He was born on fourth-and-long. Mom drank when she was pregnant with him. Traded sex for drugs while he was in diapers. State authorities dragged him out of a crack house closet when he was 4 years old. Threw Mom in prison. Dad? Dead before the kid met him.
Start most kids off like that, they're looking at 15 to 20 by the time they're 18. Unless they learn to catch a football in traffic or cut down a running back behind the line. That's what Ra'Shede Hageman learned to do, which opened another path — one he followed to the University of Minnesota — where he's a 23-year-old senior defensive tackle on the watch lists for this year's Outland Trophy, Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik Award. And that could lead to a first-round selection by the NFL. But his past could still outrun his future.
* * *
Saturday, Oct. 26, Ra'Shede trots down the darkened tunnel and onto the sun-drenched turf of TCF Bank Stadium, home of the Golden Gophers. He's huge. The program lists him at 6'6 and 311 pounds, but he's bigger in person. His bare calves ripple like the quadriceps of most men, his thighs scream power, and his hands are thick as catcher's mitts. His shoulders and chest form a solid mass with only a slight paunch above his belt, the No. 99 stretched across his white jersey, front and back. He's topped by a large maroon helmet, his expression shielded by a tinted visor, scratched on the side.
This is the face of Minnesota football. His photo shines on the cover of the Gophers' 2013 media guide, a color shot with fists clenched in celebration, biceps flexed, his head tipped slightly back, but his expression invisible behind the dark visor of his helmet. He and the Gophers are up against long odds this afternoon: No. 21 Nebraska. Minnesota has not beaten Nebraska since 1960 ("A long time — you do the math," Ra'Shede says at the post-game press conference); in the last dozen meetings, the Cornhuskers have outscored the Gophers, 568-86. But the Gophers have won five of their seven games. Ra'Shede's having an excellent season, piling up tackles for a loss, sacks, hurries, pass deflections and blocked kicks. Against Northwestern, he even picked off a pass.
Ra'Shede and his teammates jog past the cheerleaders, the band, the television cameras. The fans, especially the students in the section surrounding the tunnel, greet them with enthusiasm. It's a perfect Minnesota autumn afternoon for collegiate football, crisp and sunny, a day ripe with possibilities.
* * *
they all say the same thing: great future, as long as he stays on track.
(USA Today Images)
Ra'Shede has all of the measurables. Benches 465 pounds, squats 500. OK, you might expect that for a guy as big and powerful as he is. Get this, though — the 6'6" 311-pound lineman also leaps 36 inches on his vertical, can windmill a dunk and clocks 1.57 seconds in the 10-yard dash. On Bruce Feldman's 2013 physical "Freaks List" for CBSSports, Hageman is No. 2 (behind only Jadeveon Clowney). After eight games, the Gopher often referred to as a "monster" and "beast" slid up on ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay's rankings from a projected third-round pick to the late first round. "He's got a tremendous future," Gophers' head coach Jerry Kill says. "He's a guy a lot of people will want to get their hands on, as long as he stays on track and does what he's asked to do here."
That's the refrain. Ask past coaches, current coaches, his parents, they all say the same thing: great future, as long as he stays on track.
He can't escape the caveat. Because what drives him could also destroy him.
Talk about two roads, that's the story of this kid's life. He's had false starts along both — fits and lurches down the one that ends for so many black American males born into impoverished, drug-addled families in early death or lifetime incarceration, and leaps and slips down the other toward athletic stardom, generous paydays and Sunday glory. Seems every step of the way he comes back to the fork, where he has to choose his path all over again.
That's where the anger is. All the hurt from having a crackhead for a mom, a dad who died when Ra'Shede was a toddler, of bouncing around foster homes, not having birthday parties like "normal" kids — all that is distilled into a fierce pilot light of anger in his belly. Only football licenses him to release his rage, a powerful force that he consummates in crunching hits. "When I'm on the football field, I always have that anger I had as a child," he says. "I don't want to talk to nobody. I'm ready to go all the way."
Off the field, his anger has cost him, flaring into altercations that could have sidetracked him, ending his career — or even his life — before it got started.
