ALLEN PARK – Millions of people saw the new tight end of the Detroit Lions T.J. Hockenson shook hands with Roger Goodell on Thursday night in the NFL draft. But there were 4,122 people who were especially proud.
Hockenson grew up in Chariton, a small agricultural town located in southern Iowa. Population: 4,122. According to Wikipedia, it is better known as the main distribution center of the Hy-Vee supermarket chain. And now, for being home to an NFL draft pick in the first round.
The city met Thursday night at the local hotel to see their favorite son shake hands with Goodell on national television, a Lions cap placed on his head after Detroit took him eighth in the overall standings. And then they exploded his phone.
"They had a recruiting party, and they could only get a lot of pictures and a lot of phone calls (it was great)," said Hockenson. "I literally think I have 600 text messages at the moment, like, I do not even know what I'm going to do. I'm going to spend the next week deciphering. "
Hockenson has become one of the biggest stars in the draft. It is the tight end best written since Vernon Davis was sixth to San Francisco in 2006. It is only the fourth tight end in the top 10 since 1997, and only 13 since the merger in 1970.
Not bad for a scrawny kid for The Middle of Nowhere, Iowa.
Although six cities in the area are fed by Chariton High School, enrollment still stands at only 472 students. They have a football team, although like many small schools across the country, most players have to go both ways due to the participation numbers. Hockenson played tight end and defensive back. But the offensive is where it really left its mark.
He caught 238 pbades and scored 49 touchdowns in four years at Chariton High, which are still maintained as records by the state of Iowa.
But at only 220 pounds, Hockenson did not exactly fit the profile of an important tight end of the university. Only three Division I programs offered him a scholarship: Iowa, Iowa State and Eastern Michigan. He chose the Hawkeyes because of Kirk Ferentz, his longtime coach. And he spent most of his first season being served by defensive linemen who weighed more than 50 pounds.
"They will definitely make you harder, that's for sure," said Hockenson with a smile. "I mean, they were fun, you just have to play the game, and when they knock you down, you have to get up and go back to that."
In 2016, Hockenson redshirted. In 2017, he was appointed to the first-year team of Big Ten. In 2018, he won the John Mackey Award as the best tight end in the nation.
His rise was as sudden as it was improbable. He became Iowa's main target in the pbading game last season, and led the team with 760 yards and six touchdowns. He caught 49 pbades and just dropped a pbad, and finished with two falls for his career.
"A really natural receiver," general manager Bob Quinn said. "Really soft with the way he coordinates his body to put his body in a good position to make those difficult catches, obviously, excellent hands. (It's) very natural the way he just climbs and gets it, he does not fight at all It's very easy for him, I think he has a very good technique for the route, either with his feet to get some separation, but he can also use his body subtly to gain that extra couple of inches necessarily. "
But make no mistake, he is not Eric Ebron either. Ebron was also taken in the top 10 by the Lions, they are the only team to spend several selections as high in position in NFL history, but could not block their exit from a paper bag.
Hockenson could be the best blocker in this clbad. It's certainly in the conversation, and that should help unlock new dimensions of the resurgent Detroit racing game.
"There are a lot of reproductions on the tape where you're seeing this guy, and he's blocking someone, and suddenly you can not see him anymore on the tape because he has his guy on the sideline and he throws him on the track." said coach Matt Patricia, "Just a tenacious guy, a tough guy and a blue collar worker, and that's what this is all about."
The Lions took Hockenson to Detroit on Friday morning. He was accompanied by his mother, Teri, and his father, Tod, a student who dropped out of college and became a truck driver, then turned to the vice president of the supermarket chain Hy-Vee.
That's what brought the family to little Chariton. It's harder to get further from the NFL than that. And yet here T.J. Hockenson was on Friday afternoon, shaking hands with Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn, holding a Lions helmet, smiling very well for the cameras but sounding much more like he was ready to tie that thing up and hit the snot on some linemen D.
"There are so many things that have to happen to be where I am now," he said, "and everything fell in. I'm lucky to be part of this program, I'm very excited to get these (veterans) start on Monday. Hey, coach, do you mind if I go? You know, I want to start. I have to wait a couple of weeks for the rookie minicamp to come in.
"I just want to immerse myself in this playbook and learn from the best."