprivileged kids, kids in the hospital with heart problems. We want to give them a solid foundation with everything.”
Current UH linebacker and camp volunteer Rasheed Tynes says he wouldn’t expect anything less from Hayden. And like many of the young men there to help, he also echoes a common sentiment.
“This is great. It’s what’s supposed to get done. Nobody helped me when I was younger. I always had to struggle and fight for everything I ever had, so it’s always good to find somebody and help them out,” Tynes said. “You’re never supposed to forget where you came from.”
The friends, relatives, UH players and staff surrounding the practice field probably wouldn’t let Hayden forget even if he tried.
That includes Andre Johnson, a family friend who says he watched the star cornerback grow up. He’s known Hayden since he was about 3 years old and says he was also the ring boy in his wedding. Johnson brought his son out to the camp, hoping he could pick up a thing or two from Hayden.
“It’s a good feeling knowing that he got this far, and God blessed him even during his injury,” Johnson said. “Every time he’s hurt or had difficulties, he’s still out there making it happen.”
Even though Johnson’s 13-year-old son, Avante, normally plays defensive back, he’s mixing it up at the camp, running fade routes as a wide receiver.
“I want to say thanks. It’s a good opportunity for me to get better and for players around me to get better,” Avante says.
He offers this advice to future players looking to join the camp next year.
“Do your best. Whatever you’re capable in, just play hard.”
“Just go out there and play your heart out,” Hayden says. “I see a lot of kids second-guess themselves because they don’t feel as athletic as some of the other ones. But if they go out and give it their all, the sky is the limit.”