On a weekday morning, he shuffles slowly, as though nonchalant, through the wood-paneled halls of the Gophers' football complex. Clad in a maroon Golden Gophers hoodie and black sweats, he molds his bearded face into a blank expression. Some guys have emotion bubbling all over their features; Ra'Shede's doesn't give away anything, his expression hardly changing. He is playing the role of the elite athlete dutifully reporting to his next interview, but there's an ambiguity in his step, something markedly hesitant in the splayed gait of his Nike sneakers on the maroon carpet.
He's so big he was never small, not even when he was a child. Without his helmet, his head seems to have outgrown his ears, small stubs pushed to the sides. Ra'Shede's always been the tallest guy in the room and on the field. And he's acutely aware of his size, something he embraces, for better or worse. He picked the biggest number because it fits him. "I'm different, with my size, my background," he explains. "I know wherever I go, I'm going to stick out. I'm not your typical human being because of where I've been."
* * *
The story started in Lansing, Mich., but his mom moved to Minnesota before he was old enough to form memories of the first place. When her addiction kept her from caring for Ra'Shede and his younger brother, Xavier, authorities placed the two boys into the state's foster care system. They bounced around to a dozen different homes. Ra'Shede finally thought he'd found his way out when they placed him in a "permanent" home, but then his new parents split up and he got dumped back into the system. "I missed that childhood I saw other kids having, birthdays, Christmas," he says. "I didn't have Christmas until I was adopted."
Enter Jill Coyle and Eric Hageman, two idealistic 20-somethings fresh out of the University of Minnesota law school, white newlyweds ready to start a family by adopting. They first saw Ra'Shede in a video where the 7-year-old said he wanted a family that would let him play football. Jill and Eric met him and Xavier, 5, soon afterward at Hennepin County's 1997 Christmas party for older foster children.
The social worker warned them: The boys had issues, learning disabilities. Ra'Shede's anger was labeled Oppositional Defiant Disorder and he had difficulty trusting others. But the boys needed a home, a family. Within two months, they had moved in with Jill and Eric. Their adoption was finalized by the end of 1998.
On the eve of the Nebraska game, the couple recounts Ra'Shede's childhood. Eric Hageman sits on the living room couch of their Minneapolis home. He's trim and bright-eyed in a light blue button-down Oxford. Jill sits on the other end of the couch, attractive with long brown hair and wearing fashionable leather boots. Their 6-year-old biological son lies on the couch between them, his head on Eric's thigh. A pair of dogs wrestle on the carpet nearby. Their other two biological children still at home (a boy, 11, and a girl, 8) busy themselves elsewhere in the red brick house across the street from Minnehaha Creek. Eric represents plaintiffs in personal injury cases. Jill is general counsel for a suburban school district. Their home has the feel of comfortable chaos.
"From the time we first adopted him, we envisioned he would be a Division I athlete."
Jill and Eric recognized the athlete in Ra'Shede immediately. For starters, he was tall and lanky, a head above his classmates. Faster and stronger, too. Able to perform backflips. Eric, who played cornerback for Dartmouth in the late ‘80s, saw something. "From the time we first adopted him, we envisioned he would be a Division I athlete," he says.
They signed him up for T-ball, football and basketball at the city park near their home. Other parents complained Ra'Shede was too big. Moms on the sideline grumbled they wanted to see his birth certificate. Jill and Eric placed him on teams with kids a year older. Ra'Shede still stood out as the biggest and best.
He dropped baseball after fourth grade, but in eighth grade had earned a spot on the high school's freshman basketball team and quarterbacked his youth football team — not that it was his natural position, it wasn't — but because he was the best athlete on the team, 6 feet and still growing. The high school football coaches scouted him - and discovered he was every bit as good as they heard he was.
It didn't take long for opponents to discover — and target — his Achilles' heel, the temper always throwing up that fork in the path before him. They hit Ra'Shede after the whistle, and threw dirty blocks. "He would always take the bait," says Eric.
