Stretched underneath a black cutoff tank top, across Gophers defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman’s hulking chest, are four words that act like an anthem: “Only the strong survive.” The ink is part of a patchwork of tattoos and tells a complicated story, one he’s assessed over and over in his mind.
Sticking out as starkly as he always has, Hageman strides through the gated fence to Washburn High School’s brightly turfed football field. “Welcome to my ’hood,” he says, raising his arms at his sides, claiming his kingdom.
That domain now stretches to just about everything Hageman touches. Heading into his fifth year with the Gophers, Hageman, 23, has become a respected team leader, a role model to schoolchildren in his community and the unlikely face of Gophers football. The hope is that he’ll reach new heights in 2013, carrying his team to a breakout year in coach Jerry Kill’s third season and launching himself forward as a high-round pick in the NFL draft.
But for years, Hageman wanted to fit in seamlessly with a crowd. He was self-conscious about his size and about the skin color of his adoptive family. He harbored anger over the traumatic years in the past. At a young age, he concocted lies when strangers were faced with the truth.
Remembering, Hageman throws back his head and sighs. “I was kind of blind,” he says.
When he began to see what was there all along, it felt like redemption: Standing out is exactly what’s gotten him here.
• • •
When the 6-6, 311-pound Hageman crouches down on the defensive line, staring into the eyes of an opponent, he knows it’s his cue to release. The things that weigh him down — that have always weighed him down — come rushing like a flood through a narrow channel.
What hover between that moment and a sack or a tackle for loss are the things that make him different.
Presence. Power. Intensity. Motivation. He’s No. 99 — the biggest number on the field.
The snap sets the moments he lives for in motion.
“It’s just like an ultimate high,” he said. “Your adrenaline is running — it’s so hard to explain — when you’re on the field and you’re ready to just smash people’s heads.
“… You run full speed and you hear that cracking sound. It’s like, as soon as you hit them, you wait to hear the impact of the ground. So you hit them, and it’s usually like a two-second pause while they’re falling to the ground.
“I usually close my eyes.”
• • •
In 1997, the first time Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle saw their oldest son, they were immediately struck. Ra’Shede Knox was a head taller than the other kids at a Hennepin County Christmas party for “older” foster children, and athletically, far more advanced. The 7-year-old could launch a ball high into the air; could run with impressive speed; could execute back flips.
The strapping frame — one that can now bench 465 pounds and leap 36 inches into the air — didn’t come without competitive desire. Hageman and Coyle watched a video of Ra’Shede being interviewed about what he wanted in an adoptive family. One of his answers: “I want a family that will let me play football.”
It was the beginning of a long journey. After converting from tight end in high school to defensive end under former coach Tim Brewster to defensive tackle with Kill, Hageman has become a tenacious pass-rusher, racking up six sacks and 35 tackles last season as the Gophers doubled their win total and qualified for a bowl game for the first time since 2009.
He is expected to be one of the Big Ten’s leaders this year. The early honors have poured in. Hageman has been named first-team preseason all-Big Ten and picked for several awards’ watch lists, including the Rotary Lombardi Award.
“I think he’s in as good of shape and as focused as he’s been since I’ve been here,” Kill said.
As his success has blossomed, he’s become a figure in his community, speaking at elementary schools and football camps about his experiences and what it’s like to play football at this level.
With a 2-year-old son of his own — Zion — Hageman is also charged with helping to provide the early parental presence he never had.
• • •
Hageman doesn’t remember how old he was when Michigan child services took him away from Mae Knox, his biological mother who had struggled with debilitating cocaine and alcohol addictions since before Hageman and his younger half-brother, Xavier, were born.
Those early crises and the 12 subsequent foster homes, however, formed a lasting base of anger and distrust of just about everyone, he said. With Eric and Jill, a pair of Minneapolis lawyers, he and Xavier found a “warm welcome,” Hageman said. (Ra’Shede and Xavier also have an older half-brother, Lazal Thompson, who was not part of the adoption.)
“I think we were kind of naive going into it,” Coyle said. “We were in our mid-20s at the time, full of save-the-world kind of spirit.”
Hageman was confused initially. When a kid at his elementary school asked Hageman’s mother why she was white if her child was black, Coyle explained that Ra’Shede was adopted. Ra’Shede was upset, unable to understand why his mother had to tell the child he wasn’t born to her.
A private middle school attended largely by white students left him feeling as if no one understood him. At Washburn, Hageman found a crowd that seemed to fit. But when his parents would show up for school functions, the attitude with his peers, eager to ridicule something that was different, changed.
Hageman got in fights he didn’t quite understand, and then would sleep over at friends’ houses, go grocery shopping with their mothers, imagining what it would be like to have a “normal” family.
“He was always different,” Washburn football coach Giovan Jenkins said. “Most of the kids that were at our school at that time, they didn’t have $5 or $10 in their pocket for anything, and he was a young man that always had more than $20.”
