T.J. Hockenson watched his share of pro wrestling growing up. He was a fan of Rey Mysterio and his 619s, and of John Cena, so when his marketing agency asked if he wanted in on a wrestling-themed commercial this spring with his good friend, George Kittle, the Pro Bowl Detroit Lions tight end was quick to jump aboard.
And when Hockenson logged on for his first virtual meeting after the commercial debuted on YouTube in April, he knew what to expect from his Lions coaches and teammates.
“Ben Johnson, that’s my guy,” Hockenson said Friday of the Lions’ second-year tight ends coach. “He was just giving me crap. He’s just like, ‘Oh, red, huh? You like that bright red?’ I’m like, ‘That’s my thing!’ I was like, ‘Yep, that’s it.’ No, but the guys were just laughing the whole time, just having fun with it. I don’t think anyone really said anything bad. A couple of them were like, ‘Hey, dude you got to send me some.'”
Though his appearance was largely a cameo; he played Kittle’s hype man, dressed in red pants, a sleeveless red vest and white cowboy hat, and did not have any speaking lines in the 60-second spot for Kingsford’s hardwood grilling pellets.
It also showcased the fun-loving side of his rarely-before-seen-in-public personality.
Hockenson said in a March podcast that former Lions general manager Bob Quinn pulled him aside as a rookie and told him he liked to have “way too much fun.”
The comments were not meant as a negative, Hockenson said. Quinn was just stating the obvious: There was another side to the tight end that many took to be all about football.
“He loved it, but he was like, ‘Dude, I didn’t realize this in the draft,'” Hockenson said. “I was like, ‘No, that’s who I am.’ He was like, ‘I love it.’ He was always cool with it, but yeah, he didn’t realize that. So I’ve been branching my sail out more and trying to do that for sure.”
Hockenson is part of the new brand of personable players who seem to be populating the organization under new head coach Dan Campbell.
Campbell embraced himself at his introductory news conference in January, a passionate 90-minute session that will forever be known for its kneecap speech.
And that has given license to others in an organization where people seemed to be walking on eggshells for years, to be themselves — and for the organization to pursue a more colorful class of players.
Second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike had a few not-safe-for-work moments during his post-draft video conference Friday, telling reporters at one point, “I like (bleeping) people up” on the football field.
First-round pick Penei Sewell, who clearly is more comfortable in front of the camera than most offensive lineman, signed off from his news conference Saturday by flexing his massive muscles and shrieking, “Yessir, we in the D!”
And running back Jamaal Williams, the only Lions’ free-agent addition to sign a multi-year contract this spring, is known for his pregame dance routine, love of anime and easy-going way.
Williams told the Free Press in March he has thrived by being himself, by embracing his inner nerd and having fun on the field. And he and Hockenson agree there is tremendous value in playing for a coach who welcomes all types of personalities.
“One hundred percent,” Hockenson said. “And Dan is one of those guys that is going to be himself and going to — he’s not going to BS you. He’s always going to just be straightforward with you and I think that’s what we love as players and that’s how I like to be coached is don’t BS me. Just tell me what it is. And same thing with us to him, tell him how it is. I think that goes a long way and just being able to just be yourself and not worry about what people are saying, because there’s going to be people that love you and there’s going to be people that hate you. You can’t change that either way.
“Some people wake up and they just want to ruin your day, and that’s just what their decision is. It’s like, ‘All right, cool. I’m going to live my life and you’re going to live yours.’ I think that’s kind of just how you have to go about it and I think that’s the culture we’re trying to build in Detroit, and I think that’s going to carry us a long way and be able to turn that thing around. And just to have fun. Just bring back fun to Detroit, I think that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Eventually, the hope is that will lead to winning.
But for now, Hockenson, who finished fourth among NFL tight ends with 67 catches for 723 yards last season, said he had a blast taking part in that April commercial shoot at Kittle’s farm in Tennessee.
The shoot ran a few hours the Friday before Easter, and when Hockenson was done, he felt like he squeezed in his second workout of the day.
“It was about 2 hours holding those things, walking down. I’m like, ‘All right, I got a pump. I got another workout in,'” Hockenson said. “And I’m looking at George, and he’s holding the microphone and I’m like, ‘Dude, screw you. I’m over here picking these bags up.'”
Next time, he said he deserves speaking lines.
“I just saw what I usually see on TV and I just tried to re-enact it,” Hockenson said. “But yeah, it was a lot of fun and just being able to actually show who I am and how outgoing I am and everything is kind of a different aspect for me. It’s kind of an exciting thing to be able to show.”