School was no better. The suspensions started in second grade. Sitting in class didn't suit a kid like Ra'Shede with ADD, a modest IQ and all that anger simmering inside. He gravitated toward the troublemakers at the lily-white Catholic school. "Even before we came along, Ra'Shede struggled with making decisions," Jill says.
A predictable debate ensued, Jill taking the position that they should pull Ra'Shede from sports so he would concentrate on his schoolwork and improve his behavior; Eric countering that they couldn't take away the very thing that motivated him. The solution remained elusive.
By middle school, his issues became more complicated. He started to agonize over his skin.
By middle school, his issues became more complicated. He started to agonize over his skin. For many adopted kids, when they hit their mid-teens, the adoption story swings from, "You're special; we chose you," to "Your mom gave you away; she didn't want you," which translates to "I'm undesirable or undeserving or unlovable," and self-esteem spirals south. For black kids with white parents, it's even more complicated. His parents couldn't love away the difference in the color of his skin.
Jill and Eric transferred Ra'Shede to a public school with a more diverse student body so he could be around more kids that looked like him. His brother Xavier seemed to adjust smoothly, not as big and more content in the classroom. But for Ra'Shede, it seemed every time he looked at his mom or dad, their white faces reminded him he didn't fit in their family.
What does it mean to be a young black man? That wasn't a question he consciously articulated, but one that did haunt him. Eric couldn't show him, of course. Ra'Shede's own black father was gone. And black men like Michael Jordan and Will Smith — celebrity role models to his peers — didn't serve him. They hadn't come from where he did. "I was never like them (Jordan and Smith)," Ra'Shede says. "I was different, on my own path."
At Washburn High School, which straddled the city's economic divide, he felt the tug of the street, a world he glimpsed in the hip-hop lyrics and the sagging pants of classmates, but a world distant from the red brick colonial where he lived with his parents, who by now had children of their own that didn't look like Ra'Shede. He began hanging out and copped a street attitude. He mouthed off to teachers, skipped school, failed classes, played the tough guy, intimidating others with his size, sometimes taking them on. Girls were drawn to his swagger and he burnished that rep in the weight room, trying to impress them with how much he could bench in competition with his friends. Ra'Shede always won. In ninth grade he maxed out at 315 lbs. "I wanted to get their attention," Ra'Shede says. "I wanted people to think I was tough, basically because of being adopted."
Still, he couldn't find his place. He didn't blend with the street kids. Not in his Abercrombie shirts and new shoes. Not with 20 bucks in his pocket when they didn't have lunch money. He couldn't reconcile his upper-middle class status with theirs.
He also didn't fit with the other kids from affluent backgrounds — his skin was too black. And he didn't feel real kinship with his teammates — what did they know about having an addict mom and another who was an attorney? About a phantom dad and another, doting one? About so many foster homes you forgot your way to your bedroom and then living in a house your buddies envied?
Ra'Shede turned on his parents. He blamed them for his situation.
So Ra'Shede turned on his parents. He blamed them for his situation. Resented them because other kids sometimes teased him about their white asses. He refused to be seen with them. At school conferences, he made his parents walk down the hall by themselves. In restaurants, he hung back until they sat down. Jill and Eric tried to accommodate their son, waiting for him after basketball games in the parking lot. They weathered his angry outbursts at home. But one public explosion terrified his mother.
Ra'Shede's sophomore year, Jill was driving him and a couple of teammates to football practice with his then 2-year-old sister and 2-week-old baby brother along for the ride. A car blew a stop sign and sideswiped their minivan. No one was hurt, but Ra'Shede was enraged. He burst from the van shouting at the man driving the other car, "You almost killed my baby brother." He terrified the man, who saw only an angry 6'6 black giant raging at him. Ra'Shede did not strike the stranger, but Jill worried about how his anger could menace others, and how their reaction could get him killed. This kid — their kid — was dangerous.
"We'd seen those outbursts at home when he challenged our authority," Eric says. "But seeing it out in the real world was scary. That's been there for him his whole life, trying to address the beast within."
