Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson's parents driven to catch son's every move
Allen Park — It was a horrific scene, no matter whether you watched it from the press box seven stories above the field or via the gratuitous number of slow-motion replays shown during the broadcast.
Detroit Lions rookie T.J. Hockenson tried to hurdle a defender, as he's done plenty of times playing football, but it went wrong. Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Damien Wilson hit the airborne Hockenson and sent him spinning. As he landed, the side of his head smashed against the turf and he appeared to lose consciousness.
The risk of injury is inherent to the game, but that knowledge never makes these uncomfortable situations easier to stomach. Now imagine Hockenson is your family member, your brother or your son. How much would your fear be amplified?
Hockenson's family was there at Ford Field that day. His mom and dad, Teri and Tod, were in the family section, behind the Lions' bench, but on the opposite end of the field where the injury occurred. His two brothers, Matt and Andy, were in a section closer to where the scene was unfolding and both struggled to hold back the tears as the team's medical staff tended to their younger sibling.
Teri sunk in her seat and prayed. She didn't know what else to do. Helpless, those minutes feel like hours.
"It was bad," Teri said. "I've never been... it's like one of those things where you don't know if you're going to throw up."
Eventually, the Lions security staff located Teri and Tod and escorted them to the locker room. T.J. was concussed. Not only was it his first, it really was the first serious injury he had ever suffered playing football. Fortunately, his family was there to support him through the ordeal.
But here's the thing about Teri and Tod Hockenson. They're always there. Not just for T.J., but for Matt, Andy and the couple's fourth child, daughter Kelsey.
Their dedication to their children is remarkable, really.
All four kids played sports, and outside of a handful of Andy's college baseball games, you'd be hard-pressed to find an event the parents missed.
"For 30 something years, that's all we've been doing is chasing kids," Tod said.
Even with those baseball games, at Johnson County Community College in Kansas City, you can tell Teri feels pangs of guilt when mentioning it, even though she knows being there for every one was impractical.
"That was the hardest on me," Teri said. "There's 14 years difference between our oldest and T.J., so I had these little people at home, plus I'm working full time, we still had one in high school, and college baseball games are during the day, there not on the weekends."
But when it comes to T.J., the Hockensons have never missed a game.
That's difficult enough to fit into the schedule during high school, but it's a trend they carried throughout his time at the University of Iowa. When T.J. redshirted during his freshman year, they limited their trips to home games in Iowa City. That let them attend high school football games Friday night, where Kelsey was a senior cheerleader, before making the two and a half-hour drive from Chariton to Iowa City.
"We went to every home game because he was dressing and it was important for us to be there," Teri said. "There are times when we had away games for her while she was cheerleading and we'd have nights where we wouldn't get home until midnight. Then we'd turn around, and they'd have an 11 o'clock game in Iowa City. We'd only get three hours of sleep before heading out."
After Kelsey graduated, Teri and Tod bought an R.V. It seemed like the best way to follow T.J. and Iowa on the road. They went to Penn State, Michigan State and Purdue, often with T.J.'s aunt and uncle along for the trip. Tod had hopes of road tripping to every stadium in the Big Ten.
T.J. ruined that by declaring for the NFL draft two years early, following his redshirt sophomore campaign. After winning the John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end, it wasn't a difficult decision.
"We tried to talk him into staying, but he's a smart kid," Tod said. "I had him make a list of the pros and cons and he did. We took him out to dinner and he looked at us and said he went through the pros and cons, was very logical about it, and he looked at us and said, 'I've got to go.' He knew it would be hard to repeat his performance the next year."
If you hadn't picked up on it already during his short time in Detroit, T.J. is a pretty low-key guy. He didn't really want to attend the draft in Nashville, but after some convincing, that too turned into a family event. Mom, dad, siblings, grandma and grandpa, they all made the trip.
To take T.J.'s mind off the stresses of the weekend, he and his brother went downtown and bought cowboy boots. There was a buy one, get two free sale. How is anyone supposed to pass that up?
"After the seventh pick, all the media in the room were looking around for who would be the eighth pick," Tod said. "T.J.'s phone (started) to ring, but it only lit up, it didn't actually ring. His brothers were like, 'T.J.! Pick up the phone.'"
It was a special moment, not just for T.J., but for the entire family.
"He was pretty emotional, so it made the rest of us pretty emotional," Teri said. "At that moment, it's surreal. We were so excited for him, so proud. It still makes me teary-eyed, because we know every thing that kid gave up to get to this point."
Once in Detroit, Tod and Teri weren't sure they'd be able to keep up attending all of T.J.'s games. Trips to Oakland and Washington D.C. were looking problematic. Tod is retired after working 38 years in logistics for a grocery store chain, but Teri still works, as a special education consultant.
But there was no way they wouldn't be there for his debut, in Arizona.
Not only were they there, they brought along half of the state of Iowa with them. Teri estimated more than 100 family and friends made the trip west to watch the Lions play the Cardinals in Week 1. And T.J. delivered a memorable showing, catching six passes for 131 yards.
"It was a really cool thing," T.J. said. "It was my first NFL game, and to have that many people there that have supported me my entire life, to see me do it at this level and for me to play well, it really meant a lot. All those people still text and call me, so it's amazing to have that kind of support system."
For Lions home games, Tod and Teri have a routine. They leave Friday, after Teri gets done with work and drive more than nine hours to T.J.'s townhouse. It doesn't matter how late they get there, because they know he has a lot of time on Saturdays and it's all about spending time together on that day. After the game, Teri flies home to be at work Monday, while Tod drives home alone.
These days, they typically take the car. It's not practical for just the two of them to take the R.V., with fuel for the round-trip running close to $500. Although they made an exception for Detroit's early-season trip to Green Bay, where they tailgated a couple of blocks outside Lambeau.
Home weekends, Teri cooks. T.J.'s favorite dish is her chili, but only because he said she never managed to master Grandma's potato salad. They hang out, catch up before it's time for T.J. to go to the practice facility.
Remember that uncertainty about attending every game? That changed the second T.J. crashed to the turf in Week 4. Between prayers, Teri and Tod looked at each other and Teri committed them both to never missing a game. Ever.
"Whatever we do, if we have to move water, it doesn't matter, we are now never missing a game," Teri said. "Our son is out there on the field, and he's out there, we're in the stands."
Teri and Tod made it to Oakland and they made it to Washington D.C. And they won't be alone when they come to Detroit for T.J.'s first Thanksgiving day game with the Lions.
"Everybody is coming," Tod said.
Well, maybe not the 100-plus that were in the stands in Arizona, but siblings, spouses, aunts, uncles. Details aren't firm, but it tentatively looks like they'll gather for a big dinner at T.J.'s place after the game.
"It's the things you want Thanksgiving to be about, family and what you're thankful for," T.J. said. "It's going to be a lot of fun."