ALAMEDA -- The first round of the NFL draft tends to be one of the safest, sanest places in the sports. Everybody's watching, and no football "expert" wants to be the guy who gets it wrong in public.

Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie shrugged at such convention Thursday and selected the player he wanted, despite obvious high stakes and very evident and legitimate concerns.

McKenzie attached his reputation to Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden, who is less than six months removed from nearly dying on the field.

During practice last Nov. 6, Hayden fell to the turf after colliding with a teammate. He'd taken a knee to the chest and thought he had the wind knocked out of him. Within seconds, as the team doctor leaned over him, he was getting cold and sleepy. He was rushed to the hospital, where an examination revealed serious abdominal bleeding.

Former University of Houston player D.J. Hayden, center, stands with his mother, Tori Hayden, left, and father, Derek Hayden, right, after he was picked by
Former University of Houston player D.J. Hayden, center, stands with his mother, Tori Hayden, left, and father, Derek Hayden, right, after he was picked by the Oakland Raiders in the 2013 NFL draft at his house, Thursday, April 25, 2013, in Missouri City. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Cody Duty)

Hayden was diagnosed with a torn inferior vena cava, the primary vein carrying blood from the lower extremities to the heart, and underwent emergency surgery. Such an injury, commonly seen after high-impact auto accidents, usually is fatal.

Though that surgery saved his life, Hayden's collegiate career was over, his pro aspirations in peril. In the early days after surgery, he had only one wish.

"I wasn't worried about life after football," Hayden said over the phone Thursday night. "I was not worried about life after college. I was just worried about walking straight."

Four months later, at his Pro Day last month, Hayden had recovered well enough to walk straight and run like the wind.


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"I'm going to play my hardest the whole game," Hayden said at the time. "If that was my time to end, I don't feel I finished like I finished my career the way I wanted to ... I just want another opportunity to play another game and do what I can do."

The Raiders, who had studied games from his senior season, took note of his Pro Day performance, went back to the game video and were doubly impressed.

"His man coverage skills are what set him apart," McKenzie said. "He's quick and fast, tough and aggressive."

McKenzie and his staff still had to face the health issue. This guy is everything they want but has had lifesaving surgery. He has a scar that runs the length of his sternum. Can he take a hit? Could he take hit after hit after hit?

"Everything that we got back was more than positive,'' McKenzie said, regarding the research and examination by Raiders physicians. "It became a nonissue for us."

Still, this would be an immense gamble for a franchise in rebuilding mode.

Would McKenzie, picking in the first round for the first time in his brief career as a top executive, have the hubris to choose a player many others in his position would prefer to avoid, out of fear of being second-guessed?

Well, yes.

"We want a difference-maker," McKenzie said. "That's what he is."

"He can cover, point blank. He can find the football."

McKenzie entered the draft holding the No. 3 overall pick. With a need for defensive tackles, it was presumed he would take Florida's Sharrif Floyd, or perhaps Utah's Star Lotutelei. Either that, or find a trade partner and move down.

That's what McKenzie did. He sent the third pick to the Dolphins, in return for Miami's first pick (12th overall) and second pick (42nd). McKenzie was prepared to take Hayden at No. 3 and brace for the critics. Taking Hayden at No. 12 was an easy call.

"We targeted him," McKenzie said. "To pick up an extra pick was a bonus."

McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen say they want players whose desire is beyond question. Hayden, it would seem, more than meets that standard.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/1montepoole.