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.’ ”