Just one more time coach
By Russell V.
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I knew something was really wrong on the final hit, which was on the goalline. The running back and I went head-to-head and stood each other up.
For most college seniors, the Christmas season is about enjoying your loved ones, presents and preparing for what may be your last semester in school. For some football players, it is also a time to prepare yourself for the NFL Combine to try and reach your goal of playing in the National Football League.
Derek Heyden was one of those seniors. A third-year starter at safety and a team captain, Heyden was one of the leaders of Georgia Southern’s stout defense and was likely to make it to the NFL, either as a draftee or as an unsigned free agent. He was one of the best in the nation at his position and was off to a hot start to the 2011 season, recording 15 tackles and two interceptions going into their week three matchup against Western Carolina.
Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
“I hurt (my neck) right before halftime,” Heyden recalls. “My neck started stiffening up and I went into the locker room at halftime and had it checked out. There were no neurological problems because it had broken away from the spinal cord, so there wasn’t any signs of that. (The team doctors) thought it was a neck strain and I got a shot for pain at halftime and every little hit or bump I had was killing me, but I didn’t think it was anything too serious. But when I knew something was really wrong was on the final hit, which was on the goalline. The running back and I went head-to-head and stood each other up. You can see my body just lock up and I just fell. When I hit the ground, I knew something was wrong. … I couldn’t even move my neck at all. I guess the muscles locked up to protect me, so I really couldn’t move my neck at all and we went straight to the hospital.
“Most people didn’t even know. My parents didn’t even know. … Most people, even my teammates, didn’t know I was seriously injured until the next couple of days.”
Heyden cracked a C-1 vertebrae in his neck that day, ending his promising football career. Years of hard work and dedication evaporated in an instant. It was unsettled if he would ever fully heal from the injury.
“I’m not going to lie, it was frustrating,” he said. “That first week – and I’m not ashamed to say this – I probably cried more in that week or two than I did in my entire life. It’s frustration, anger, sadness, I didn’t understand why something like that would happen to me and I still don’t. I know one day, I’ll look back on it and see why. Everything happens for a reason.”
“It seemed like everything was going great,” he added. “I started the season off with a couple interceptions, had some tackles, we were winning, I was talking to NFL scouts almost every other day. My dream was coming true and then, in the blink of an eye, one play basically, it was taken away.”
But things have taken a turn for the best. Heyden visited the doctor on Thursday, where he was given an early Christmas present, that he was healing faster than expected.
He would not need any surgeries, which “would’ve been a whole ‘other journey” and the halo brace that has taken up the upper-half of Heyden’s body was removed and replaced by a 'regular', more liveable neck brace which he will wear for three months. Unfortunately, playing football again is out of the question, but the former safety had expected that and was already trying to move on.
“It was a mix of a lot of emotions really (when the doctor told me),” he said. “First of all, it was great news. I was like a little kid on Christmas when I heard it. I’ve kind of accepted that most likely I won’t be playing (football again) and that was a struggle. I’ve accepted it and ready to move onto the next phase of my life. … You gain a whole new perspective on life and what really is important. And as much as I love football and everything about it – the camaraderie, the competitiveness – it is a game.”
To say the past three months were hell for Heyden would probably be an understatement. Aside from taking him off the field from the game he loves, the brace he wore created some unique problems.
Like, for example, how he had to bathe himself.
He couldn't shower because he couldn't get the halo brace on his head wet. He could bathe the lower half of his body, but had to sponge bathe his arms and face, “like I was four years old,” as Heyden describes it. In order to wash his face, he had to do it in the sink. And washing his hair?
“Washing my hair was a pain because I had to lay down and have someone wash it for me,” Heyden said.
Then there was pin cleaning. Heyden’s halo brace was connected to his head via four screws, two in his forehead and two on the sides of his head. His roommate, tight end Tyler Sumner, would have to clean the pins every morning and night to make sure the skin did not attach to the pins.
Finally, Heyden couldn't lie on the side of his head when he went to sleep. He had to lie face up because the back of the brace is the only part without a bar.
“Otherwise,” he said, “I was suspended in mid-air like a magic trick or something.”
And, of course, there was the reality of not being able to play football anymore that slowly settled in.
“It got better until the playoffs came around,” Heyden said. “It’s just, the traditions of Georgia Southern football, the school buses, the songs in the locker room, that got me a little bit and (reminded me) how much I really missed it and how much I wished I was out there playing with my teammates. Football at Georgia Southern is special. Unless you experience it, it's hard to understand. It's a culture, a way of life and I love being an Eagle."
While he could not be out there with his teammates, he did stick with the team and was commonly found on the sidelines on gameday and with the team at practices and film sessions during the week. The Eagles also found another way to make him feel like he was still a part of the team – they elected him to be the full-time carrier of the black flag that leads the team onto the field on gamedays.
“Originally, we were going to switch off (who carried the flag),” Heyden said. “The rotation was someone who we thought deserved and represented what (the black flag) represents, which is never give up, never surrender and take no prisoners. When my injury happened, the team voted for me to carry it out every game. Again, I just can’t thank them enough because it just kept me feeling like a part of the team and I loved it, even though I couldn’t run out with it. I tried to do that the first week and was like, ‘Nope, not again. Too much pain.’ So I just walked it from there on out. I can’t thank Coach (Monken) and the team enough for letting me do that."
“I can’t even put into words how grateful I am for being a Georgia Southern Eagle and to get that love and support from everyone,” he added. “They really did picked me up and made me feel like a part of the team though I technically wasn’t playing. I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done. … Now that I look back on the recruiting process, I’m 100 percent happy that I chose Georgia Southern.”
Heyden also mentioned numerous times how thankful he was for his family and friends, saying he could not imagine getting through the past three months without them.
“I can’t thank them enough. My girlfriend, my brothers, his wife, my parents, my teammates and coaches – it honestly was a difficult time in my life, the last three months or so, and I couldn’t do it without them. I love them and appreciate them for helping me out.”
Now, with football season done and his career unfairly cut short, Heyden says he is ready for whatever may come his way, starting with his last semester at Georgia Southern.
“Well, I got one more semester before I graduate, so I get to experience school,” he said. “Not even college life, just what school is all about. I can enjoy a semester of freedom and just being a regular student. I’m going to enjoy that first of all and then graduate and enter the real world. I don’t know exactly what I want to do yet, but I’m getting a business management degree with a minor in marketing.
“Most likely, I’ll end up going to work with my brothers at my dad’s company. I gotta start off (as the) low man on the totem pole and start off in the labor crew. It’ll be like football camp for six months instead of a couple weeks. But I’m excited to start a new phase of my life and trying to be successful there. Football is done and it’s every kid’s dream to play (in the NFL), but like I said before, I’ve accepted that that’s done and over with, so I’m going to make the best of the situation.”
And, if nothing else, Heyden is already looking at at least one bright side of the injury – that the halo brace which he likened to a torture device has many other uses, which he plans to take full advantage of.
“We get to keep the (halo brace) so I’m going to turn it into a lamp shade or make something useful out of it because it was ridiculously expensive.”