Haden coping with tragedy
When he is on the practice field, surrounded by his teammates, his coaches, his Florida football family, Joe Haden's grief stays locked outside the gate.
"Being around people who love me, that helps a lot," said the true freshman cornerback. "If my team wasn't here for me, and my coaches, it would be a lot harder. There are so many people here for me that it makes it a little easier to get by."
For a few hours on the practice field every day, there is no pain, no tragedy to cope with. But when he leaves this little sanctuary, the grief is out there waiting for him.
Out there is where all the memories are. In his house. On campus. At the mall. Around town. These are the places where Haden and fellow UF student Ashley Slonina shared so much together. These are the places where the grief now strikes hardest.
"In my whole life, I've never been around someone like her," Haden said. "Whenever I wasn't at practice, I was with her. It was 24/7, all the time. Wherever I went, she was with me."
Now, Haden is spending most of his time with his teammates, who are trying to help him recover from the death of his girlfriend.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 12, Slonina, 20, and UF scout team quarterback Michael Guilford, 19, were killed in a motorcycle accident at Old Archer Road and SW 23rd Terrace. The two were friends and Guilford was giving Slonina a ride home from a party when Guilford's motorcycle struck a median at a high rate of speed.
Haden received the phone call no one wants to get a few hours after the accident.
"Coach (Urban) Meyer called me at about three in the morning and told me what had happened," he said. "I just started crying. I couldn't believe it. I was in shock.
"Some friends came over, but I couldn't leave the house. I just couldn't."
Haden and Slonina met at a pool party this past summer and had an instant connection, Haden said. The two started dating and quickly became inseparable. Haden said he and Slonina "basically" lived together for the two months before the accident.
The accident occurred the Friday morning of the Gators' bye week. Unable to cope, Haden went back home to Fort Washington, Md., to be with his family. His mother Zakiya returned to Gainesville with him a few days later and spent the week of the Kentucky game with her heartbroken son.
Haden returned to practice the Monday after the accident and started the Kentucky game.
"We gave him a little room to do what he needed to do, and we were trying to be sensitive to the situation," cornerbacks coach Chuck Heater said. "He was out there and it gave him a chance to get focused on something else at the time, which was good. In his quiet moments, I'm sure it was difficult for him.
"She was a real positive influence for him. It was a major deal. We were all impacted by all of it. Young people are resilient. He's a great young guy and seems to be moving forward."
His teammates are playing a role.
"He'll be fine," senior fullback Eric Rutledge said. "Joe is a tough kid. Anything like that is tough to deal with. He's dealing with it the way I would, by getting around your family and your teammates and allowing them to help you deal with the situation. I think he's doing a good job with that.
"He's playing great. You won't notice much of a difference in him walking around the hall. He's still the same Joe to everybody. I think he's doing well."
It's been almost a month since the accident and Haden said he's learning to cope, learning to get by. He said he's focusing on football — and thinking about Slonina. He said the two are tied together.
"I think about what she would want me to do," Haden said. "As soon as I got back to the house every night, she would say, 'How did practice go? What happened in practice?' It pushes me to keep going and play even harder. I'm just excited about football. She wanted me to do good. I'm trying to do good for her.
"I do miss her a whole lot. I think about her because she was perfect. I loved her and my family loved her."
Haden said it's been tough, but he's learning to move on and let the good memories help him overcome his grief.
"Football is good for me," he said. "But I can't not think about her. When I think about her now, I smile."