Derek Heyden’s Next Move
By BJ Bennett
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One year ago today, with his body fighting for footing, the game Derek Heyden felt like defined him up and passed him by.
Life, like the people who live it, is constantly in motion. People change and grow, ebb and flow and expand their perspectives as they go along. For former Georgia Southern defensive back Derek Heyden, his story was no different. A highly-touted football recruit out of power Marist High School in Atlanta, he came to Statesboro and transitioned smoothly. His first season, Heyden earned Southern Conference All-Freshman Team honors. He emerged as a defensive leader as a sophomore and finished second on the team with 98 tackles a junior. Entering his final year, Heyden was generally regarded as one of the top safeties in all of FCS football and was considered by many as a player with legitimate professional promise.
Three games into what should have been a banner senior season, Heyden's aggressiveness and simple functioning was slowed by a sudden jolt down his side. In the team's 2011 conference opener, a player known for his athletic bursts and fluid quick hips struggled to reach the bench. Following what seemed like a routine collision with an oncoming runner, Heyden's body tensed and his mind wandered. The end result was one that temporarily stopped his world from turning.
"It was one year ago today, the 24th, we were playing Western Carolina. I was having neck pains in the first half and just kept playing through it. I made a hit against a running back at the goaline. We stood each other up and I just felt everything tighten up. The pain shot down and I knew something was wrong. But I've been taught since little league that if you can get yourself off the field, then you better get up and carry yourself off without any help. I stiffly jogged off the field and I knew something was seriously wrong then," Heyden recalled. "We went and got CT scans and x-rays and that's when we got the news that I broke a Jefferson fracture, it was both sides of the vertebrae on the C-1 which is the top most vertebrae on your neck. Thank God that it broke away from the spinal cord."
News spread through campus that Heyden, one of the team's most popular players, had suffered a serious injury. One that obviously might threaten his playing career, but more so certain aspects of his life. While those close to Heyden hoped and prayed for a return to normalcy, the football player longed for a return to the field. With firm information slow to come in, goals of once again suiting up oftentimes had merit. At 6'1'' and over 200 pounds, there was at least a thought that Heyden could fully recover to the extent that the game he loved could once again become a part of his life. Over time, those dreams went from factual to fleeting to foiled.
"It was a roller coast ride to be honest. The first diagnosis was a broken neck, the halo traction and all of that...three months, just to make sure everything is secure. They were pretty optimistic that it could heal up, that there would be no ligament damage and that I'd have a good chance at being able to come back and play. It was kind of back and forth throughout those three months, just based on new CT scans and how things were healing. It was a roller coaster ride, playing with my emotions really," Heyden remembered. "It was hard to comprehend because one moment you are high, excited about maybe coming back and getting the possibility to play again. A week later, it's 'sorry it's too risky, too much liability, you career is done'. That is hard to hear when you have been playing your whole life and it's your dream to make it to the NFL and all that good stuff."
Big picture, football is just a mere snap-shot of all there is to see. For a 21-year old all-conference caliber safety, however, the removal of his name from his jersey left a glaring blank that he simply could not fill in. The "who", "what", "when", "where" and "how" had clear, devastating answers. For one full year now, the "why" has been a more challenging work in progress.
"It's rough," Heyden explained. "That's your identity, that's kind of how you came to be yourself. You've been a star football player, this and that, a great athlete. In one play basically, it's taken away. You have to find a new identity and carry that work ethic, that discipline and determination to a new phase in your life. You have to just keep moving on. Like they say, when God closes one door, He opens another. I'm just waiting to see and look back one day and see why everything turned out the way it did."
Through Heyden's one year recovery, the support of friends and family has been just as vital as his medical guidance. During the most trying time of his life, one where he could not be with his teammates on the field, his peers did more than help move the chains off of it. Other Georgia Southern football players took it upon themselves to help Heyden through his grueling rehabilitation, visit him during times of immobility and give him that final push when he needed extra effort. Some even helped care for his surgery scarring.
"It was unbelievable," Heyden acknowledged of the help he received from the GSU community. "Not just physically helping out, but emotionally too they were there for me. I can't thank them enough for that. It was a long three months in the halo, not being able to shower and having to watch my teammates keep playing. It was rough, but they no doubt helped me get through and I appreciate everything they did for me."
One year after his playing career abruptly ended, Heyden still relies on the friendships he formed through football to help him move forward.
"When you go through as much as we go through with each other, it's impossible not to form a bond that you can't even explain unless you have experienced it yourself. When you are bleeding and sweating in 110 degree heat out in the summer, you just come together as one. We have each others' backs. I have kept up with all of those guys. It's just one big family Like I said, you just can't explain it. You have to experience it yourself," he added.
Participation in extreme sports aside, Heyden now lives the life any young man in his early 20's would. After paying his dues on the football field, he's been paying his dues in the business world. There have been definite times when Heyden has questioned which was tougher. Once confined to a hospital bed, questions about his future swirling while his body held still, Heyden's spending valuable time with those close to him while settling into adulthood. Through the eyes of he and his loved ones, another regular day is, without question, a good one.
"I'm doing great, trying to stay busy. I'm working with my brothers, my family business up here in Atlanta. I spent my time learning from the bottom up on wall foundations, a concrete company. I did the manual labor for four months, thanking God that that's over because that was miserable," he chuckled. "But now I'm making the transition to the office, trying to do some sales. So if you need any concrete work, just give me a shout. I'm doing great, just moving on and still rooting for my Georgia Southern Eagles."
One year ago today, with his body fighting for footing, the game Heyden felt like defined him up and passed him by. Football has long since left a young man with a full life left to live. His personality, his smile, his future has not.