NAPA — D.J. Hayden was back out on the practice field taking part in individual drills and even covering receivers in a few 11-on-11 sessions.
The main thing setting the Oakland Raiders rookie cornerback apart from the rest of his teammates when training camp opened was the color of his jersey.
Instead of wearing the usual black jersey for the defense, Hayden was in a red one designated usually for quarterbacks and kickers who are not supposed to be hit as he works his way back from a near-fatal injury that cut his college career short and offseason surgery that kept him out of most minicamps and organized team activities.
“I’m just happy to be out there,” Hayden said. “If I got to have a red jersey on, that’s what it is. I’m cool with it. Happy.”
Hayden has plenty of reason to be happy after all that he has gone through since being taken to the hospital last November after colliding with a teammate during practice while playing in college at Houston.
Hayden was rushed into surgery for a tear of the inferior vena cava, the large vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. Doctors had to cut through Hayden’s sternum to save him. The injury is 95 percent fatal in the field, according to doctors, and is most commonly associated with high-speed motor vehicle accidents.
Hayden worked his way back to health and was cleared by doctors before the draft. The Raiders selected him 12th overall and expressed confidence that the injury would not limit his NFL career.
Hayden took part in rookie minicamp in May before needing surgery in the first week of OTAs to repair abdominal scarring. Hayden missed the rest of the offseason program, raising questions about whether the Raiders took an unwise gamble when they drafted Hayden.
“I try not to even worry about it,” Hayden said. “People are going to say stuff. I just focus on whatever my coverage is. I focus on the man I’m guarding. All the other outside stuff, I have no control over it. I can control what I do on the field so that’s what I’m focused on.”
Hayden is not missing much contact yet as the team is unable to wear pads until the third day of practice on Sunday. Hayden said it will be a relief when he can start hitting so he can get past that hurdle.
But the Raiders want to be somewhat cautious with their first-round pick, considering he has not played football since the first week of November.
“He’s really not limited from a physical standpoint,” coach Dennis Allen said. “But, again, when a guy hasn’t played football in that long and now all of a sudden you’re asking him to start and stop and do all those kinds of things, he’s got to get into football shape and football condition physically and mentally. When you draft a guy like that, that has the talent that he has and we expect him to be able to help our football team, we want to make sure we’re smart and do the right things in bringing him along, let him get acclimated.”
Hayden is the first first-round pick made by the new regime led by general manager Reggie McKenzie and he is being counted on to be a major part of the rebuilding effort for a franchise that has gone 10 straight seasons without a winning record or playoff berth.
Hayden played 22 games at Houston, intercepting six passes that he returned for three touchdowns. He also recovered three fumbles and forced six before his senior season was cut short by the injury.
NOTES: The Raiders had three players who have not been cleared to practice. LB Miles Burris has not recovered from offseason knee surgery and defensive tackle Pat Sims and offensive lineman Menelik Watson had undisclosed injuries preparing for training camp. ... DB Charles Woodson was back to his familiar No. 24 jersey that he wore in his first stint with Oakland after wearing no number and 2 during offseason workouts. Tracy Porter switched to No. 31. “I got the jersey back in large part because of the fans. Big thank you to the fans for that,” Woodson said. ... Allen said he plans to have a fairly even division of snaps at quarterback between Matt Flynn, Terrelle Pryor and Tyler Wilson at the start of camp before honing in on a starter as it gets closer to the season.