Degree nearly in hand and turmoil behind him, senior defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman is poised to shine.
by Pat Borzi
Photograph by Eric Moore
| Ra’Shede Hageman at his home in Minneapolis. His parents, Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle, are at right. Photograph by Eric Moore
On the streets of Manhattan, where actors and celebrities blend in without fanfare, it takes something extraordinary for people to look twice. Eric Hageman (J.D. ’95) and Jill Coyle (B.A. ’92, J.D. ’95), the parents of Gophers senior defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, saw that for themselves last June.
Ra’Shede’s younger brother, Xavier, was graduating from the prestigious Alvin Ailey School of Dance, and the Hagemans had flown in from Minneapolis for the ceremony. Ra’Shede invited his girlfriend, Gophers basketball player Micaëlla Riche. Hageman and Riche made such a striking couple—he a strapping 6-foot-6 inches and 311 pounds, and she a willowy 6-foot-2 with a flowing mane of brown hair—that strangers didn’t just notice. They asked questions.
“They walked down the street and everybody was like, who are those two?” Coyle says.
Always big for his age, Hageman is used to being gawked at. But the attention that day differed from the quizzical looks he grew up with in south Minneapolis. As an African American adopted by a white couple and raised in an affluent white neighborhood, Ra’Shede felt stigmatized by peers. “Growing up, I got a lot of mixed questions about that,” he says. “Because I had white parents and I’m black, I felt like a lot of kids judged me off that. I’d get in trouble in middle school because I was trying to show how tough I was.”
Sports provided a respite, and Ra’Shede excelled in both basketball and football at Washburn High School in Minneapolis. He arrived at the U in 2009 as one of the jewels in then-coach Tim Brewster’s recruiting class.
Four years, two position changes, and one career-altering meeting later, Hageman enters his final season as a red-shirt senior slated to graduate in December with a B.A. from the College of Education and Human Development—a significant achievement given his early-career academic struggles—and an eye on the NFL. Last season Ra’Shede developed into a starter for the Gophers and made honorable mention all–Big Ten with 35 tackles and six sacks. And he’s received national attention: In July he was named to the watch list for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given annually to the nation’s best defensive player, and college football columnist Bruce Feldman of cbssports.com listed him as No. 2 on his annual Freaks List of 20 remarkably talented athletes, four places above Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas Tech.
|Hageman in action last year against Wisconsin.
Photograph by Eric Miller
“He’s got a tremendous future,” says Gophers head coach Jerry Kill. “He’s a guy a lot of people will want to get their hands on, as long as he stays on track and does what he’s asked to do here.”
Hageman barely remembers Lansing, Michigan, his birthplace, and never knew his father at all. His mother, battling drug and alcohol addiction, moved to the Twin Cities with him and Xavier when Ra’Shede was 2 years old. An older brother stayed behind.
In the Twin Cities, his mother continued to struggle. The Minnesota Department of Human Services took the two boys and placed them in foster care when Ra’Shede was 3 years old. The boys went back to their mother several times in the next few years and shuffled through multiple foster homes until Eric and Jill, newly married graduates of the University of Minnesota Law School, contacted the county seeking to adopt hard-to-place boys. Ra’Shede was 7 and Xavier 6 when they were adopted.
Xavier quickly adapted to his new life. So his parents were white—so what? Even when Eric and Jill had the first of their three biological children and the expanding family moved to a red brick house on tree-lined East Minnehaha Parkway—one of the nicest addresses in the city—Xavier rolled with it.
But having white parents and living in an affluent neighborhood troubled Ra’Shede, and would for years. When they entered a restaurant, Ra’Shede often hung back, establishing distance between himself and this white couple he did not want to be seen with.
“We always figured he would struggle with that more than Xavier, and that proved to be true,” Jill says. “I think especially in high school it was very difficult. Ra’Shede is kind of a traditionalist, and I think he wanted to be a normal kid.
“I remember a comment when we had just adopted him and I was picking him up from day care, and a little girl—she was probably 7 years old—asked, why is he a different color? And I explained, oh, he’s adopted, and Ra’Shede was mortified. He said, why did you say that? Why couldn’t you just say we were like everyone else? He couldn’t grasp that people were going to notice this, and it had to be confronted. And I think as he got older, he was embarrassed to have two white parents.”
Sometimes, people did more than stare. Eric remembers dropping Ra’Shede off at high school one day on his way to work, dressed in a suit and tie, and hearing a student say to his son, “Who’s that, your probation officer?”
Midway through high school, Ra’Shede began to feel more at ease about his family. “My junior and senior years, I was a lot more mature and a lot more thankful of actually being adopted, and seeing the results of people who weren’t adopted and were in the same situation I was. It took me time to find that out.”
Though Ra’Shede loved basketball and excelled at it—he played on Amateur Athletic Union teams with former Gophers Rodney Williams and Royce White and could whirl 360 degrees before dunking—he drew more attention from college recruiters as a football tight end. The Gophers offered him a scholarship as a sophomore, and he chose Minnesota over Florida and Wisconsin.
Once on campus, Ra’Shede gained 50 pounds and Brewster moved him from tight end to defensive end to defensive tackle. As a redshirt sophomore, Ra’Shede lived with three other defensive linemen in an off-campus house known as The Zoo, where fun and partying trumped academics. His grades fell off so much that after Brewster was fired, interim coach Jeff Horton told Ra’Shede to skip the last three weeks of the season to concentrate on schoolwork.
When Kill arrived in December 2010 and began ridding the program of troublemakers and underperformers, Ra’Shede feared for his scholarship. Kill spoke to Washburn football coach Giovan Jenkins, who assured him that Ra’Shede was a good kid worth salvaging. Then Kill and two academic staffers met with Ra’Shede and his parents in a conference room in the Bierman complex.
“The big focus was on academics, because that was right after Ra’Shede had had a pretty poor semester,” Eric says. “I remember Coach Kill saying, basically, you stole the University of Minnesota’s money last semester. This is totally unacceptable, it’s going to change, and if it doesn’t change, you’re not going to last here. We applauded everything he had to say.”
“Coach Kill just really gave it to me. Very brief and very blunt. I have to respect him for that, because it was the game-changer,” Ra’Shede says.
Trust does not come easily for Ra’Shede, but Kill found a way to break through. “Coach Kill has been a godsend,” Eric says. “Ra’Shede thrives when he has structure, and Coach Kill provided that structure.”
So last June, when Ra’Shede was arrested outside a Dinkytown bar after breaking up a fight among several teammates and friends (the charges were dropped a month later), Ra’Shede called Kill after telling his parents. Kill wasn’t happy but appreciated his forthrightness.
“There are always bumps in the road with kids. There are always things that happen,” Kill says. “But Ra’Shede has always been honest with me. You never want to ask Ra’Shede what he did, because he’s going to tell you. Most kids don’t have that quality. Most kids aren’t going to tell you the truth. That’s what gets them in trouble.”
Going into the final year of his Gopher career, Ra’Shede is determined to justify the faith Kill and the football staff showed in him. “He can be as great as he wants to be,” defensive line coach Jeff Phelps says. “He’s still in the learning stages. Now he’s building on what he can do.”
Pat Borzi is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to
New York Times, and