It may not completely explain it, but the reasons for Cal cornerback Darian Hagan's disappointing 2009 season are a lot more clear.
Hagan disclosed recently that his then 1-year-old daughter, Kaiyana, battled cancer all through last season. She was diagnosed in May 2009 with Wilms' tumor, a rare form of kidney cancer that primarily affects toddlers. She had chemotherapy treatments during the season.
Kaiyana lives with her mother, Kimiye Hampton, in Los Angeles, so Hagan rarely saw his daughter as she fought the illness. Combined with the fact he was struggling to stay academically eligible and also lost his starting job, Hagan felt overwhelmed at times during 2009.
"Me being up here, I couldn't be by her side," Hagan said. "It took a toll on me. I got behind in a lot of stuff as far as school and football."
Hagan thought of quitting school and returning to Los Angeles to be by Kaiyana's side, but his mother, Pier Bruce, talked him out of it. Hagan had worked hard to remain academically eligible at Cal and was too close to getting a degree in social welfare to walk away from it.
Bruce said they took Kaiyana to the doctor after they noticed her stomach was swelling. When she was diagnosed with Wilms' tumor, it was Bruce who called Hagan to deliver the news.
"Darian was ready to give up," Bruce said. "He was yelling and screaming. He wanted to come home to be his daughter's father. I told him he didn't struggle and come this
It appeared Hagan and Syd'Quan Thompson would form one of the best cornerback duos in the country last season after Hagan burst onto the scene as a sophomore in 2008. But Hagan's mind wasn't right when the season started. He was in danger of academic ineligibility even before finding out about his daughter's illness. He also suffered a knee injury early in training camp.
Hagan started the first three games last season but was benched after getting torched for three touchdowns by Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker. He regained his starting role later and played well in a win over UCLA, only to get suspended two weeks later for not fulfilling academic requirements. He ended up being buried on the depth chart for the rest of the season.
Losing his place on the depth chart was the least of Hagan's worries. Almost all of his thoughts were on his daughter. He spent most of his free time thinking about her and calling his mother for updates. As a result, he fell way behind in his studies.
Hagan also carried thoughts of Kaiyana with him to the practice field, even on days he was determined to have a clear head.
"Sometimes I would come out here and just have a lot of stuff in my head," Hagan said. "I couldn't really focus on everything that was going on out here. Some days, I would try to come out worry-free, but eventually it would come into my head."
Hagan flew to Los Angeles for the surgery to have Kaiyana's kidney removed. Then came the wait for the chemotherapy treatments to take effect. In December, as the season was winding down and Hagan was going through finals, Bruce called to tell him Kaiyana was cancer-free.
"I just remember smiling and just being so proud of her," Hagan said. "Her being so young and going through what she went through, she still has all her character and is still lively. Even through the chemo, she kept her liveliness, and that was motivating for me."
All the while, Hagan kept Kaiyana's illness a secret. He didn't want to be perceived as an excuse-maker. Virtually nobody within the Cal program knew about it. Even coach Jeff Tedford, when asked to comment for this story, wasn't aware of her sickness.
"The reason I didn't want to talk about it is because for some people, it sounds like an excuse," Hagan said. "That situation normally should make a person work harder or try harder. But I guess I just wasn't quite ready for that -- for her to be going through that. Now that it's over with and she's back 100 percent healthy again, that's the real motivating thing for me right now, to get back and make something happen."
According to Bruce, the prognosis for Kaiyana is very positive. She will go to monthly appointments for the next five years but has a strong chance to remain cancer-free.
Hagan felt comfortable talking about Kaiyana's illness only because the worst is behind her. Now, he says her plight serves as inspiration. After last season, Hagan went back home for winter break. One day he started doing push-ups on the living room floor. Kaiyana joined him.
"I would do a set, and she would stop when I stopped and listen to music with me," Hagan said. "I'd start another set and she'd get back down and do it, too. If she can do push-ups, I have to do more. That was a beautiful thing, just to have my baby girl doing push-ups with me."
Kaiyana's illness was part of what has been a rocky career for Hagan. Twice, he has come close to flunking out of school. During each of the past two spring practices, Tedford has held Hagan out and had him focus on academics.
Two years ago, Hagan also had to deal with the death of his grandfather, with whom he was very close. And there have been the on-field struggles.
"He thought he couldn't win for losing," Bruce said. "He just couldn't get ahead of that. But I told him he's gone too far to give up."
Hagan appears to have turned a corner in the classroom and in his personal life. He had one of his best report cards at Cal this summer -- including the first A of his college career -- and secondary coach Al Simmons says he has spent more time in his office than any other defensive back during training camp. Hagan appears to be in good position to earn back his starting spot for this season, and he expects to graduate after the fall semester.
"He called me a couple weeks ago, and he was super-excited. He said he got his first A since he's been at Cal," Bruce said. "I just broke down crying. As hard as it's been, through all the ups and downs, he's close to graduating from Berkeley. It doesn't get any better than that."
Hagan says one of the main reasons for his improvement in the classroom is that he's finally past the stresses in his personal life. That has carried over to the practice field, where he now can concentrate on returning to his form of 2008. Simmons says Hagan is practicing better than he did in 2008.
"That's very gratifying as a coach when a guy continues to work at it, hangs in there, goes through some challenges and figures it out," Tedford said. "He's really turned the corner academically and as a person. He's accountable and responsible. It's been great. I'm happy for Darian. I hope he has a great year."