Culture / Sporting Life

Just Heartbreaking — Horrific Car Crash That Kills Former Houston Football Players D.J. Hayden, Zach McMillian & Ralph Oragwu Creates a Campus Scene of Shock and Sadness

What Was Once Touted a Super Sports Saturday Shifts Into Dealing With Real-Life Tragedy

BY // 11.12.23

The strain is evident on Renu Khator’s face. It is halftime of what will turn into a 32-point win for Kelvin Sampson’s powerhouse basketball program on what once beckoned with the promise of being a potential super Saturday for Khator’s beloved University of Houston. Instead, even before the first game tip offs in this basketball-football doubleheader, it becomes a day of shock and sadness. Three former University of Houston football players are among the six people killed in a horrific car crash triggered by the driver in the other car running a red light (according to the Houston Police Department) while speeding through Houston’s downtown streets at 2 am in the morning.

“Heartbreaking,” Khator tells PaperCity softly when I ask her about the crash. “Just heartbreaking.”

UH’s president and chancellor is just like everyone else in this moment, trying to understand a seemingly senseless crash that takes the life of former Cougar football players D.J. Hayden, Zach McMillian and Ralph Oragwu, their friend Lauren Robinson-Holliday, a homeless man innocently lying on the sidewalk and the yet-to-be-identified red-light-running driver in the other car. Another UH football player, Jeffery Lewis, is in the hospital, fighting to recover.

The scenes from the crash are horrific, mangled metal and pieces of the two cars strewn across the intersection of Pierce and Fannin. Three people in the Acura SUV the former football players traveled in were ejected from the vehicle in the force of the collision. The red-light-running driver in a black Chrysler 300 also got ejected.

How does anyone make sense of such horror? Six lives gone in a senseless instant, five of them just living their lives. All of the former Houston football players and Lauren Robinson-Holliday were in their early thirties.

“Sad day to be a Coog,” UH football coach Dana Holgorsen says. “The unfortunate accident last night or early this morning. . . you know D.J. Hayden and Zach McMillian and Ralph Oragwu. . . I recruited (Oragwu) a long time ago. Very close with the other two. You know, they’re our brothers.

“I look at them, look at former players, it’s no different than looking at our current players. That’s sad. . .”

Holgorsen’s pain is evident on his face and no matter what anyone thinks of Holgorsen as a coach, you have to feel for him in this moment if you have any kind of heart. Holgorsen’s football team will fall to Cincinnati 24-14 in the second round of this basketball-football double dip and drop to 4-6 on the season. But on a day like this at the University of Houston, the final scores seem so insignificant.

There seems to have been so much real-life loss around the University of Houston’s athletic programs lately. Hayden, McMillian and Oragwu follow the sudden unexpected death of UH basketball program rock Reggie Chaney in August, who just graduated months before. Just two years earlier, former UH track athlete Cameron Burrell — the son of track coach Leroy Burrell — died by suicide.

That’s a lot of loss, so many young lives gone way too soon. There is no replacing those voids for the ones who loved them. There is no way to make that kind of loss right. Sometimes the world’s just cruel and you’re just left struggling to understand.

Just heartbreaking. Khator is right. There is no other word for it. UH’s president asks me to wait until the university releases its official statement first before I use what she says (which I do, no one needs to rush on a story like this). Khator does not want to go ahead of the university remarks. But in truth, her heartfelt reaction at halftime of a basketball game is way more powerful. Just like Holgorsen taking the mic and speaking from the heart, from his own sense of loss, is.

All the carefully-worded and crafted statements that end up being tweeted out never can match that. In some ways, they just become part of another scroll.

University of Houston edge rusher Nelson Ceaser speaks from the heart too, expresses compassion for everyone involved in the two car crash at that intersection, even the driver in the other car who apparently ran the red light. Ceaser is a rare young man who understands that compassion shouldn’t be limited to those that are easy to give it to. That you can feel for someone who displays horrific judgement too, without endorsing or understanding what they did,

“We addressed it in our team meeting this afternoon,” Holgorsen says of his current players. “And whether they knew them or not, they are Cougars and they are family.”

