Sept. 30, 2013
Sometimes, Ra'Shede Hageman likes to get away from the hustle and bustle of the University of Minnesota campus. He puts on his headphones, finds just the right music and goes for a walk. It might be in the St. Anthony area along the Mississippi River, or it might be elsewhere. Hageman doesn't need a destination. He just needs to walk.
"That kind of takes me away from campus, football, the pressure," Hageman said.
There certainly has been a lot of pressure on Hageman lately. The Golden Gophers senior defensive lineman has captured the attention of not only his conference rivals, but the national college football community. An exceptionally athletic player for his 6-foot-6, 311-pound frame, Hageman was behind only South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney on CBS Sports' "Freaks List: The 20 craziest athletes in college football."
A Preseason All-Big Ten selection, Hageman was named to watch lists for the Chuck Bednarik Award, Outland Trophy, Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award. He has the potential to be a high NFL Draft pick next spring.
"He loves football," Minnesota defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said. "It shows in his preparation, not only for practice and lifting and so forth, but that carries over to the games. Everything that's coming his way is well deserved. But he'll tell you, he knows that he's got more work that can be done."
"The fact that I'm under a microscope makes it that much harder," Hageman said. "But I just stay motivated on the goal at hand, and that's enhancing and bettering my craft. I'm constantly motivated to better myself and get a chance to show my skills on Saturday. I feel like me being on the Freaks List and all that was from working hard and being who I am."
Hageman started every game of his junior season and made 35 tackles, including six sacks. Through five games in 2013, he has 20 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, two pass breakups, one sack, one blocked extra point and one blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown.
Because of his ability, Hageman often finds himself double-teamed. But he is used to adversity. He has traveled a long journey from his childhood to now, and he uses the difficulties he has overcome as building blocks for the future.
Hageman and his biological mother were separated at a young age, and then he went through multiple foster homes. He said it reminded him of the protagonist in "Annie" spending time in an orphanage before being invited to a home and eventually adopted. Some of Hageman's foster homes were better than others.
"Foster care was crazy," he said. "You had to keep your head on a swivel because there were other kids there."
Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle adopted Hageman and his younger half-brother, Xavier, when Ra'Shede was 7 years old. They finally had a permanent home. But Hageman still did not feel at ease. He was a black child in a white family, living in an affluent neighborhood, and this made him feel different. It took him until the middle of his time at Washburn High School to feel comfortable and more thankful for the support his adoptive family gave him.
Their support for his athletics - both football and basketball - and attention to his academics helped Hageman draw multiple offers to play Division I football. He chose to stay in Minnesota and play for the Gophers, arriving on campus in 2009. He moved from tight end to defensive line.
Hageman was a highly regarded recruit, but in his early college years some of his off-the-field decision-making got in the way of football. He struggled with his studies so much in 2010 that interim coach Jeff Horton asked him to focus on school instead of playing the Gophers' November games that season.
After Hageman's redshirt freshman year, Jerry Kill was hired as head coach. Hageman had many different guardians as a young child, and now even his football family was changing.
"I felt like there were a lot of trust issues, just because of my background," he said. "You can't always trust somebody. But Coach Kill definitely understood that, and he understood my situation and my background. He sat me down and talked to me and got to know me as a person."
Kill gave Hageman a second chance at school and football. Hageman accepted the chance and the challenge to do better.
"I've done a whole 360 since I first got here as a freshman - understanding how things work and being more mature in football and school," he said. "Representing Coach Kill and his staff and the Gophers has made me a better person."
For Hageman, putting on the Maroon and Gold means more than representing his team and his school. He feels that by playing at Minnesota he also represents his friends and family, who can follow his career closely in their own home city.
Hageman wants to give back to his community off the field, too. He has opened up about his past. He shares his story with school-aged kids, hoping to inspire them and offer them real life proof that "you don't have to come from a perfect family to be successful."
"Being mentally tough and thinking about my past helps me stay hungry and stay motivated, and it helps me stay humble as well," Hageman said.
That drive has made Hageman the football player that he is now as a senior. He said that better strength and conditioning has accounted for 80 percent of his improvement. Getting in top shape takes a lot of work, and Hageman said that the military visit to the team helped.
"They gave me a different perspective about being mentally tough, and that's something you need to have when you go out on the field or when you are conditioning to better yourself," he said. "Anyone can be physically tough, but the people that stand out are the ones that are mentally tough."
Hageman will need that toughness heading into the Big Ten portion of his final season. On his shoulders, he must carry his coaches' expectations, the media's hype and his own discipline and drive to succeed. It's easy to see how a leisurely stroll off campus would give Hageman a welcome respite from the commotion.
The rest of the time, he is literally a big man on campus, standing out among the crowd as he walks to practice or class. Like Hageman himself, the university campus has changed a lot since his arrival. New apartment buildings, new school buildings, major renovations and even light rail tracks have appeared. Now in his fifth year at the U, Hageman has seen a lot of people come and go.
"There are so many people, but you're still isolated," he said.
There are thousands of Division I college football players, but Hageman is still isolated as one of the top athletes in the country. He loves to compete on the gridiron, but savors quiet moments walking away from it all.
Hageman is isolated, different and unique in many ways. His past challenges and his differences have given him the motivation, knowledge and ability he needed to become the football player and the man he is today. Not everyone could overcome the obstacles he has seen, and certainly not everyone could do what he does on the football field. Hageman will never be exactly like anyone else, and that suits him just fine.
Story by athletic communications assistant Justine Buerkle
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