LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Kelvin Hayden spun around to point at the 40-yard line nearest the north end zone inside the Walter Payton Center.
This is the spot Hayden remembers emotion overcoming him the first time he could run anywhere even close to full speed.
"You come to a point where [you realize] football isn't forever and you've been playing this game for a long time since you were a kid. You want to hold on as long as you can," Hayden said. "This injury, I felt that it didn't get the best of me. Just thinking about the time I'm not able to move my leg for six weeks, to now I'm back running. You know, hard work really does pay off."
Hayden's emotional day came approximately three months after suffering what the team, at the time, called a torn hamstring, which occurred Aug. 3 during a Saturday night practice at Soldier Field. The day the team officially announced Hayden's injury (Aug. 7), Bears coach Marc Trestman called it "a severe hamstring," and revealed the cornerback's recovery time frame would be in the neighborhood of six to eight months for a player who was 30 at the time of the setback in his ninth NFL season.
Having had hamstring injuries multiple times throughout his NFL career, Hayden didn't think this one felt any worse than others. In fact, it didn't hurt nearly as bad. But three days after suffering what he figured was only a slight strain, Hayden was having difficulty just standing up.
Then, an MRI revealed the worst. He'd torn two of the three tendons in his left hamstring completely off the bone, which meant surgery for avulsions to reattach the tendons.
Former Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris suffered a similar injury in 2006.
"It's completely out of my mind. I don't even think about it anymore," Hayden said. "The moment I think about a lot is my first day actually running again. You hear so many things about the injury or whatever; guys don't come back 100 percent or guys do come back even better. I just didn't know where I was going to fall into place. So my first day out here running, it was just kind of like, ‘Man, I've come a long way.' I put in the work and to see the aftereffect of the work you put in, it was an emotional moment."
Hayden claims to feel quicker now, which for his sake is a definite positive given the competition already at the cornerback position. Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings man the top two spots, while rookie first-round pick Kyle Fuller owns the third spot technically. Although he'll move outside to the No. 2 spot in sub packages while Jennings moves to the nickel corner position.
When Hayden originally suffered the hamstring injury last August, he was penciled in as the starter at nickel. Now Hayden appears to be the fourth corner on the depth chart. Although he's worked some at nickel, Hayden has played primarily outside during organized team activities. Despite the current situation, Hayden says he's just thankful for the Bears bringing him back for a 10th NFL season.
"I just want to go out there and just make plays, as many as I can, and just fly around and enjoy it. I look at every day as a blessing from the injury that I've come from," he said. "I'm pretty sure I was counted out. I'm just remarkably happy that I'm out here still playing."
Surprisingly, Hayden was already back to running full speed prior to the end of the 2013 season. But the Bears had placed Hayden on injured reserve last Aug. 11 without a designation to return. They didn't expect him to recover so quickly.
"They saw my progress as far as before the season ended, I was running full speed," Hayden said. "So maybe they thought maybe I still had something left. It's one of those things I'm thankful for what they did. I actually feel quicker. You're sitting around six or seven months not doing much to go[ing] out here and attack[ing] the day as it's your last. You're just going out there and you're trying to get faster, trying to get quicker, trying to get stronger. The challenge, I loved it."
Hayden said his main goal upon suffering the injury was "not to do what was expected," which meant he'd fight to recover faster than everybody expected. To do it, Hayden hired a nutritionist. He figured, "Maybe if I change the way I eat, change what I put in my body, maybe that will help me to heal faster." Hayden's nutritionist constantly gave him meal plans. When Hayden couldn't move around due to his leg being immobilized for six weeks, "I had someone come cook and put the meals together for me," he said.
Going into last season, it appeared Hayden had positioned himself to take on larger role after a 2012 campaign in which he played all 16 games, starting in two, and contributing 40 tackles, an interception, three pass breakups and four fumble recoveries. Now Hayden finds himself just fighting for a roster spot, which is fine by him, given all he's endured just to get to this point.
"I heard so much about this injury, and guys were saying once you kind of tear it off the bone, they usually don't come back full speed. But I was like, 'Hey, you just can't tell me anything,'" Hayden said. "I came in here every morning ready to go to work, even putting in extra work. It's one of those deals where, 'OK, you got hurt. You got knocked down. You gonna stay down or get up?' I took the challenge of getting up."