Hayden happy to be home

Veteran cornerback grew up a Bears fan and wants to contribute to enhancing team tradition

In an offseason full of babble, hardly a word has been spoken about a player who has a decent chance of starting at cornerback for the Bears.

What's more, the player grew up about 20 minutes from Soldier Field. He starred at Hubbard High School, Joliet Junior College and the University of Illinois.

He is 6 feet tall. He has made big plays on football's biggest stage.

Three years ago, he signed a contract that made him the eighth-highest-paid cornerback in the NFL, with more than $22 million in guarantees and an average per year of $8.6 million.

Oh, and he has played ahead of incumbent Tim Jennings in an almost identical defensive system.

Maybe we should stand up and take notice of Kelvin Hayden now.

He practiced for the first time as a Bear on Tuesday but was going every other day in organized team activities this week as he is recovering from plantar fasciitis that forced him to go on injured reserve last season. He hopes to be able to practice every day starting next week.

That will be important for Hayden, because availability likely is the only thing that could hold him back. He missed half of last season with the foot injury. The year before, he missed five games with a neck injury. And the year before that he missed seven games with a knee problem.

Hayden has played in 16 games only twice in seven NFL seasons, and he has started 16 games only once, in 2007.

The durability factor is why the Bears could sign him to a one-year deal for $825,000, the NFL minimum for a player with his experience.

"You know (injuries come) with the territory and you try to battle through those things. Of course you want to be a starter. I just want to be a productive player. Make plays, have fun."

The Bears have had their eyes on Hayden for a while, certainly since he intercepted a Rex Grossman pass and took it back 56 yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLI. Hayden has heard about that play a time or two since setting foot in the Bears' locker room.

"They all gave it to me," Hayden said of his new teammates. "They tell me everyone around here would have a ring if it wasn't for me. I think it's time for these guys to get one."

Hayden hopes he can help them accomplish that. The 28-year-old wanted to sign with the Bears last summer. He visited the team in camp and took a physical, but the Bears were not comfortable with his medical status.

Hayden was coming off anterior cervical discectomy and fusion. It was the same surgery former Colts teammate Peyton Manning had, and they shared the same surgeon.

Like Manning, Hayden drew interest from a number of teams post-op, including the Bears, Redskins, Vikings, Broncos, Panthers, Eagles, Seahawks and Chiefs — the same Chiefs for whom new Bears general manager Phil Emery was college scouting director.

Most of those teams ended up shying away from Hayden because of his neck issue. The Falcons took a chance on him and were glad they did.

"He's solid," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "He still can play and start."

Of most importance, Hayden showed his neck was no longer a reason not to sign him. Hayden says he can't even tell he had surgery. The Falcons wanted him back this year, and the Bears were quick to let him know of their interest.

But in March, Hayden could not pass a physical because he still was rehabbing his foot. The initial plan was to see how the rehab went.

Then the Saints got involved, bringing him in for a visit. The Bears decided not to take a chance. They got Hayden's name on a contract that included a medical waiver.

It did not take much convincing for Hayden to sign. He has had a house in the southwest suburbs for a number of years. His fiancee lives here and is from the suburbs. His children, mother, sister, grandmother, nieces, nephews and cousins all live in the area.

"It feels really good coming home," he said. "I was a Bears fan growing up, knowing the meaning and tradition behind Bears football, it means a lot."

If Hayden can play like he used to, he could enhance that tradition.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei
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