Joe Haden's life is all about speed.
From his lightning quick feet and flashy cars to his rapid adjustments and ever-changing roles on the football field, everything about Haden seems to be fast.
But months into his first season with the Gators, the freshman sensation learned just how fast tragedy can strike and just how quick one?s life can take a dramatic turn.
As the 18-year-old cornerback, whom UF teammates refer to as Brock star,C continues to live his life in the fast lane, he now has his own star to look up to.
And as her inspiration lingers, Haden attempts to put his grief behind him and move on - as quickly as ever.
To his father, also named Joe, he is a perfect son.
To Meyer, he?s a Bprimo.C
But to his teammates, Joe Haden is a rock star.
BHe?s a crazy little guy,C senior defensive tackle Clint McMillan said. BHe?s rocking the tight jeans and extra-medium shirts. So he?s always got some crazy stuff going on. He?s got a little chain on his wallet. I guess he?s a little rock star. I can see it.C
That?s the nickname and reputation Haden has developed with his teammates off the field.
To be a rock star, you have to party like one. Haden said he picked up the nickname because he enjoys the nightlife, but he was quick to say football and academics come first.
BSince the season started, I?ve calmed down,C Haden said. BWhen the offseason comes back, I?ll get to partying again.C
Apparently, Haden?s moves aren?t limited to football. He?s also a hit on the dance floor.
When you get props on your dance moves from two-stepping offensive lineman and self- proclaimed best dancer on the team Drew Miller, you know you?ve got skills.
BHe?s a pretty good dancer,C Miller said. BI?ve seen him at the club on the dance floor getting down … all the girls surrounding him.C
Haden?s reputation is no secret to his coaches, but he said the staff trusts him enough to know he?ll be responsible.
The same goes for his parents.
BJoe?s a dancer,C Haden?s father said. BHe goes out and enjoys life. He?s the first guy on the floor and the last guy off the floor.C
Like any true rock star, Haden has souped-up wheels.
Haden?s parents promised the freshman they would bring down his red 1995 Mercedes-Benz from Maryland after his first semester had concluded.
But being the man of style that he is, Haden had a better idea.
BWhen I came down here and I saw all the other cars, I was like, 'I don?t want to bring my Benz down here. I want to get another car,?C Haden said. BI want a Crown Vic.C
Haden?s father couldn?t believe his son would give up the Benz, but he helped Haden search for his dream car anyway.
Haden?s father has a special fondness for Mercedes because he collected the German-brand cars while growing up.
BTo me, it?s ridiculous,C Haden?s father said. BI look at it, and to me, it?s no comparison. I think it?s just kind of a fad thing.C
When Haden stumbled upon a 1997 Ford Crown Victoria that was already painted Gators orange, it was love at first sight.
Haden and his father pimped out the car with 22-inch chrome rims, 12-inch speakers and three television sets to keep his guests entertained.
Haden?s father said his son more than earned it by performing well in school as well as on the field.
BThe amount of money I put into that Crown Vic pales in comparison to the money I saved on his education,C Haden said.
Haden?s little brother Jordan now drives the Mercedes.
And if Haden?s new ride didn?t stand out enough already, his car also sports a plastic gator head and some Gators magnets.
BIt?s sick,C teammate John Curtis said. BHe?s got a different type of style.C
Perhaps it?s his different style that makes him adapt so well on the football field.
Haden set a Maryland public high school record with 7,371 career passing yards and tied a state record with 80 touchdown passes.
Not surprisingly, college teams across the country recruited the athletic standout from Fort Washington (Md.) Friendly High hoping to land a talented quarterback.
But Haden wasn?t just your typical quarterback.
Aside from taking snaps, he remembers playing at least seven other positions in high school: wide receiver, running back, safety, kickoff returner, punt returner, kicker and punter.
BIt was a lot of fun playing all the different positions and getting to learn all the different positions,C Haden said. BI think that?s what made me more even more recruitable - that I could play any position.C
The Gators took notice, and Haden committed to UF in July 2006.