The only place where the beast seemed at home was the football field, where he had license to lash out. Ra'Shede liked defense best, where he could crush opponents, but his coaches used him mostly on offense as a tight end, where he could use his strength and power both blocking and running after catching the ball. They recognized his unique talent, but through his freshmen and sophomore years, he only played sports for the hell of it, because it was fun. He did not know how good he might be.
Trouble brought him to Giovan Jenkins. They knew one another from the football team, where Jenkins was an assistant coach, but Hageman's academic and extracurricular screw-ups landed him in Jenkins' office in his other role as the disciplinarian, dean of ninth- and 10th-grade students. Jenkins had street cred, an African-American Washburn graduate who understood the challenges of being young and black. You're the one who's going to get busted because you're the biggest one around, the first one they'll notice, Jenkins told Ra'Shede. Stay away from trouble.
Jenkins believed in Ra'Shede. "I never really thought he would end up in a gang because of the support he had at home," Jenkins says. "He was raised right."
Ra'Shede respected Jenkins, but it wasn't as if he could just turn off the trouble, either. His anger could explode in an instant. Still, the more often he landed in Jenkins' office, the more he started to believe him. "He told me I wasn't like the other knuckleheads, that I had opportunities," Ra'Shede says. "‘Don't let your friends or other people decide who you are going to be,' he told me. Don't let them control my destiny. He made me realize I could do something with my life if I was able to overcome the obstacles."
* * *
Nebraska scores on its first two drives, but then the Minnesota defense buckles down. Midway through the second quarter, the Gophers trailing 10-7, Ra'Shede slides past a block and drops the quarterback. But there's a flag. The official saw his hand grip the QB's facemask. Instead of facing third-and-long, the Cornhuskers now have a first down 15 yards upfield. Anger replaces elation, but now it's channeled, focused, distilled and determined. Settling into his three-point stance, Ra'Shede knows he owes his team something to redeem himself. On the next play, he charges off the snap, bursts through the line and drops the quarterback before he can set up. The image on the stadium's big screen shows him flexing, his wrists at his waist.
Later in the quarter, with less than a minute remaining, Minnesota has gone up 17-10. Ra'Shede bulls past his blocker, wraps up the QB as he hurries an option pitch, and the ball sails past the running back out of bounds. Ra'Shede spreads his hands wide. He's made another big play. But there's another flag. Once again, the officials have caught him with his hands on the QB's facemask. The personal foul breathes new life into the Huskers' late drive, giving them the chance to tie the score or even take the lead going into halftime. That could hang on Ra'Shede.
But once again, he manages to turn his anger into his advantage. Thirty seconds later, Nebraska runs a screen pass. Ra'Shede doubles back and, with his quickness, catches the receiver from behind on the Minnesota 25, preventing what looked like it would be a big gain, maybe even six points. The play sets up third-and-11, and the best the Huskers can manage is a field goal. At halftime Minnesota still leads, 17-13.
* * *
Soon coaches from premier programs started calling, showing up at school, writing love letters.
The opportunities Jenkins saw in Ra'Shede became concrete when the University of Minnesota football coach Tim Brewster invited him to a prospects camp the summer after his sophomore year. Most of the other kids were a year older, but afterward Brewster, recognizing his potential, offered Ra'Shede a scholarship. That's when it hit Ra'Shede how good he was.
Soon coaches from premier programs — LSU, Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Nebraska — started calling, showing up at school, writing love letters promising him he'd catch 50 passes for them his freshman year. Yet none of that seemed possible. Ra'Shede knew he wasn't college material. He didn't have the grades. His test scores fell short. He had no ambition to study. The sweet talk of scholarships seemed more like a taunt, tantalizing him with something ultimately unattainable — offers more to be resented than pursued. He didn't want to reach out to accept their offer only to have it yanked away. He already knew how that felt.
So did someone else, his half-brother, Lazal Thompson, five years older. They had been separated when the state took custody of Ra'Shede and Xavier, but Lazal had found his younger brothers through the adoption agency shortly after Ra'Shede started high school. Lazal had not been placed with a stable family like Ra'Shede and Xavier. He had stayed in the system and taken the other path. By the time they reunited, Lazal, barely 20, already had fathered a couple of children and been in and out of jail for selling drugs.
