Football’s Risks and Rewards
By BJ Bennett
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Derek Heyden graduates from GSU Saturday with a degree in business management. He leaves college, however, with a life's worth of perspective.
In a time where the topic of safety in football is transitioning from a worthy sports discussion to one with various social undertones, some are taking fortified stances without the merit to do so. Derek Heyden has those credentials. They come in the form of life-altering scars on his head and neck, memories of months spent in a halo brace and questions as to how, why and what-could-have-been. The former all-conference safety for Georgia Southern, in layman's terms, broke his neck in a September game at Western Carolina. Like the collision that nearly cost him his ability to walk, the news of his injury was startling and sudden.
"It was a fracture, I actually broke it in two spots so it actually separated away from the spinal cord which was a blessing in itself because that could have caused paralysis or even death. We got lucky," Heyden recalled. "It is the C-1 vertebrae, the atlas. It basically controls the rotation of your neck from side-to-side, I'm still working on getting that back."
In his time working to regain full functionality, Heyden's battle was a hard one to hide. The aforementioned halo brace made movement deliberate and difficult and cast an ominous shadow on the fun-loving college student everywhere he went. The normal routine became the goal for Heyden, even a risk at times. Questions about his playing career were superseded by concerns about his future livelihood as an everyday adult. Though there were bigger factors at play, the sport with which he had long been so closely aligned continued to tug at his heart. And often, his curiosity.
"I grew up playing football," Heyden continued. "If you are going to be great, you can't be timid, you can't be scared. You have got to play all-out, 100%. You can't play not to get hurt because if you do that's normally when it happens. It is in the back of your mind because it is a dangerous game, there is no doubt about it. You see injuries all the time, it's a rough game. Every player knows that when they step on the field."
Time in the hospital, time up at night in pain, offered Heyden plenty of time to think. He considered his choices and his passions, his past, present and future laid before him in paint-by-number fashion. Conversations with family, friends and teammates helped him pass the time. Hours spent with doctors and therapists sometimes had him questioning it. Now with his life somewhat back to where it once was, Heyden has a chiseled perspective on what he experienced.
"I would say a little bit of both," he acknowledged when asked about his mindset and whether or not he defers simply to chance or has some bitterness towards the game about his injury. " I would say it is what it is. That's football, that can happen. You know the risks involved. At the same time I want to believe that everything does happen for a reason. I wasn't meant to keep playing. I have to find a career, a new path, that's just now what I am supposed to do. That's how I am trying to look at it, just trying to stay positive and move on."
One constant through his recovery and one of the driving forces behind his optimistic attitude has been the support of his Eagle teammates. At Georgia Southern's spring scrimmage, Heyden joined his peers on the field to receive his 2011 Southern Conference championship ring. There was a roar on the sidelines, and in the stands, when he was recognized. Talking to Heyden, it's hard not to appreciate just how much he values the friendships football has helped him gain. Even with what misfortune has taken away, Heyden is grateful for the communion football has given him.
"It's the same with the military, you build stronger relationships. When you are waking up and going to 6AM runs and mat drills, just puking and sweating and bleeding together, that does a lot in forming a bond between you and your teammates," he explained. "We would do anything for each other. That's just another great thing about football, you form such good relationships and life-lasting relationships."
As he settles in to the next chapter in his life, Heyden frequently takes a moment to think outside of the scope of his career. Whenever he watches a game, now from afar, he is well-aware of the mindset of those competing on the field. He knows what they are risking. A defensive back who was getting attention from NFL scouts, he knows what they hope to gain. He also knows what his feelings will be when talks of inclusion come up in the future.
"I love the game, no doubt about it. It's awesome. That comes down to personal choice," he said of whether or not he would encourage a loved one to play college football. "I'm not going to stop anyone, if they want to play that's their choice. I know if someone would have tried to tell me 'you can't play because it's too dangerous', I don't think that wouldn't have gone over too well. If it was my kid and he wanted to play, I think I'd go with it. It's a great game. You learn a lot about it, you learn a lot about life. It's not just about going out there and playing. You learn a lot about teamwork and all kinds of life lessons through football."
The devastating injury and painstaking rehabilitation put life on hold for the Heyden family. Though Derek's career came to an end, it didn't put football completely out of the picture. For all he has learned through his physical trauma, his playing career offered instruction as well. Heyden graduates from GSU Saturday with a degree in business management. He leaves college, however, with a life's worth of perspective. It's an outlook he's fought for every step of the way.