Holgorsen does not try to make this day all about football. He does not try to hide why he and some of the other coaches are hurting from his impressionable players. He addresses the real-life losses that make this once Super Saturday seem so small by comparison.

D.J. Hayden Raiders Houston
Coog D.J. Hayden played eight-plus seasons in the NFL.

UH’s football coach leaves the field after his postgame radio interview to a fan screaming down from the stands, “Nice job, Dana. Way to ruin a program!” Holgorsen points up at the guy, more acknowledging he heard it than anything. Wide receiver Stephon Johnson calls up to the stands moments later, wondering why some people buy tickets if they’re going to act that way. Does it politely.

It’s hard to really destroy that fan. He looks young enough to not be that far removed from college himself and maybe he does not even know about the accident or Holgorsen’s ties to the three dead former players when he shouts down. Not everyone lives on Twitter.

Sports are supposed to be an escape from real life in many ways. On a day like this, that’s hard to imagine.

“Sad day to be a Coog.” — UH football coach Dana Holgorsen

Remembering D.J. Hayden, Zach McMillian & Ralph Oragwu

D.J. Hayden is the most well-known of the former players taken too soon. He overcame an injury that almost killed him at UH and played eight-plus seasons in the NFL, four for the Raiders. Hayden’s name has dominated much of the news coverage, both national and local. But that does not mean he’s more important than the other lives lost.

Zach McMillian came to UH as a three-star recruit who struggled to put more weight on his naturally thin frame. But no one could measure McMillian’s heart and he turned himself into an all conference player who started 37 games at cornerback, arguably the most difficult position in football, in his last three season. You couldn’t keep The Thin Man off the field.

Ralph Oragwu was born in Lagos, Nigeria and he’d become an offensive lineman in the most American of games who made the most of his time in college, making the Commissioner’s Honor Roll and graduating with a degree in sociology on time. Oragwu was a man who handled his responsibilities.

Ralph Oragwu Houston football
Ralph Oragwu was a stalwart on the University of Houston’s offensive line.

All the victims need to be recognized as real people who have special people grieving for them, people who are wondering how they’ll ever move on with their own lives now. They’re not just former football players and friends. They’re sons, brothers, dads, uncles, mentors, aunts, daughters,  sisters. . .

The crash certainly could be felt in the Third Ward on this Saturday of shock and sadness. Most of the current UH football players don’t know Hayden, McMillian and Oragwu, who all last played for Houston nearly a decade ago, personally. And there are moments of sports joy. Joseph Manjack IV scores two touchdowns on well-run end zone routes and gets a Donovan Smith interception back by never giving up on the play and forcing a turnover right back. Ceaser adds another sack to up his season total to nine and a 1/2, among the best in the nation despite UH’s overall struggles.

All the victims need to be recognized as real people who have special people grieving for them, people who are wondering how they’ll ever move on with their own lives now. They’re not just former football players and friends. They’re sons, brothers, dads, uncles, mentors, aunts, daughters,  sisters. . .

But the overall vibe is one of loss. With the gray skies and cooler temperatures almost corresponding to the pall cast by that almost unfathomable crash from the night/morning before. Six people gone in one collision.

Four former Houston football players hanging out together a decade after their college days on a Friday night speaks to the lifetime bonds this sport can build.

That also screams through Case Keenum’s grief. Keenum’s last season at UH coincided with D.J. Hayden’s first and the young defensive back recorded a sack and a forced fumble in that memorable Ticket City Bowl blow out of Penn State.

The memories will live on. But these real-life losses will never go away. There is no explaining this, no way to make it better or bring everyone back to when a Super Saturday seemed like it could be just a fun sports day. Just heartbreaking.

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