He recognized Ra'Shede's confusion and attraction to the street, but also the opportunities he still had. Lazal drove his younger brother around the grimier areas of Minneapolis to erase the allure, pointing out the decay and desperation of thug life. "This is what you don't want to be around," Lazal told him. "You don't want to be a felon or fighting for no reason, joining a gang that doesn't care about you or locked up for domestic abuse."
What Lazal would have given to be able to go to school and play football like Ra'Shede. "But it's hard if you don't have the structure," he says. "You can't go to school when your clothes are dirty. You can't study at home when there's chaos. His parents gave him stability." He told Ra'Shede that. And, "Thank Jill and Eric for giving you the chance."
Gradually, his words sank in. Ra'Shede started to understand the perils of the street; the road to college became more appealing.
* * *
Jill and Eric knew football provided a backdoor route to a college education, something he would not pursue otherwise, given his academic stumbles and intellectual hurdles. But when they started researching the NCAA eligibility requirements, they realized that road included a steep climb. They hired a pair of tutors to work with him. They registered him for online classes to replace failing grades from his first two years of high school.
Ra'Shede as a tight end. (Coutesy of the Hageman family)
Ra'Shede accepted the challenge. He worked diligently with the tutors. He stayed after school to get help from teachers. He did the online coursework. He took the ACT test, over and over and over, banking each section he passed to boost his overall score. He sweated and agonized over his studies, gradually edging toward meeting the NCAA's eligibility requirements. Yet his fear of falling short and being humiliated by the public failure — the local papers and online ranking sites charted his prospects — offset his excitement about the possibility.
Football came so much easier. He started working out with a strength and conditioning coach, and he continued to tear it up on the field. Senior year, he caught 11 touchdown passes, earned All-State honors and was named the nation's No. 1 tight end prospect. But his anger sabotaged the season's grand finale, when his team played for the city championship.
The week before the big game, he exploded in the school cafeteria. Another student got in his face. Ra'Shede gave it back. The shouting escalated to shoving. And could have gotten worse — Ra'Shede far outsized the other kid — if Jenkins hadn't stepped between them ... Hey, hey, stop! Ra'Shede backed down and let Jenkins lead him out of the lunchroom.
Once he calmed, the remorse came. Ra'Shede wrote an apology to the other student. "He always wants to do the right thing, he just doesn't always do the right thing," Jill says. "He digs himself a hole, but crawls out of it."
His outburst resulted in a suspension from football; he couldn't play in the city championship game. The incident reminded everyone just how close to destruction his anger could take him.
* * *
Third quarter, Ra'Shede lets up after the quarterback releases a pass — and the Nebraska lineman Jeremiah Sirles, 6'6 and 310 pounds himself, decks Ra'Shede with a late hit, the very thing that can set him off.
He's used to opponents talking smack in the trenches. They know he has white parents and call him "Uncle Tom." They tell him he's garbage. That he's soft. In high school, he couldn't let it go. He yapped back. Got lured off his game. "Sometimes it goes deep," he says. "Like, ‘You're not going anywhere.' I want to yell and scream at them, but I have found other ways to be disruptive."
But he's not used to being dumped on his ass after the play. Sirles stands over him. A reflexive wave of tension rushes through those watching.
Then Sirles reaches out his hand. Ra'Shede takes it and lets Sirles hoist him up. Ra'Shede pats his shoulder pad and returns to the line. Another dangerous moment diffused. Another right turn.
* * *
Despite his suspension from the city championship game, Ra'Shede did play that January 2009 Under Armour All-American game in Orlando, Fla., and the colleges were still interested. Yet with national signing day approaching, he couldn't see himself in Gainesville or Columbus. He didn't feel right representing a tradition like Nebraska's, one he knew nothing about. He had offers from a dozen schools, but in the end, it came down to just one, Minnesota, because it allowed him to stay close to his parents, and Jenkins and Lazal and others who knew his story and stood by him. So on Feb. 4, 2009, he walked into the Washburn gym, past the media and cameras, donned a maroon cap with a gold "M" on it, and signed a letter declaring his intent to play at the University of Minnesota.
