LAKE FOREST – The gray clouds hanging above Walter Payton Center on Wednesday were silent but powerful. They pushed Bears practice underneath the dome and cornerback Kelvin Hayden into a backpedal on the patch of turf where football first felt possible again.
Last November, three months after he suffered a season-ending hamstring tear in training camp, Hayden came to the dome to try to start over. Hayden started running striders. They felt easy, and his trainers were impressed, so he pushed harder. He moved faster. It all felt right.
He remembers standing at the 40-yard-line when he knew he had a chance.
“You hear so many things about the injury,” he said. “Guys don’t come back 100 percent. Guys do come back even better. I just didn’t know where I was going to fall into place yet. My first day out here running, it was just like, ‘Man, I’ve come a long way.’ I’ve put in the work. And to see the after effect of the work you put in, it was an emotional moment.”
Hayden has come a long way, but he knows he can’t lose sight of how much farther he has to go. The Bears rewarded his progress in February with a contract, but it is set to expire after this season. They brought him back, but also drafted a first-round cornerback in Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller, who recently has received reps with the first-team nickel defense, like Hayden did before his injury.
“This is a business,” he said, shrugging. “But I know what I can do.”
Before last season, one he spent Bears games lying still in bed, Hayden was a defender who could make some noise. In 2012, his first season with the Bears after coming over from the Falcons, Hayden tied for the NFL lead in fumble recoveries. The Bears rewarded him with another one-year deal. Step by step, the Hubbard High School graduate was starting to make a name in his hometown at the highest level of football.
Then came one play in August at Soldier Field. Hayden tore his hamstring to the point where that it separated from the bone. For six weeks, he couldn’t even move his legs.
“It was kind of my motivation as well,” Hayden said. “Is this going to be the break of you, or are you going to accept the challenge and better yourself?”
The return back started with diet. He returned home from surgery to a nutritionist who had a plan for his every calorie. The steps to standing and walking came slow and under careful supervision. Eventually, tired of being the forgotten Bear, Hayden asked his trainers if he could try running, and they came to this field.
On Wednesday, Hayden said his body felt to be at 100 percent and that his feet actually were quicker than before the injury. They might need to be if he wants to circle back to a starting nickel position in what now is a crowded secondary.
It’s a question that will be answered in the coming weeks, not right this moment. Hayden is willing to take each step.
“You come to a point where you know football isn’t forever,” Hayden said. “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. I’m pretty sure everybody wants that.”