NFL Draft Weekend

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O'HARA: Hockenson ready to begin his NFL journey

Life has been a whirl of late for T.J. Hockenson, a wonderful kaleidoscope that presents new experiences and a dream realized no matter how he twists the tube.

But at any moment in time, the most joyous single snapshot that represents how his life has changed is the realization that he officially became a professional football player Thursday night when the Detroit Lions submitted his name on a card as their first-round pick at NFL draft headquarters in Nashville.

Nothing could feel better for a 21-year-old kid who grew up in the small town of Chariton, Iowa, and went on to become a star tight end at the University of Iowa than to have "Professional Football Player" as his job title.

"Isn't that cool?" Hockenson said Friday with barely a hesitation at his introductory press conference at the Lions' Allen Park headquarters.

"I mean, really ... I get to play football for a living. That's the best feeling in the world.

"There's no words to describe it."

There are long days and hard work ahead for Hockenson, with ups and downs that are part of playing pro football. It's not all shiny uniforms and victory parties.

View photos of Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson arriving in Detroit and touring the team's practice facility for the first time on Friday, April 26, 2019.

But there was a sense of achievement and the beginning of a shared adventure for both Hockenson and the Lions as he met the Detroit media.

The Lions drafted Hockenson eighth overall – a lofty position for a tight end – with the expectation that he will play a significant role in upgrading the tight end position.

Hockenson was highly regarded by most draft analysts, many of who rated him as a top 10 prospect at any position in this year's draft.

After a 2016 red-shirt season – when Hockenson arrived at Iowa weighing 220 pounds -- he put together two outstanding seasons before deciding to enter the draft.

Hockenson worked his way up to 251 pounds in his 6-foot-5 frame so he could become a three-down tight end, with the strength and power to block as a complement to his receiving skills.

He closed out his career at Iowa in 2018 with 49 catches, an average of 15.5 yards per catch and six touchdowns.

There were a lot of good options for the Lions at their No. 8 draft spot because of the depth of quality defensive players available, but it was clear from the Lions' decisive action Thursday night that they'd targeted Hockenson as their No. 1 option.

"Somebody we had targeted, somebody that we definitely knew would be a great fit here in our organization," head coach Matt Patricia said before introducing Hockenson at the press conference.

"It was a perfect match when it came up on the draft board. As you sit and wait in the draft room and look at the draft picks, and the names came off, you target guys you're looking at.

"We had the card ready to go right away. It really was a tremendous day for us as an organization."

A video posted by the Lions gave an insight into how highly they valued Hockenson, and the final moments that clinched the decision.

General manager Bob Quinn, stationed in the draft room in Allen Park, called Hockenson in Nashville. He had one question: "Want to be a Lion?"

"Of course, I said yes," Hockenson said Friday. "It meant a lot. It really did. So many things have to happen to be where I'm at right now – everything that fell into the right place."

Quinn explained to Hockenson why he did not contact him during the evaluation process. He didn't want word to leak out on his plans.

"We do that on purpose," Quinn told Hockenson. "We really liked you."

Hockenson talked about signs growing up that connected him to Detroit – and a chance encounter at Metro Airport with a new Lions teammate.

Playing little league ball in Iowa, Hockenson's team was the Tigers.

"I had the Olde English D on the hat," he said. "I wore that thing everywhere. I played a lot of NHL video games when I was really little. I was always the Red Wings.

"There have been a few signs that have taken me to this point, this city, this organization. I've heard nothing but great things.

"I'm excited to get started."

When Hockenson arrived at Metro Airport Friday with his parents, Tod and Teri, he had a chance meeting with wide receiver Danny Amendola, a 10-year veteran who signed with the Lions as a free agent. They spoke for a short while.

"It was so cool." Hockenson said. "The things he achieved throughout his career, just being able to share a moment and be able to meet him in person.

"This is the first time I'm here ... the first time I'm part of this team. It's really special."

Hockenson spoke often about the work he's put in to develop his career, and the work ethic that was instilled in him by Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff.

George Kittle, a 49ers tight end whose last year at Iowa was 2016 – Hockenson's red-shirt season – gave him advice on what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

"You have to prove yourself," Hockenson said. "This game isn't for people who aren't willing to work. You have to work for everything."

On the first full day that he could call himself a professional football player, Hockenson wanted to get down to work. He related how he had told Patricia that he wanted to participate to the offseason workouts when the veterans return on Monday.

"You mind if I come?" is how Hockenson said he put it to Patricia.

"I have to wait a couple weeks for rookie camp."

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