Inking his name did not decide Ra'Shede's fate. It only magnified his angst. After 18 months of tutors, online courses and retaking the ACT, he had moved much closer, but still fell just short of meeting the NCAA's eligibility requirements. He had to take the ACT test one more time in April before he managed to raise his score in the reading section high enough to clear the bar. Finally, he could exhale with relief and celebrate the fact he was headed to college. Now he just had to crack the Gophers' lineup. And stay on the path.
* * *
"Tight end was a high school thing, just beasting over kids and catching balls."
Coach Tim Brewster had recruited Hageman to play tight end, but one day during practice early on, while in line for reps with the receivers, Ra'Shede was distracted, watching the defensive line run its drill. The receivers coach had to shout at him when his turn came, but after practice, he told the D-line coach of Ra'Shede's interest, and Ra'Shede switched to defensive end. "Tight end was a high school thing, just beasting over kids and catching balls," he says. "On defense, you have to have that inner dog in you, which works for me with the aggression I have and the past that makes me a dominant lineman."
He thought he might see action the first game against Syracuse, but by the third quarter, he figured out that he was going to be redshirted for the 2009 season. There were too many other guys ahead of him at defensive end. He dressed for every game, but spent every minute on the sideline, just watching, another tease and frustration.
Tubby Smith, the Gophers' basketball coach, had scouted Ra'Shede at Washburn and attended the high school tournament game when Ra'Shede led his team to the state basketball championship. He invited Ra'Shede to walk on. He was tempted, but he couldn't. College already overwhelmed him. Practice, lifting, meetings, classes, study sessions. Living on his own. He couldn't do it. Couldn't squeeze basketball into his schedule; couldn't handle the distractions.
Oh, those distractions. The parties. The girls. He didn't think it was a problem until a girl told him she was pregnant and planned to have the baby. His one-night stand turned into another person. He was in shock. Scared. How would he tell his parents? How would he care for the child? "I'm too big to be working in a grocery store," he says. "I had to stay with football, keep working on that."
Jill and Eric were concerned — here was another hole Ra'Shede had dug himself — but supportive, as always. They were ready with advice, acceptance and money, whatever he needed. The 2010 season, Ra'Shede's first, he played in eight games, made five tackles, but he landed in yet another ditch. He moved off campus and lived in a house with the other defensive linemen, a place nicknamed "The Zoo" for the parties they hosted. When the police crashed one, everybody ran. But not Ra'Shede, who was rarely one to back down from a confrontation. He was cited for hosting an "uncontrolled party" where minors consumed alcohol. He had to perform community service and endure the embarrassment of the incident going public.
Worse, The Zoo didn't exactly nurture academic rigor. He missed study sessions. Arrived late to class. Let his grades slide. Late that season, after Brewster had been fired, interim coach Jeff Horton told Ra'Shede to get serious about school and forget the last three weeks of the season. Technically, it wasn't a suspension, but the message was clear: His size, talent and potential couldn't save him if he didn't improve his grades.
New coach Jerry Kill underscored that point. It seemed half the team was academically ineligible and Kill intended to clean house. Three days after he arrived in December 2010, the new coach summoned the problem child, his parents and a couple of academic advisors to his office. Kill had done his homework, talking to Giovan Jenkins at Washburn, who convinced him to take a chance on Ra'Shede. One chance. Kill, about as subtle as a blacksmith, gave it to the kid straight. "You stole the university's money. That's going to change or you're gone. This is your last shot." He laid out the expectations: Ra'Shede would get to class on time, not miss study sessions, stay away from parties, move out of The Zoo and into student housing on campus.
Ra'Shede knew Coach Kill was serious. He had jettisoned other players, including Ra'Shede's friend, roommate and fellow defensive lineman, Jewhan Edwards. Edwards had led the Gophers in tackles for a loss and sacks, he had a year of eligibility remaining and NFL prospects, but he hadn't been willing to do things the new coach's way. And knew he was gone. One minute a DI football player with a future, the next, nothing but a washout with a past. If the new coach could dump the team leader in tackles, he wouldn't hesitate to boot Ra'Shede. That shook him.
