How gymnastics helped Devin Funchess succeed in first game with hometown Detroit Lions

Detroit Free Press

Devin Funchess lined up wide, where he has long been accustomed to playing before his recent conversion to tight end.

Tim Boyle looked at him in the huddle and thought the 6-foot-4 target would have a mismatch.

“Tim just said ‘13, come to me,’” Funchess said in the locker room following the Detroit Lions‘ 27-23 loss to the Falcons in the preseason opener on Friday.  “So I just made sure that I had leverage on him and he threw a catchable ball.”

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Funchess stuttered, ran a fade and extended his arms to haul in the 1-yard touchdown pass, putting the Lions ahead just before halftime.

It was a long time coming for Funchess, who hadn’t been in the end zone  in an NFL game since Dec. 2, 2018.

“Hell yeah, I had a lot of fun today,” Funchess said. “Just need to thank God for everything, for allowing me another opportunity to play the game.”

Working his way back

After a successful four-year stint in Carolina, the former Farmington Hills Harrison and Michigan football star has battled his way back into the league after three long years. It started in 2019,when he caught just three passes in Week 1 with the Indianapolis Colts before missing the rest of the year with an injury.

After opting out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Funchess looked to return to the Packers in 2021. In late August he was placed on the injured reserve list with a hamstring injury and was cut just days later.

It wasn’t until June, with the Lions limited at tight end — T.J. Hockenson sat Friday after practicing off and on in training camp and fifth-round pick James Mitchell is still working his way back from injury — that he got a call from his hometown team and signed a contract.

Funchess is  still  trying to earn a place on the roster. Finishing second on the team with four catches, 19 yards and a score will help him do that.

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“Everybody, they treat me with the utmost respect and teach me everything that I need to know,” Funchess said of the tight end room. “It’s competition but they love me and they just teach me everything and I’m so appreciative above that.”

Funchess showed something different on just about every catch.

In addition to his touchdown, he converted a third-and-8 on an out route up the sideline and caught a check-down pass from David Blough before hurdling Atlanta’s Tre Webb.

With dozens of friends and family members in the crowd, Funchess promised them he would “put a show on,” that’s not why he decided to go up and over the defender.

“It was in the moment, I felt like they were shooting at my knees,” he said. “I was like ‘I’m not about to get hit in the knees again, so it was just jump over them.”

Gymnastics is harder

Funchess has hurdled defenders all his life, including some of his best highlights in the maize and blue against Ohio State and Indiana.

But it wasn’t those memories, or the times he did so at Harrison, that made him try it again on Friday.

“I did gymnastics, so it helped me out to know where I’m at in space and know where I’m at in the air,” he said.

Funchess? Gymnastics?

“I’ve been doing gymnastics the last 18 months,” he said. “My daughter said she wanted to do it so I wanted to try it out before she got into it to make sure it’s safe and that helped me out a little bit with what I do.

“She has fun with it too, so it’s like a family affair.”

It’s something he started during the pandemic when he was living in Florida. His coach, Cathy, who’s trained him the whole way, “is everything” he said, calling her the one coach who has always let him “have all the fun in the world.”

“Spatial awareness, understanding where you are in the air,” he said of how it translates to the field. “Core, everything, I can basically slow time down.”

Gymnastics is harder than football, Funchess said, because of the mental side of it. He said he understands why Simone Biles needed to take a break for her mental health at the Olympics because “you have to be locked in before you do one of those flips.”

Funchess is different from his days at Michigan. He still has the same strong hands and muscular frame, but he has realized that football can be taken from him.

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“Now I got all my little ones looking at me, my daughter and all my nieces and nephews and little cousins,” he said. “The fact they’re all looking at me I got to be a real super-uncle, super-dad type. So that’s what I was trying to do.”

No one could have seen the trials and tribulations of the past three years coming. But Funchess is strong in his faith — he wears it with three around his neck — and that’s what he remembers as he pushes for a roster spot.

“FTN, forgive the negativity,” he said of the letters on his chain. “You can never forget it, so you just forgive them. Like the lord says.”

Contact Tony Garcia at Follow him on Twitter at @realtonygarcia.

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