It wasn’t until late in high school that Hageman started to understand how much being different helped him. His strength and natural athletic ability gave him something to focus on, while his size caused coaches to warn him to stay out of any tussles, lest he be the first recognized each time. His family supported all of his football needs, while giving him a stable impetus to keep up his schoolwork, which he admitted was “definitely not cool” in his circle.
Hageman was offered scholarships by 12 schools, including Ohio State and Florida. But growing to appreciate the support system that had steadily gathered around him despite his struggles, he chose Minnesota.
“If I put on a jersey,” Hageman said, “I want to represent where I’m from.”
• • •
His hands formed into fists, his head engulfed in his helmet, thrown back in celebration, Ra’Shede Hageman is quite literally the face of Gophers football on this year’s media guide cover. Surrounded by four teammates, Hageman stands in the forefront — clearly the image of a leader.
But college, too, has included rough patches. By the start of Hageman’s redshirt freshman season, the defensive linemen had moved into a house together — where things quickly spiraled out of control.
“We called it the ‘Zoo,’ ” Hageman said. “It was the house to party. Every weekend, something would happen, you understand? It would get so packed that the cops would come.”
One night when the police came to issue a complaint, everyone ran except Hageman. The complaint ended up with his name on it, an incident that was reported at the time. Hageman’s grades started to slip — so much so that he sat out three games that year (originally it was reported that he was suspended; Hageman insists it was a strong suggestion from Jeff Horton, the interim coach after Brewster was fired).
By the time Kill showed up, Hageman was getting a reputation. Kill, however, saw something in Hageman that made him want to give Hageman a second chance — a decision that has been vindicated.
“When I took the job here, it was questionable whether he was going to be in school and how it was all going to work,” Kill said. “What he’s done from when I was fortunate enough to get to know him to where he is now is just a tremendous story.”
Still, in 2012 Hageman was arrested at Sally’s Saloon for mouthing off to police officers after he had helped to break up a fight among different groups he knew. The charges were dropped, but the jail photo that comes up through a quick Google search haunted him.
“I’m in jail, I’m kind of going through an experience because this is what a lot of my homeboys have been through,” Hageman said. “I was like, ‘This is not what I want to do with my life. I’m messing up.’ ”
Sometimes those moments can shed as much light on a person as anything. Said Gophers defensive line coach Jeff Phelps: “Even when he had hiccups along the way — because everybody does — you could tell that it affected him. He wanted to do well … and you could tell it affected him quite a bit.”
• • •
Relaxed and vulnerable, Hageman is unprepared for the attack. Three pairs of tiny hands fly at him, swatting at his face, climbing up his shoulders. Hageman calmly fields the blitz, squinting as he reaches for another slice of pizza, folding it in half before he leans his head over the box to take a bite.
“Yeah, this rarely happens,” the jungle gym says.
Stretched out on the deck of his family’s ample Minneapolis home, Hageman is comfortable, surrounded by three tiny blond siblings who couldn’t look more different from him. He, Jill and Eric — whom he now calls “probably the coolest people I have ever known” — along with Joe, 11, Lizzie, 7, and Hank, 5 (Xavier now lives in New York) eat together on pizza-shaped plates Jill keeps just for these situations, a fact everyone else teases her about.
It’s Ra’Shede’s 23rd birthday celebration, and the toned-down gala features one present — wireless Beats By Dre headphones — along with no shortage of jokes and occasional eye rolls. Conversation touches on the football schedule and the TV show “Breaking Bad,” while Eric and Jill try to pry girlfriend information from their son. When it’s time for dessert, no one can remember who likes vanilla cake and who likes chocolate.
In short, they are a normal family.
Hageman still gets attention, and lots of it — but now he embraces it. While not yet completely comfortable with the barrage of media, he took an interviewing course in preparation for this year’s Big Ten media day in Chicago.
On the field, he represents a bull’s-eye for other teams and should get double-teamed even more this season, with the loss of fellow lineman D.L. Wilhite — a challenge he almost likes. Driving through campus, he feasts on the stares, turning up the volume in his black Jeep Grand Cherokee to make himself stand out even more.
“I’m a big black man with tattoos,” he said. “And I embrace that. … I think being different kind of helped me identify myself.”
At some point, Hageman’s desperate inner plea to assimilate changed course and he became aligned with Kill’s constant petition for his players to “be uncommon.”
Continuing to move forward is a work in progress. Hageman still holds onto threads of his past resentments. His biological mother, now in his life, brings both a sense of origin and a painful reminder. At times, he only wants to hear her voice; other times he gets so angry he can’t bear to pick up her calls.
His final season of Gophers football holds the answer to whether Hageman can take the next step to elevate himself and his team or whether instead he instigates a new struggle.
“If this was easy, everybody could do it,” Hageman said.
As it is, he feels uniquely qualified to clear his own path.