Inside the life of T.J. Hockenson: Once he puts his mind to it, 'lights out'
Kirk Ferentz calls it “the curse of being the younger brother,” but for new Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson, it turned out to be quite the blessing.
Long before he was a football star and the Lions’ newest first-round draft pick, Hockenson was the youngest of three sports-minded brothers growing up on a patch of property in Cherokee, Iowa.
In his never-ending quest to keep up with boys 11 and 15 years his senior, Hockenson almost always had a ball in his hand. If his brothers were out back playing baseball, he was there, too, getting his cuts in. If they were downstairs shooting pool, he would rack the balls and wait his turn.
The Hockensons lived on a quiet street with four or five houses, their fenceless backyards one big field that made it the perfect place for any kind of game.
More often than not, that game was football. And rather than just toss the ball around, T.J.’s older brothers, Andy and Matt, made him work to catch it.
“Moonballs,” Andy said. “We were just launching these things.”
Andy and Matt would throw the ball across as many backyards as they could, and T.J. had to sprint his little legs underneath and catch it. If he didn’t, his punishment was a lap around the block.
The games started when T.J. was 4 or 5 years old and continued almost daily till his brothers were off at college.
T.J. said his brothers got a kick out of “chuck(ing) the ball at my face,” but by the time he was 7 or so, he wasn’t running many laps around the block anymore.
“That’s kind of how he always was,” Andy said. “I’m 15 years older than he is and so when I was in high school and playing sports he was always trying to get right in the middle of it all, which was cool. But that was one thing my mom would always get very angry about was that we didn’t treat him like he was a 5-year-old, we treated him like he was one of us. So it was kind of the thing, if he wanted to hang out and play with us, it was, 'You don’t get any favors.' ”
Hockenson didn’t need any favors.
When the family moved to Chariton, Iowa, in middle school, he was a budding star on the baseball diamond and basketball court. He golfed. He fished. And he had a pair of special hands that got him recruited by Ferentz to Iowa, hands he credits now to those games of catch with his brothers in the backyard.
“I’m not taking any credit for any of that,” Andy said. “That’s 100% him wanting to be in the middle. He could have had us doing all these things and he wanted nothing to do with it. But we used to have kind of an open great room in our house and I would take, like I had a broomstick and little golf-ball Wiffle balls, and I would hit those with soft toss, or I’d throw to him. And he’s in a diaper, and he’s got this little Bamm-Bamm, like little red kind of a plastic bat. And I would stand on one side of the living room and I’m throwing these things hard. And he’s got this little Bamm-Bamm bat just going, ding. And he’s standing there with nothing but a diaper on. I distinctly remember him just standing there with a diaper on, him just dinging them. And my mom’s screaming over here as those balls are going everywhere, my mom’s screaming, ‘This is why we can’t have nice things.’ ”
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Hockenson had 49 receptions last season at Iowa and, according to Rotoworld, just one catchable drop. But that’s not why the Lions made him the eighth overall pick of Thursday’s NFL draft, the highest a tight end has been taken since Vernon Davis went sixth overall to the San Francisco 49ers in 2006.
As a player, Hockenson is uniquely talented.
At a time when the tight-end position has trended more towards pass-catching vertical threats, he pairs that ability and his sure hands with a physical presence few can match. He’s an overpowering blocker in the run game, he can flex out wide as a receiver, he can motion out of the backfield and he can play inline.
Ferentz, who’s entering his 21st season as Iowa coach, said that wasn’t always the case.
“The recruiting part was interesting,” Ferentz said. “He was a very good pass receiver in high school and a good basketball player, but you never really got to see him block or play with any physicality at all. So he did come down to our camp and we asked him to try to block a little bit. It wasn’t necessarily pretty in terms of the proficiency or the results, but what did sell us, he tried like crazy. So it was just something he hadn’t done much of, but you could tell right away he had a great attitude.”
[ Pros, cons of Lions drafting Iowa's T.J. Hockenson ]
The all-time Iowa high school leader in receptions and touchdowns when he left Chariton, Hockenson arrived at Iowa as a 220-pound freshman and redshirted that first season to gain weight and strength.
He emerged 30 or so pounds heavier in 2017, and a completely different player on the field.
“You learn a lot about players when they’re on scout teams redshirting, and one thing he did, he just kept working,” Ferentz said. “He’s always had a great attitude and the growth and development that he’s shown in two years is really impressive. And if I was a Lions fan or coach, the thing I’d be most excited about is his best football’s ahead of him. He’s only been here three years and he’ll continue to just, I think, grow and improve for the next couple years.”
Hockenson started 12 of 13 games as a redshirt freshman, when he caught 24 passes for 320 yards while splitting time with Noah Fant.
He and Fant, a first-round pick Thursday by the Denver Broncos, shared time again last season, when Fant caught 39 passes for 519 yards and was named first-team All-Big Ten by the conference’s coaches, and Hockenson had a team-high 760 yards receiving and won the Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end.
Hockenson said plenty of people have played a part in his transformation from skinny pass catcher to all-around player.
He worked tirelessly with Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle that first season, and all throughout his time at Iowa, really. Ferentz and his son, Brian, the team’s tight ends coach, drilled him endlessly on the fundamentals of the position. And there are his brothers again, too.
When Ferentz, Lions coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn describe Hockenson as tough, competitive and hard-working — all words one or more of them used in the last three days — those are traits he picked up from palling around with his big brothers.
One year, when Hockenson was about 8, he was taking part in a family basketball game at Christmas time. Playing against his older brothers and cousins, Hockenson took an elbow to the eye that sent him to the emergency room on the holiday to have the wound stitched or Super Glued together.
Another year, after the Hockensons got a pool table for Christmas, young T.J. was so upset at getting knocked out of a family tournament that he decided he had to master the game.
