Before the 2019 NFL Draft, some projections had the Denver Broncos selecting former Chariton and Iowa Hawkeye tight end T.J. Hockenson in the first round.
Right school, wrong player.
In January, after several years with the Atlanta Falcons, Denver hired former Wayne Falcon and Drake Bulldog Wade Harman to coach its tight ends.
When Drake dropped scholarship football in the 1980s, it forced Harman to transfer to Utah State, leading him to study under offensive coordinator Brian Billick.
According to Kurt Kragthorpe of The Salt Lake Tribune, writing about Harman as a Utah State grad while Harman was preparing Atlanta’s team during his third trip to the Super Bowl, he is a player’s coach:
“This has been a challenging and rewarding season for Harman, with a young group of tight ends. ‘He’s been awesome,’ [Atlanta tight end Levine] Toilolo said. ‘Everyone learns a different way, and I think Coach Harman’s done a great job of adjusting to each guy and being able to have everyone ready, come Sunday.’”
Since Harman has a voice in the selection process, and has used it in the past to help Atlanta pick Drake’s Eric Saubert in the 2017 draft, and before that Stanford’s Austin Hooper, who Harman watched Iowa play against in the 2016 Rose Bowl, there was a good chance Harman was excited about what most considered the two best tight ends coming out of college this year, Hockenson and fellow Hawkeye and Omaha native Noah Fant.
But after the Detroit Lions selected Hockenson with the eighth overall pick and Denver traded their number 10 slot for Pittsburgh’s at 20, Fant fell to the Broncos.
“I’m very excited for the opportunity,” Harman said of coaching Fant. In high school at Wayne, Harman played with another former Hawkeye, Tork Hook. “I evaluated most of the tight ends in this draft, and then went through my evaluations with Denver’s scouting department.”
For Harman, this opportunity has been all about connections.
First year Broncos head coach Vic Fangio worked on the same coaching staff with Harman in Baltimore. When Fangio was hired, he then brought Harman to Mile High Stadium from Atlanta.
In March, Denver traded for former Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco, who led Baltimore—with Harman on the sidelines—to their second Super Bowl title. The selection of Fant gives Flacco a big target in Denver.
“I’m excited to work with Joe again,” Harman said.
A few years ago, Flacco was considered the best quarterback in the NFL, but since then he has fallen on hard times. The good news for Fant is Flacco has a history of throwing early and often to his tight ends.
Fant, who grew up just across the Missouri River from Iowa, was an NFL Draft Combine sensation, including in the Wonderlic intelligence test. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound athlete ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds.
For comparison’s sake, Hook, who played free safety and still holds the Iowa record for most interceptions in a bowl game, ran the 40 in 4.52 seconds.
However, Fant has around 50 pounds on Hook.
Hockenson also has Wayne County connections. When he was young, his family moved from Cherokee to Chariton. His best friend is Daric Laing, whose parents David and Cindy Laing own and operate MDL Insurance in Corydon, Humeston, Chariton and Waukee.
At the first year of the Bill McClymonds Relays at Saling Athletic Complex in Corydon, Hockenson represented Chariton in the high jump competition.
Cindy considers herself Hockenson’s second mother.
“We always played Wayne in the three-on-three basketball tournaments, so the boys knew the kids over there,” Cindy said. “T.J. grew up at my house. Last weekend, he was home for Easter and stayed the night. The boys cooked out and went fishing and golfed, and they didn’t talk a word of football, honestly.
“They’ve been best friends since the day he moved here. We kidnapped T.J. from his driveway. Daric took him that night to a middle school dance.”
Wayne grad Dillon Lain, one of the best all-around sportsmen to ever suit up for the Falcons, played against Hockenson on the basketball court in 2014.
“He was just a natural athlete,” Lain said. “When you saw Chariton on the schedule, his name automatically came to mind.”
“Daric went with T.J. to the draft,” Cindy said of this year’s selection process in Nashville, Tenn. “They were in the green room. The paper in Detroit called Daric for an interview, and that came out in the Detroit paper yesterday. This has been crazy.”
Daric told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:
“I think [Hockenson] was crying a little bit. 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.”
T.J. and Daric played on the Chargers basketball team that finished 4th at the 2016 Iowa State Tournament. Daric led Chariton in scoring, while T.J. was second.
What makes Fant and Hockenson’s selection in the Top 20 of the same NFL draft even more impressive is the fact both came out of school early as third year players.
Fant was a junior who skipped Iowa’s bowl win against Mississippi State to prepare for pro ball. Hockenson was a redshirt sophomore who won the John Mackey Award as the best college tight end.
Denver had been in touch with Hockenson before April 25.
“I really thought he’d wind up in Jacksonville at number seven,” Cindy said. “But the draft’s a funny thing. I was hoping the Broncos would take him, because the train goes from Osceola right to the stadium.”
The town of Chariton held a gala at the Charitone Hotel with reporters from KCCI, WOI and WHO present. Attendees had to book reservations two days before the NFL Draft.
“It was completely packed,” Cindy said. “There were no words when he was picked. We were crying. I think Detroit is a good fit for him. T.J.’s excited to play with quarterback Matt Stafford. He thinks he’s a great guy. We’re ready to buy our Detroit blue.”
One of the great national stories of the past few years is The Wave at the end of the first quarter of each Iowa home game, when players, coaches and fans turn to acknowledge the patients at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. It is an event that transcends sports.
When Fant and Hockenson were drafted, the Children’s Hospital posted a congratulations video on Twitter. Hockenson told Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:
“It really puts into perspective that this is a game. There’s so many people that are wanting to be in your position and so many people that can’t get out of bed and they’re just little kids that they’re so innocent and they just love life. You walk into the room and their eyes light up. That just puts it into perspective how good of a life you have and how many people it’s taken to get there.”