'It's a lifestyle:' T.J. Hockenson and why Iowa is the real Tight End U
This position chooses you. The Detroit Lions star is grateful a buddy conned him into becoming a tight end long ago. "Tight End Days" wraps up with this fun conversation.
It is zero coincidence that Miami (Fla.) and Iowa are the two schools that’ve historically produced the best tight ends in NFL history.
Down in Coral Gables, Jeremy Shockey brought the swagger back to “The U.” He was liable to start a fight at practice with Ed Reed any given moment. He played hard. He partied hard. (Yes, Jarrett Payton could smell liquor on him in the huddle at practice.) He left bodies in his dust. Everyone who has survived that era of Hurricane football promises you that no NFL game, no NFL practice compared to the intensity of their practices.
Then, there’s Iowa. As a flyover state, it’s never been easy for the Hawkeyes to recruit. Five-star recruits typically prefer the scenery of beaches over farms. But starting with Dallas Clark, head coach Kirk Ferentz developed a sixth sense for switching players to completely new positions. And as you read on Clark, the boot camp is different here. All colleges claim to put their players through the ringer but Iowa demands a very specific work ethic. The sort of characteristics — accountability, discipline, resilience — that are foundational to the tight end position itself.
All of those early mornings mowing Kinnick Stadium and selling the campus newspaper paid off for Clark.
To wrap up “Tight End Days” here at Go Long, I chatted with the latest star out of Iowa: Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson.
He makes a strong case for Iowa, too.
“The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football” is officially on the shelves! Make sure to grab your copy at Amazon and everywhere books are sold.
I guess it’s everybody but Gronk because he idolized Shockey as a kid. But it feels like the tight end position chooses you one way or another. How did you become a tight end yourself?
Hockenson: How did I become a tight end? It’s actually a funny story with a quarterback in middle school. I just moved to a new town and one of my best buddies — we wrote what position we wanted to play on this sheet. I wrote “quarterback.” One of my buddies who was a quarterback, he changed it to tight end. So it was one of those things. I’ve been there since that. It definitely chose me for sure.
Literally, it chose you.
Hockenson: For real. For real. That was in seventh grade. So I was probably 13.
Who was your friend?
Hockenson: Yeah, he played Division II basketball at Northwest Missouri State. His name’s Daric (Laing). He was one of my best buddies growing up. We’re still best buds. He always comes around. I always mess with him and tell him. “It’s a good thing it worked out. Otherwise, I’d be pretty pissed.”
I’d say it worked out. You owe him a steak dinner or three dozen steak dinners.
So, it was a sheet of paper you filled out? What was it exactly?
Hockenson: It was the first day. Intros. They hand out a sheet of paper. We put down our name and what position we’d want to be. It was a pencil at the time. I put “TJ Hockenson, Quarterback.” Passed it down. I found out the next day that he put the sheet out and it was “TJ Hockenson, Tight End.” I was like, “What the frick!” I started asking around and they said, “Oh yeah, Daric did that.” “What! Are you freakin’ kidding me?” I was pissed.
You didn’t change it?
Hockenson: I tried. But at that point it was like, “Whatever. I’ll catch the ball.”
Was he threatened by you?
Hockenson: I don’t know, I don’t know. It was funny, though. I don’t know what the whole thought process was. There was already three quarterbacks so I just said, “Alright. I’ll go catch it. It’s fine.”
So then you’re actually catching passes from him in games.
Hockenson: Yep. Yep.
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What about tight end did you learn the love then? Whether it’s high school or college? When did you fall in love with the best position in sports here?
Hockenson: I think it was in high school. My junior year. I fell in love with being able to do everything. And then when I got in college, it was even more, “Oh man. I really enjoy this position.” You get to know the offense in detail. You know pass routes, concepts. You need to know protections because you’re in on a lot of them. You’ve got to know the run game because you’re schemed up in them. That was always my favorite part about the position — being on the same page as the quarterback. Because you had to know everything. If something wasn’t right, he looks at you and goes, “Is that right?” And it’s “Yeah, we’re good, we’re good.” It depends on which way we’re going. There’s weak plays, other plays. It’s a cool position because you’re able to talk to guys in a sense of depth not everyone in the locker room can.
Dallas and George (Kittle) had similar experiences but different, too. Dallas loved Chris Doyle and that grunt work in strength training and seeing that number on the note card go up, up, up on the squats. George admitted he’s more of a free spirit. He partied. He faced that man in the mirror, turned a corner, but still wanted to be himself. What was the Iowa experience like for you?
Hockenson: I loved Iowa. It really helped me get to where I’m at. That’s the biggest thing — the hard-work mentality that they had. Just being there and then being with George in that same room with him my rookie year and seeing what he had to go through and then just buying into the program with Doyle. Doyle, I owe a lot to him. He got me to where I was. I was a two-star recruit and then came out as a Top 10 pick. That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by the hard work I put in there and doing everything the right way. I just loved how we came in every day at 6 a.m., got our work in before everybody else was up. Then it was like, “Alright, now we go to class, we come back, we go to meetings.”
The grind of that, you can’t go through it without loving the game and loving the hard work that goes into it. It is a cool experience. Every freakin’ week, you come in and you want them to pump your weight so bad. You want them… you’re looking to the guy next to you. The environment that they had — they gave us — you’re looking at the card next to you and it’s a guy that’s a linebacker. You’re like, “No. I want more than him. I want more than him. I’m going to make this look easier.” That’s every week coming in: “I want more than him.” That’s the culture they’ve developed. It’s how that whole organization turns one-star recruits into first- and second-round picks. That doesn’t happen by accident. I loved every second of it. I was only there for a couple years, too. So I definitely had a different experience than George who was there for all five years.
