During the past three years, Jordan Haden has spent enough time in track suits and various medical braces to be confused for a reckless pole vaulter.
The University of Toledo is convinced it has a playmaking safety in Haden. With him, the Rockets think they have an All-Mid-American Conference-caliber talent who can change games and make them a winning squad.
So, what happens if Haden can spend his Saturdays actually playing football at full health?
“That's a great question,” UT coach Matt Campbell said. “And I don't know that I can answer it.”
Haden, the younger brother of Cleveland Browns star Joe, has been projected as a big-time defensive back since high school. A four-star recruit who initially committed to Florida, Haden never felt comfortable as a Gator and transferred before playing a game.
After sitting out 2011, Haden was making the case to be an All-MAC selection in his sophomore season. He returned an interception for a touchdown to clinch a win against Western Michigan, then helped secure Toledo's upset against Cincinnati later in the year with a pick that spoiled the Bearcats' final drive. Toledo was 7-1 and Haden was burgeoning into the ballhawk many had envisioned when a foot injury in practice derailed his year.
“I knew right away,” Haden said. “I was coming down on it, and when I planted, my foot turned. I felt it pop, and I just knew right there.”
Haden played out the year but wasn't close to himself. When he did return to full health after undergoing surgery, he broke his collarbone in practice a little more than two weeks before Toledo's 2013 opener. He rushed back too soon, started only the final game, and made four tackles all season.
With one final chance to have a breakout college season, Haden hopes his run of bad luck is finished.
“It's felt like it's always something, man,” Haden said. “But this year I feel good, so I'm ready to play.”
Haden is an easy-going person, but he has had plenty of waiting. By now, he hates everything that comes with missing games.
“Horrible. Just horrible,” Haden said. “When you don't get to play, you still gotta wake up every Friday morning and get put on the no-travel list, because I couldn't play. I had to do all of these extra workouts and stuff. It really had me mad, for real. It was stressful.”
With UT's best cornerback, Cheatham Norrils, potentially out for the season after a serious viral infection, the Rockets need Haden at full health.
“Most of our packages highlight our secondary, and he's part of that, obviously,” defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “He's pretty critical to what we're doing.”
Campbell said Haden has the entire program rooting for him. The Rockets benefited from Haden's leadership and approach even when he wasn't playing, Campbell said.
“The thing I appreciate about Jordan is he controlled the things he could control: his attitude and his effort and his commitment to his teammates,” Campbell said. “I think that's put him in a position to have a great senior year. I think everybody's excited for him because they know what he's had to go through to get to this point.”
After all the pain, all the rehabilitation work, and all the waiting that came with the past three long years at Toledo, Haden is ready for one year — finally — to go his way.
“I'm definitely ready to go. I just can't wait,” Haden said. “I just want my parents to come sit in the stands and watch me play again. That's all.”