"It was the first time I saw my life flash before me," he says. And he didn't like what he saw. By then, some of the kids he had run with in high school had landed behind bars or in graves, done in by drugs and violence. Without football, that could be his fate, too. "If I didn't get things right, I would become that statistic of somebody who went to college but didn't make it."
* * *
he started to understand a moment could have irreversible consequences.
Five weeks after his meeting with Coach Kill, Ra'Shede became a father. His son Zion was born Feb. 4, 2011. Zion's mother let Ra'Shede visit only when she wasn't mad at him, which seemed to be very seldom. Still, he felt accountable to someone beyond himself. For the first time, perhaps, he started to understand a moment could have irreversible consequences.
In the spring semester, he got serious about school. He attended his tutoring sessions and made it to classes on time. He was never going to be a candidate for the dean's list, but he managed to keep his cumulative GPA above the required 2.0 mark.
In the fall of 2011, his sophomore year, he switched to defensive tackle, played in all 12 of the Gophers' games and made 13 tackles, flashing the promise inherent in his size. In the final game of the season, on a cold and rainy November day at TCF Bank Stadium, Ra'Shede sacked the Fighting Illini quarterback twice in the first half and forced a fumble that set up the Gophers' first touchdown in a 27-7 victory. "He hadn't had any sacks all season, but that game was a ‘Whoa, look at him' moment," Eric says.
The expectations mounted, but the path did not become any smoother. Coach Kill had to track Ra'Shede down when he did not show up for a mandatory study hall during finals week. Kill found him asleep in his dorm room and dragged him back to the football complex to go over flashcards with an assistant coach past midnight, until Ra'Shede knew the material well enough to pass his final. Not long afterward, he again found himself in the wrong place, though this time less innocently.
In the wee hours of May 10, 2012, Ra'Shede tried to break up a fight outside a campus bar, where some of his teammates tangled with a group of guys from the North Side that Ra'Shede had played hoops with. When the cops arrived, they confronted Ra'Shede, who stood in the thick of the melee. He snapped back. They locked him up. Within days, they dropped the charges of disorderly conduct, but not before the night hit Ra'Shede with another reminder of how close his anger put him to the edge. What if someone had pulled a knife? Or a gun? A bullet doesn't care how much you can bench.
* * *
Junior year, Ra'Shede showed Kill he hadn't squandered his faith. Number 99 earned a starting spot and came up with one big game after another. He recorded 35 tackles (20 solo) and six sacks. His breakout season earned him honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Not bad for a kid recruited as a tight end who nearly was tossed out of the program. Amazing for a kid discovered in a crack house closet.
The expectations escalated after that. Ra'Shede's on everybody's watch list, pictured on the media guide, projected to go early in the draft, yet he is determined to rise to their level. This season he's watching more film on his own, analyzing his play and scouting opponents. He's resolved not to take any plays off, to come off the ball with more urgency. But he remains a work in progress. Despite his natural size, strength and power, he's still a newcomer to his position. "He's trying to understand when it's time to be a power player and when to use more finesse, coming off a block or on the pass rush," says Jeff Phelps, the Gophers' defensive line coach. "He's just beginning to learn those things and come into his own as a defensive lineman."
This year the big plays have been harder to come by because he's frequently double-teamed. That gets old, two 300-pound hogs in your face every play. He's had his share of personal fouls trying to compensate, like a play against Michigan when he meant to jam a guard in the throat, but his fist caught the guy's facemask and nearly snapped his head off.
Off the field, Ra'Shede speaks softly and can even appear docile. Teammates have called him a "gentle giant," and Phelps describes him as a "teddy bear." Bah, says his mother, who knows his temper as well as anyone. "He doesn't deal well with people getting in his face," Jill says. She remembers a time this past summer when they were in Manhattan and a homeless woman told them to get out of her way. The rest of his family moved aside. Not Ra'Shede. "He took her on," Jill says. "Why can't he just step around her like the rest of us? He's always got that trigger."
* * *
Normal evades him. He's a father but can't see his son as often as he'd like to.