Kirk Ferentz and Chris Doyle, Dallas says he’d “bury a body” for both those guys. They were father figures. They were his family. But that’s almost like the last bastion of real football at Iowa. That’s where the game really was the game at Iowa.
Hockenson: It’s a lifestyle. It’s not just a game. It’s how you live your life and how you go about things. They really give that perspective. It helps set you up for the league because once you get here, you have so much time. Not everybody has the discipline and want to do things like that. It really does help you get to where you’re at for sure.
So, it’s no coincidence then that Iowa is Tight End U for that reason. You’ve got to bust your ass and do the stuff that people don’t want to do in life and that’s what was built at Iowa from ground up.
Hockenson: There’s no doubt. That’s why it’s called Tight End U for sure.
Not Miami then? You guys can stake the claim?
Hockenson: No, no. We stake it.
Why is the tight end position all of that wrapped into one to you? Tony Gonzalez put it so well: This position represents life. That grunt work aspect to it you can’t run from, hide from. It’s there. To you, what makes the position special? Why are you a perfect fit to be one of the headliners in the NFL now?
Hockenson: It’s a position where they ask you to do a lot of things. They ask you to be a lead blocker in the scheme. They ask you to pull for a wideout to get a screen. They ask you to run downfield like a wideout, and catch a ball 40 yards downfield. They ask you to win against man coverage. They ask you to have a double-team on the backside ‘backer with a tackle. They have all these things they ask you to do. You’re such a big part of the offense and the scheme. It’s funny because you’re in the middle of the pack of everybody. A wide receiver is about 200 pounds, 215, 220. Your tackles and your O-Line is 300. We’re about 240, 250. We have to do everything that a wideout can do and everything a tackle and a lineman can do. That’s why I’ve fallen in love with the position: You’re needed in every single aspect of the game. You’re able to do everything. That’s what I’ve prided myself on. Being able to fit into all the schemes to where I can pull around and kick out a ‘backer. I can pull around and kick out an end. I can be on the front side of a gap scheme and keep the end outside and let him run off me. Or I can run down the field and catch a 40-yard pass and change the game in that way. That’s what I love about the position. There’s not just one aspect that you can change the game. There’s multiple. If the passing game isn’t coming your way. Or in the run game, they’re asking you to do other things, cool. Each game, it leans toward one. You go into every week and every game with a role and try. Every day is something new. Every day you learn something.
There’s nothing like it in all of sports. I feel like you need to be uniquely qualified to take that all on. You know Dallas’ story. I can’t imagine losing your own Mom in your arms. You’re a high school senior scratching, surviving, clawing to do anything at Iowa. He’s like a seventh-string linebacker mowing the stadium. And then George goes through his deal. He’s meeting with the psychiatrist to mentally get right. Is there anything you’ve worked through on or off the field that equipped you to take on that job description that you just detailed?
Hockenson: Yeah, I was a four-sport athlete in high school. I played basketball. I really played five: basketball, baseball, football, golf and track. So it was one of those things where I wanted to do everything. I wanted to play everything. I was never focused on just one thing in high school. It was something my parents and family always instilled in me: “You don’t want to be good at just one thing. You want to be good at a lot of things.” Being able to have that in your life, if somebody closes your door on one thing you’ve got an open door on another. So that was always something I’ve taken to my game and taken into the league. I don’t want to just be good at one thing. I want to be good at everything. That’s what this position has allowed me to do: Be good at everything. Be able to be needed in every aspect of the game. That’s why I do love the position. It fits me well.
And your personality, too? We get the best personalities at the tight end position. Do you feel like you can be yourself — authentic? And who is that? What do you like to get into?
Hockenson: Yeah, I love having fun. I love hanging out with George. We’re both fun-loving people. We both like to go out and make people have good vibes around you. You never want to bring negative energy anywhere. So we’re always trying to be smiling, trying to be happy. That’s why we click pretty well. There are always good vibes. There are never any bad vibes around us. It’s definitely a position where all of the personalities connect. We have Tight End U every year and you never meet a guy where you go, “Man, I don’t enjoy him.” Every guy is clicking. Every guy is enjoyable to be around.
He said he’s quite talented in the beer-drinking department. Can he take you down? Set the record straight.
Hockenson: I’m not going to just let him claim that. We’ll have to put that one on the video to let him do that. He’s going to have to prove himself in that situation.
Talking light beers? IPAs?
Hockenson: I know he’s sponsored by Bud Light. So he’ll probably say that.
So the way you beat him is by getting sponsored by something that is much stronger. Then, there’s no contest.
Hockenson: Exactly. I’ll have to do that for sure.
Where does the tight end position go from here and what role do you play in the next step of this evolution?
Hockenson: I think it keeps going up. You’re seeing guys in this league who are playing tight end who are super athletic. Guys who are able to show they can really play receiver in this league, and then they can come into the line and be effective. I think there will continue to be guys who are hardnosed and want to be in this position and are showing out in the receiving department. It’s funny because you’re always seeing guys who are trying to transfer to this position. Some of them pan out, some of them don’t. That’s when you find out the mentality of the guy because you have to be in the trenches. You’ve got to want to be in the trenches. If you just want to be split out and run routes, then it’s not really the position for you. There’s definitely a lot more to it than just that. I think young guys are starting to learn that.
I just talked to Kyle Pitts last week and he sounds like someone who wants to wrap his loving arms around blocking. Maybe that wasn’t the case in the past.
Hockenson: Yeah, that only gets you open in other ways. Now they can do some play-action stuff off of that. Do some boots. They both work hand in hand. They really do.
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