A couple months later, Andy came home one day to find his brother waiting at the front door.
“He’s standing at the door with a $10 bill saying, ‘You want to play me in pool? I’ll bet you,’ ” Andy recalled. “I’m like, ‘Man, I’m not taking your damn money, I’m not.’ And I’m not joking, he went down there, I went down there, and I didn’t shoot one time. He cleared the table on me. And I found out that he got that $10 from my other brother, who got home a couple hours before I did. That’s just how he is. Once he puts his mind to something, and my grandpa was down there showing him how to do angles for a couple months, and all of a sudden the kid’s lights out.”
'I love blocking'
The Lions are counting on Hockenson to be lights out in their offense, not in time but this fall.
Quinn called Hockenson a “really natural” pass catcher who’s got “really good top-of-the-route technique,” and Patricia said he’s “a perfect match” for what the Lions are trying to do both on offense and with the culture they’re building in general.
“I don’t think he’s going to be a slow-to-develop tight end,” Quinn said. “I think T.J., in his career, has shown that he steps up to pressure. He steps up in big games in the Big Ten against a lot of teams that you guys cover on a weekly basis, and he does a really good job and has done a really good job. He’s not going to be scared, I know that.”
The Lions plan to use more two tight end sets this season to take advantage of their newly discovered depth at the position.
Last year, the Lions had one of the least productive tight end groups in the NFL, with just 45 catches among five different players. This year, they spent big in free agency to land Jesse James, and they added the athletic Logan Thomas to compete with holdover Michael Roberts for the No. 3 job.
With two tight ends in the lineup, the Lions should able to better dictate how defenses play them this fall. If teams stay in their base defense, Hockenson and the 6-foot-7 James can be matchup problems downfield. If teams choose to play out of their nickel package, Hockenson’s blocking ability makes them more equipped in the run game.
“That’s what I pride myself in is being able to do everything the job requires,” Hockenson said. “I love blocking as much as I love catching the ball or getting someone open, so I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to being able to do that at the next level.”
Because he is so well-rounded, and so young in his development, the Lions believe that mitigates the risk of taking a tight end early in the draft.
Just three tight ends have gone higher than Hockenson in the past 40 years — Davis, Kellen Winslow Jr., who went sixth to the Cleveland Browns in 2004, and Junior Miller, the No. 7 pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 1980 — and only one of those (Davis) had a notable NFL career.
“The tight end position is a little bit unique because you’re involved in the run and pass game, so you have to kind of learn both,” Quinn said. “I will say that’s probably one of T.J.’s strengths is that he’s very intelligent, knows football inside and out and obviously he’s an every-down tight end that can block and receive. So, the transition, it’s hard for everybody. It’ll probably be hard for him. But it’s something that we feel very comfortable that he’ll, in time, be a really good player.”
'So many emotions'
Hockenson decided to attend the draft in Nashville only after he was assured his closest friends and family members could be there with him, including his 92-year-old grandfather, Max Cameron, one of the most influential people in his life.
The Hockenson boys stayed a week at their grandparents’ place every summer when they were young, fishing and golfing and, of course, playing sports from sun up till sun down.
When Cameron and Hockenson’s grandmother, Cathy, lived in Arkansas, they would sometimes drive up to Iowa for their grandsons’ soccer or basketball or hockey games. When the Hockensons moved to Chariton, the Camerons moved into the same neighborhood, in a house right behind them, and T.J. would try and go to their place every day for lunch.
Cathy usually made chicken and salad — Max made grilled cheese — and Max was the first to spot T.J.’s true potential on the football field, saying one day, long before the recruiting letters started coming in, that his grandson was going to play in the NFL.
A few years ago, when Max underwent heart surgery, he told everyone not to worry because he planned to stick around long enough to see T.J. play in the pros. And on Thursday, he was in the green room when Hockenson got his draft-day phone call.
“He’s both a supporter and friend,” Hockenson said. “My grandpa would do anything for me. Whenever I asked, he would go to the ends of the earth for any one of his family members. Just a special (person).”
The draft started as expected Thursday, with Kyler Murray going No. 1 overall and Nick Bosa and Quinnen Williams following in quick succession.
Hockenson, feeling antsy as the next few picks came off the board, stood up from his table in the green room to pass the time with some casual conversation with his brothers and friends. They had a mini Iowa football to toss around, and at some point, Andy looked over and saw the light flashing on the phone on the table.
“I look at T.J. and I go, ‘T, dude, phone,’ ” Andy said. “And I’m looking at the phone, I’m looking at him looking at the phone, and then he did the same thing about three or four different times and we looked at each other and then he just kind of quietly just sunk down and sat down and took the phone calls.”
By the time Hockenson got off the phone, emotion had overcome the table.
“I think he was crying a little bit,” said Daric Laing, one of Hockenson’s best friends from Chariton who was in the green room Thursday night. “I think he was mainly crying cause mom was crying and we were crying. But yeah, it was one of those moments where he probably had to go out of his way to not cry cause it’s such a happy and exciting moment for him, so many emotions.”
For the next two hours, Hockenson bounced around the back stages of the draft, signing autographs for some of the NFL’s corporate partners and doing interview after interview on TV and radio.
When he finally had time to catch his breath, he said he was happy the draft was finally over, thrilled his grandfather got to experience it with him, and most of all, ready to get back to work.
"It's pretty surreal," Hockenson said. "I don’t think (anyone) envisioned this and I’ve been dreaming of this ever since I was a kid, but they’re always like, 'You’ve got to have a backup plan, you’ve got to have a Plan B,' and that’s true. You never know when this game could end. But I’m here right now and I’m going to make the most of this opportunity."
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Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.