When UF?s staff asked Haden?s high school coaches for game film of the standout as a receiver, the Friendly High coaching staff didn?t have any.
So they put Haden in at wideout for the first time in the first quarter against Central High.
He responded with five receptions for 143 yards and two touchdowns. He then moved back to quarterback for the remaining three quarters, passing for three scores and rushing for another.
BI thought for a second, when I came to Florida, I just thought that I wanted to play receiver,C Haden said. BWhen I first got here, they still had me doing a little bit of quarterback stuff, and when spring came, I had to play receiver.C
Meyer praised Haden as a receiver early in spring practice, but the Gators had more depth there than any other position on the field.
Finding people to guard the talented receiving corps in spring drills, however, presented a problem.
The Gators lost their top three corners from the previous season and entered the spring with Wondy Pierre-Louis and Markus Manson as No. 2 and No. 3 corners behind sophomore Markihe Anderson.
Pierre-Louis was exclusively a special teams player in 2006 and had never even heard of football until he moved to Naples from Haiti in 2002.
Meanwhile, Manson was in the process of converting to the position after being lost in the shuffle at tailback.
Desperate for help in the secondary, the coaching staff approached Haden and asked him to make the transition to one of the few places on the football field that he had never played.
Months later, he became the first true freshman in UF history to start at cornerback in the season opener.
BI felt good about it because I knew it was going to get me on the field faster,C Haden said. BAnd having the chance to start - they were talking about starting, and I was like, 'What??C
Haden said adjusting to the speed of the game has been the hardest part. Though he played some safety in high school, he wasn?t prepared at first to deal with the talented receivers on the college level.
BIn high school, if I guard somebody in practice, I was faster than them and stronger, so I could just bully them around,C Haden said. BBut here, everybody is the same speed. You have to do it with your technique.C
With Anderson hampered by injuries all season, Haden has not only become a starter - he is the Gators? top corner.
BJoe Haden has turned into a real football player for us,C Meyer said. BHe is going to be one of the better corners in the SEC as he grows up.C
And it?s not just his coach who is taking notice of Haden?s emergence.
When the Gators played Vanderbilt on Nov. 3, Haden was matched up against Earl Bennett, the all-time leading receiver in Southeastern Conference history.
BOur coaches always tell us we?re about to face a real dude, a real good wide receiver,C Haden said. BBut they didn?t tell me he was the all-time leading SEC receiver. I didn?t know all that until the day before the game when we went to the hotel. I looked in the newspaper, and it said, 'Joe Haden is going to have his hands full with all-time leading receiver Earl Bennett.? I was like,'Oh, shoot.?C
But when Haden held Bennett to just five receptions for 31 yards and no scores, the receiver wasn?t afraid to let Haden know just how well he was playing.
BAfter each play, he?d be like 'good job, good work,?C Haden said. BHe was real cool. He never talked trash the whole game.
BIt felt good. I just kept reassuring myself that I do have that ability, and if I play my best, I can basically guard anyone.C
Haden said he occasionally misses playing quarterback, but it didn?t take long for the freshman to realize he?s better off playing somewhere else.
BI saw (Tim) Tebow, and I was like, 'Yeah, I might be a little better receiver or corner,?C he said.
Physically speaking, few families are as blessed as the Hadens.
Haden?s father is a former football player, track star and professional body builder. He now works as a personal trainer and runs his own business, Body by Haden, where he works with elite athletes, including his own sons.
Haden is blossoming at UF, and his brother Josh, one of the most highly sought-after recruits in the country for the class of 2008, committed to play running back at Boston College.
But it doesn?t end there.
Haden?s father is confident that two more Haden children, Jonathan and Jordan, will also play Division I football in the years to come.
Jordan, a sophomore in high school, is 6 feet tall and 200 pounds and can run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, Haden?s father said.
