Why We Love Football: Joe Haden
When I was 6 years old, I fell in love with the game.
I was a quarterback, because I always loved having the ball in my hand. On the first play, I went 99 yards for a touchdown. It was over from there.
Those positive experiences from a young age led me to go out for the football team [at Friendly High School in Maryland]. There were a handful of other kids doing the same, and we became close friends as the years went by, bonded by football.
That first year was rough. We got smashed repeatedly by team after team. My junior year, we made it to the playoffs, but we couldn't pull it off to make it all the way to the championship. In our senior year, our last chance to make a name for ourselves and our school, we glided through the playoffs and into the championship game at M&T Bank Stadium [home of the Baltimore Ravens].
What an accomplishment it was to play on a pro field, score four touchdowns and win the state championship game. The gratifying feeling I had — to work so hard with my teammates for the previous four years and see it all pay off in that one moment — only confirmed that playing football was where I was meant to be.
I became a Florida Gator on a team filled with all-stars like Percy Harvin, Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes, Cam Newton. We had so many talented players there. It just made you raise your game.
I came to Florida a quarterback, but I knew Tebow was the man there. I got moved to wide receiver, but Harvin was already the man at that spot. So cornerback became my position. I became the first true freshman in Florida history to start at cornerback in his first career game.
We won the [BCS] National Championship [in 2009] against Oklahoma and Sam Bradford, who everyone had tabbed as the next No. 1 pick in the NFL. I'm knocking down passes in a championship game against the best on this level; it hit me that no doubt I could do this in the big leagues.
My first professional interception came against the Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. I wanted to take it back [for a touchdown] so bad! I was trying to zigzag across the field, but after 62 yards I was brought down. It was one of the best feelings ever — knowing the deep-rooted rivalry between the Browns and Steelers made it a memory for the books.
I have four younger brothers, and the connection we have because of football just builds my love toward the game. I love that they can call me from college, and I can tell them what to expect. I love the game and the game loves me back, because it's taken care of me and taken care of my folks. — as told to Andre Knott
12:00 AM EST
August 24, 2013