Joe Haden's heart led him to Florida, then fate, dedication and an unmatched work ethic led him to become an elite college football player. Three years ago, Haden arrived in Gainesville as an early entry from high school, determined to find a place for himself. He had been a record-setting high school quarterback, but his immediate assessment of the Gators' depth chart eventually led him down a path he never could have imagined and success that has far exceeded even his own lofty expectations.
On Thursday, Haden was selected to the American Football Coaches Association All-America team. The junior is also a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, honoring the nation's top defensive back. Not bad for the kid who was once a basketball star and never had played cornerback until he arrived at Florida.
"Coming in as a freshman, I was just trying to get on the field," Haden said. "I just wanted to help the team out any way that I could. It's been so much above and beyond what I ever expected it to be, playing here. As far as starting as a freshman, that was over what I thought I was going to do. I was just told that I was a first-team All-American — way over what I expected. I was just trying to be first-team SEC, second-team SEC, something like that. And then for Coach (Urban) Meyer to tell me that I'm playing as one of the best players in college football, it means a whole lot to me."
In many ways, his story has unfolded as if it were meant to be. Haden is the oldest of Joe and Zakiya Haden's five sons: Joe, 20, Josh, 19, Jordan 18, Jacob 16, and Jonathon, 13. Jordan will join the Gators in January.
Joe Haden has been a lifelong Florida fan. The Fort Washington, Md., native had 38 college offers when he was at Friendly High, with at least 18 asking him to be a quarterback.
But they all lacked one thing: They weren't the Gators.
"His main thing was he loved Florida," Zakiya Haden said. "Since he was a little boy, he wanted to be a Gator. That was his main school. So when the letters started coming from different schools he was like, 'Did I get anything from Florida yet? Anything from Florida?' And I'd say, 'No, not yet.'
"He didn't even open the other mail. He was specifically waiting for that."
Haden made Florida the last stop on his recruiting visits, then committed on the night he attended the Gators' elite Friday Night Lights camp. But that was just the beginning. Once he enrolled early at UF in January, Haden had to make some difficult choices.
"First, I came in as a quarterback, but (Tim) Tebow was quarterback. Next decision," Haden said. "Then I was like, all right let me go to receiver. And I was behind Percy (Harvin). So Coach Meyer was talking to me and I said, 'Coach, I just want to get on the field. I feel like I can play.' He was like, 'You're right. You should be on the field helping the team win.' He said, 'You can go play cornerback.' And I'd never played corner before, and I was like, 'So now I have to guard Percy?' And he was like, 'Yeah.' I was like, 'Okay, we'll work on it.' "
He worked on it as if his life depended on it. In the spring of 2007, while the rest of his high school classmates were finishing school, Haden had hooked up with assistant coach Chuck Heater and was learning his new position. By fall, he had earned a starting position, although it would be an up-and-down first season. Enter former Michigan defensive backs coach Vance Bedford, who was hired at the end of Haden's freshman year. Bedford built on what Heater started.
Meyer and Haden's teammates said much of the credit goes to the cornerback himself.
"He's a hard worker," safety Ahmad Black said. "He's probably one of the better athletes on the team, so you can put Joe anywhere on the field and he would probably do the same thing. He's a great athlete. Great athlete."
"When you get to know Joe, you know he's one of the hardest working guys," Meyer said. "He's got a Tebow-type work ethic. So it doesn't surprise me. He did shock us when we first got him. We thought he would be a very good offensive player, but he comes in and starts three years at corner. But once you get to see the way he works, he's blessed, has a lot of freakish ability (a 40-plus-inch vertical leap), great worker — one of the best workers I've ever been around. … I don't think anybody's played any better than Joe."
Haden is the team's second-leading tackler with 59, and he has four interceptions and three sacks. He is projected as a first-round pick by several NFL draft analysts and knows he'll have more tough decisions to make when the season ends. In last week's home finale, that reality hit his parents hard.
"I think his dad and I both thought about it, and I have to be honest, we both at certain times shed a tear at that game," Zakiya Haden said. "We'll have to sit down and pray on it and see what's the best situation for him. But most likely that was his last game at the Swamp."
For now, Haden's sole focus is helping the Gators defeat Alabama in Saturday's SEC Championship Game. Last year in that game, Haden intercepted a pass in the final two minutes and returned it 24 yards to help seal a victory. This Saturday, he will most likely defend one of the league's best receivers, 6-foot-4 Julio Jones. And, as Haden has his whole career, the 5-foot-11 corner will have to prove himself again.
"I'm looking forward to that a whole lot," Haden said. "Everybody back at home is always messing with me every week when we played a good receiver. … Julio is big, strong and fast. I look forward to covering him."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]