MINNEAPOLIS — Ra'Shede Hageman has felt the eyes on him for as long as he can remember, as if they know the whole story and already have decided how it ends.
Those looks used to make him angry. A lot of things used to make Hageman angry. And the anger is still there, somewhere beneath the skin tattooed with the story of his struggle, building and building for the first chance he gets to unleash three hours of hell on an NFL field.
"The alter ego that I'm starting to develop is that black thug that society doesn't like, you know what I'm saying?" Hageman told USA TODAY Sports recently, his 6-6, 310-pound frame reclined in the living room of his parents' home on an upscale city parkway.
"To be nasty or ruthless, having that anger and having that swag that yeah, I can do whatever I want — that's the alter ego, because when you're on the field, that's what it takes to beat double teams. You don't give a (bleep). You're crazy and you don't care."
Nodding on an adjacent couch, Hageman's father, Eric, leaned forward and added: "You can be the person everyone already thinks you are."
He was born Ra'Shede Knox on Aug.8, 1990, in Lansing, Mich., son of a man he never knew and a woman whose life spiraled into alcohol and drug abuse. He was a foster child, adopted by affluent white parents, and has spent much of his 23 years struggling to find his identity.
Only now, as the imposing Minnesota tight end-turned-defensive tackle prepares for the NFL draft, in which he could be a first-round pick, is Hageman beginning to take pride in everything he is and harness power from the things he is not.
When he hears from NFL coaches that he takes plays off, that he's lazy or not physical, Hageman seethes. "I've never been soft in my life," he said. But he promises that with time and knowledge of a relatively new position will come the confidence to let his alter ego take over.
"The one thing that nobody can argue," Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said, "(is) he has the skills to dominate and be an all-pro player in the NFL."
He once was found in a crack-house closet. At 3, he started shuffling through roughly a dozen foster homes. One adoption fell through before Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle, a couple 2½ years out of law school, took him and younger brother Xavier in when Ra'Shede was 7.
Even then, Hageman was big for his age. By the time he entered public school in eighth grade, he was 6-2 and could dunk a basketball. His size and background, however, made him a target, and he was always willing to fight back — his temper short and his ears burning from taunts. He was suspended seven times for fighting in ninth grade.
"He was faster. He was stronger. He could do things that other kids just couldn't do," Washburn (Minn.) High School football coach Giovan Jenkins said. "But he was actually a kid that was trying to find himself. He was one of the haves, even though he was born into the have-not world."
Hageman was slower than his brother to accept his new family, perhaps in part because he was old enough to remember what came before. He was uncomfortable being the adopted kid with white parents in a predominantly black school. He kept his distance from them in public places, unsure whether the eyes were on his size, or his nice shoes, or his skin.
The fights abated as Hageman's athletic career started to blossomed his sophomore year. He became a star on the basketball court, leading Washburn to a state title as a senior, as well as the football field, where he mostly played tight end. He caught 23 touchdown passes over his last two seasons and drew interest from top college programs.
"I used sports, especially football, just to run full speed at somebody and really try to hurt them," Hageman said. "When you have built-up anger, frustration in your past, there's so many ways to use that. Luckily, I found a way to use that that was positive."
But Hageman's start at Minnesota was fraught with pitfalls: a move to defensive end, a citation for a party at a house his roommates tabbed "The Zoo," academic issues that got him suspended for the last three games of his redshirt freshman season in 2010. He might have been finished if not for a call from new coach Jerry Kill to Jenkins, who told Kill: "This is a kid you need to save."
Kill moved Hageman to defensive tackle and got him to move back into the dorms once his lease was up.
Soon after, Hageman became a father, which helped him realize he needed to take school and football more seriously. He got on track academically, played in every game as a situational pass rusher in 2011 and excelled in the weight room the following spring.
Then, in May 2012, Hageman was arrested for disorderly conduct after he broke up a fight at a campus bar and refused to cooperate with police who were questioning him. The charge was dropped a month later, but not before his mugshot circulated on the Internet. Hageman's troubled past seemingly was catching up with him.
"The one thing people want to see off the field is that angry black man," Hageman said. "That's not me. That's just a stereotype. It just clicks. Off the field, I'm more calm and more Ra'Shede — laid-back, goofy. On the field, I can be mad and do whatever I want."
He puts on his headphones before each game and loses himself in the explicit lyrics of rappers Rick Ross, Meek Mill and Future. He wants to transform himself. He wants to take all the looks, all the anger, and become the monster he always has felt society expected him to be.
There were flashes the past two seasons at Minnesota, where he led the team with 13 tackles for loss as a senior. But he has been a defensive tackle for only three years and too often has found himself overthinking rather than using his natural power to explode off the ball. He still has much to learn.
"If he plays angry and plays with his motor at 100% with the right technique, there's no telling how good Ra'Shede can be," said Hageman's agent, former NFL offensive lineman Joe Panos.
Hageman graduated in December with a degree in youth studies. Since then, he largely has sequestered himself in a hotel near Milwaukee, leaving only to eat and go through two-a-days alongside the likes of Houston Texans star J.J. Watt at the NX Level training facility. The message: Hageman the football player is all that matters now.
NX Level owner and trainer Brad Arnett has focused on improving Hageman's hip and ankle mobility, knee bend and work habits. Hageman already has the power. He has worked out for the Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots and was set to leave Monday for visits to Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Denver, St. Louis and Chicago.
"There were many, many times along the way we never would have thought he'd be where he is today," said Eric Hageman, who also has three biological children with Coyle. "But he has an ability to dig holes for himself and then climb out. That's what he's been doing his whole life."
Hageman's biological mother has drifted in and out of his life since ninth grade while battling addiction. They haven't spoken recently, and he doesn't know when they will. But he is close with another biological brother, Lazal Thompson, who will join him at the draft May8 in New York, along with his parents, Kill, Jenkins and others.
HIS OWN MAN
Once drafted, Hageman plans to move to his new city alone, though he hopes to eventually be closer to his son, Zion, now 3. From there, his alter ego will become more visible, with tattoos filling both arms to match the messages that run across his chest ("Only the strong survive") and back ("Heart of a king, blood of a slave").
"That's always the person I see when I look in the mirror," Hageman said. "But you have to take baby steps in society, because you don't want people to perceive you wrong. Why should I hide that (bleep)? I'm different, and I'm comfortable being different.
"You've got to understand: I'm tall, black with tattoos. If I had the anger I had when I was younger, I definitely wouldn't be here. But I know how to use it to my advantage."
He recently bought his dream car, a 1995 Chevy Impala SS, for $7,000. Windows down, tats out, Rick Ross booming, Hageman knows he'll get looks driving it, and that's fine by him now. Whatever the eyes think he is, he'll give them on Sundays.
PHOTOS: Ra'Shede Hageman's journey to the NFL