And with three athletic sons to compare him to, Haden?s father said that 11-year-old Jonathan also has what it takes to be a star on the gridiron.
Then there?s 14-year-old Jacob, who has a developmental disorder. But though Jacob may not ever play ball like his brothers, Haden?s father said Jacob is their biggest supporter.
BJoe is the most versatile,C Haden?s father said. BHe could play every skill position. He could play it all. And not only play it all, but play it all well. Joe?s football IQ is off the meter.C
While his mental toughness is clearly an asset, it doesn?t hurt that Haden is a physical specimen.
On paper, Haden doesn?t look like anything special - he is listed at 5-foot-11, 181 pounds - but don?t let that fool you.
BHis body fat is so low and his metabolism is so fast, all he puts on is muscle,C Haden?s father said. BHe has about 2 percent body fat. He looks like a human anatomy chart.C
Haden?s father said Haden is probably one of the strongest pound-for-pound players on the team.
Haden can bench press 370 pounds, Haden?s father said. That?s twice his body weight.
BHe?s still a baby,C Haden?s father said. BI really think next year he?s going to be a forced to be reckoned with.C
But here?s the scary part. At Haden?s age, his father was about the same size and build as his speedy cornerback son before he transformed into a Speedo-wearing, oil-greased body builder a few years later.
BHe just all of a sudden got way bigger,C Haden said. BI think about it sometimes. If I got that big, I might have to move to strong safety or linebacker.
BI?d start hitting people like Major (Wright).C
Haden has grown accustomed to hitting people after his switch to defense this season, but nothing could prepare him for the blindsiding shot he took off the field nearly one month ago.
COPING WITH TRAGEDY
From the moment Haden met Ashley Slonina, the two were inseparable.
The two started dating, and wherever Haden went, Slonina followed.
BI was with her for like three months straight every single day,C Haden said. BNot a day went past where I wasn?t with her.C
But Oct. 11 would be their final day together.
In the early hours of Oct. 12, friend and scout team quarterback Michael Guilford decided to give Slonina a ride home from a party on his motorcycle.
Guilford?s motorcycle struck a median at a high speed on Old Archer Road and S.W. 23rd Terrace.
Guilford and Slonina died instantly.
Haden learned of the accident from a teammate, and he frantically searched to find out if Slonina was all right.
BI was like, 'Oh my God, what hospital is she at??C Haden said. BAnd he said he didn?t know. I was calling around, calling every hospital around here. And nobody knew. They were like, 'There?s no Ashleys at any of these hospitals.?C
At around 3 a.m., Meyer called Haden and broke the news.
Devastated, all Haden could do was weep. He decided to head back home to Maryland in an attempt to get his mind off of the tragedy.
BAs a young man, this was Joe?s first personal tragedy,C his father said. BThis was someone he had met, someone that he had built a bond with as young man. I just thank God it was a bye week and he was able to be around the family. Things like that - you don?t get over it. You learn to live with it.C
Haden?s family didn?t realize just how close he and Slonina were until he returned home. But with the support of his loved ones, Haden recovered.
Haden?s mother, Zakiya, returned to Gainesville with him and spent about a week by his side.
He had something else to help him keep his mind off of Slonina?s death: football.
Haden played the next week against Kentucky and was satisfied with his performance.
In fact, in the weeks since the accident, Haden has played some of his best games for the Gators.
BIt?s therapeutic for him,C Haden?s father said. BHe said the hard part was when he goes back to his dorm at night - the quiet moments.C
But since then, Haden said he is no longer haunted by that tragic night.
He said he knows Slonina is in a better place.
Though he constantly thinks about his fallen girlfriend, he now uses his fond and loving memories of her as inspiration.
BIf anything, it made me work harder,C Haden said. BWe never try to settle anymore. We just try to do our best at whatever we do. … Tell everyone you love that you love them. Don?t try to have any grudges. Just try to live life good, because that?s the way Ashley did it.C