Normal evades him. He's a father but can't see his son as often as he'd like to. Zion is 2 1/2 now. When his mom is communicating with Ra'Shede, he picks up Zion in St. Paul and brings him back to his dorm to watch television or play video games. "He's into ‘Caillou,'" Ra'Shede says. "And he's tall and lanky, like I was."
Ra'Shede is one class away from graduating with a youth studies major, which — given his background — could be his most amazing achievement, but an astronomy class stands between him and his degree. "Dumbest thing I ever did," he says. When he registered for the class, he thought it would be easy. It's not. "You've got to know math, physics, geology — and all those planets."
Hageman is trying to be a role model to other kids. He recently participated in a clinic at McRae Park, several blocks from the house where he grew up, where he played eighth-grade football himself, and next door to St. Joseph's Home for Children, one of the foster homes in which he lived. He laughed with the kids and encouraged them in a scrimmage. "He's a voice for a lot of African-American kids who are going through things he's gone through," his brother Lazal says.
* * *
Still third quarter, Minnesota has the ball on Nebraska's 1-yard line. Ra'Shede sits on the end of the heated team bench, his eyes on the big screen in the end zone. When Gopher quarterback Philip Nelson carries the ball across the goal line to put Minnesota up, 23-13, Ra'Shede pumps his right fist into the air. They could win this one.
Stranger things have happened in life. Ra'Shede knows that better than anyone does.
* * *
Eric pulls his cell phone from his pocket and plays a video of Ra'Shede's surprise interception against Northwestern. Ra'Shede had dropped back into coverage, a scheme the Gophers' defense uses sometimes to foil their opponents' plans to double-team him. Ra'Shede leaps, grabs the ball with one hand and runs 10 yards with it before he's bumped in the leg, stumbles and falls.
Ra'Shede watched the film with his teammates the next day. Phelps showed the play several times, so Ra'Shede could narrate his moves, point out how he switched the ball to his far hand to protect it. His linemates couldn't help teasing him about how easily he went down. Despite his boasting and their roasting, the clip highlights his extraordinary athleticism in leaping and snagging the ball.
"I'm so hungry to go away and just starting training 100 percent for the Combine."
That athleticism in a body his size has NFL written all over it. Ra'Shede hadn't dared think it possible earlier. He hadn't wanted to "overdream." Getting to college had been unlikely enough; staying there a major challenge. But now, deep into his final year at Minnesota, he risks having a dream. Weekend nights he stays away from the bars, sometimes walks by himself along the Mississippi River, which winds through the campus, his Beats by Dre pumping, and thinks. About where he's come from, where he's going, what's left to get there. He's come so far, gotten so close; he wants that next step.
Once the Gophers' season ends — he hopes with a bowl game of substance — he plans to go off to train. "I'm so hungry to go away and just starting training 100 percent for the Combine," he says. Someplace without any classes, without any study halls. Someplace where it's just him and his anger, channeled the right way, pushing his body to its limits. "That's like the ultimate vacation for me, to be by myself and train."
So much of what has defined him to this point are things he didn't have any control over. He had no choice about his birthparents, being taken from his mother, staying in foster homes, being placed in a white family. He had no say over his size or even what sport he pursued. That's why training for the Combine, the gateway to the NFL and final stop of his dream — he has no Plan B — holds such appeal. For that short time between the end of his college football career and his audition, he will be completely and wholly responsible for shaping his future, finally given the chance to direct his destiny.
* * *
Fourth quarter, the clock ticking down. The big screen scoreboard shows Minnesota leading improbably, 34-23. Nebraska has the ball. Ra'Shede had come out moments earlier when he got the wind knocked out of him. But now he's back in the game. Pressuring the quarterback — who puts up a pass that Minnesota picks off with only 16 seconds remaining.
In just seconds, the game will end, and the players will rush to the big M at the center of the field to rejoice in the school's first victory over Nebraska in 53 years. The student fans will spill over the walls and crowd around the players in a spontaneous celebration. But now, with 16 seconds remaining and victory certain, Ra'Shede skips off the field like a carefree kid.
And it looks like he's smiling.