By DARREN MILLER
ATLANTA — The Hockenson boys were not much different than a lot of brothers growing up: the youngest did anything and everything to tag along with his elders.
What made their situation interesting is that T.J. is 15 years younger than brother Andy and nearly 11 years younger than brother Matt. But T.J. wouldn’t let a substantial age gap get in the way of family fun.
“There was an expected level to play with us,” Matt said Wednesday at the Home Depot College Football Awards Finalists Reception at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. “We didn’t cut him any slack. He would run inside the house and our mom would come out screaming, ‘You need to treat him like he is only 6.’
“We would say, no, if he wants to come play with us, he’s going to come play with us.”
T.J. is the reason the Hockensons have convened in Atlanta this week. The 21-year-old redshirt sophomore joins Dallas Clark as the only Hawkeyes to win the John Mackey Award recognizing the best tight end in college football. In the 19 years the award has been presented, T.J. is — no surprise — the first underclassman to win.
You can thank his older brothers Matt and Andy. Because of their non-preferential treatment growing up, T.J. quickly became mature and tough.
There was one Christmas Day when an 8-year-old T.J. begged to be outside and play basketball in the driveway with brothers and cousins. Soon, he had an open gash over his left eye that required a yuletide jaunt to the hospital emergency room. It wasn’t a routine trip, either. In lieu of stitches, the doctor began to bond T.J.’s wound, but the Super Glue-like paste dripped into his eye and he couldn’t open the lid. It took doctors three hours before T.J. had the eye pried half way.
If T.J. dropped a ball, any ball, during a game of catch, his brothers made him run a quarter-mile loop around the perimeter of the family’s property before he could rejoin the game.
With Matt and Andy as batting practice pitchers, a young T.J. not only clobbered a ball, but destroyed a treasured antique in the living room. Mother Teri stormed in and scolded the boys to the tune of ‘This is why we can’t have nice things.’
Matt and Andy’s response? “Nice hit, T.J.”
“T.J. was always good at sports,” Matt said.
How good? When T.J. was in third grade, he was banned from a “machine-pitch” league and was reassigned to compete against sixth-graders. T.J. was still one of the best players in the league.
“He’s hitting line drives at these kids and they don’t even know how to put their gloves on yet,” Matt said. “They told him he couldn’t play at that level anymore.”
Ping pong? T.J’s friends forbid him from playing right-handed, so he quickly evolved into an unstoppable left-handed player.
Billiards? This is an activity where T.J. added a hustling repertoire to his game. On another Christmas, the Hockensons received a pool table as a gift.
“T.J. could barely see over the ledge of the table,” Andy said.
“It was a big boy game,” added Matt.
When the older Hockensons returned to college, T.J. took lessons from grandpa. And practiced. And practiced. And practiced.
Matt returned home from the next college break a few hours earlier than Andy. T.J. met Andy at the front door, waving a $10 bill.
“He said, ‘I’ll bet you 10 bucks I can beat you in a game of pool,'” Andy said.
Teri pleaded for them not to play for money; it was more advice that fell on deaf ears.
“I went down and played him in pool and I didn’t get to hit the ball once,” Andy said. “He broke and ran it.”
The $10 bill that T.J. displayed at the front door? It previously belonged to Matt. T.J. won it a few hours earlier.
In a way, life has made a 180-degree turn for the Hockensons. Now Matt and Andy are the ones who yearn to hang out with T.J., one of the best offensive weapons in college football. But the reason goes deeper than wanting to spend time with a star student-athlete with 46 receptions and seven touchdowns this season.
Matt recalls a moment Nov. 10 when T.J. exited the Iowa team bus to begin the Hawk Walk toward Kinnick Stadium. Amidst the adoring fans, T.J spotted a young boy elevated on his mother’s shoulders. The youngster was shy and a complete stranger to Iowa’s starting tight end.
“T.J. gives my mom a hug,” Matt said. “Then he reached across four people to give this little kid a high five. The kid’s eyes lit up and his mom couldn’t believe what happened.”
Before finishing the story, Matt took a moment to gather his thoughts. His eyes welled with pride.
“He is a good ole’ Iowa guy who is honest and cares,” Matt said of his younger brother. “He is a good football player, but he is a better person.”