OTAs & Minicamp

Born with just 2 fingers on his left hand, Browns’ J.T. Hassell defied the odds from the start, worked 'twice as hard as anyone else’ on his way to NFL contract

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Kimberly Hassell paused for a second as she processed the question.

Was she surprised her son, J.T., overcame the odds to land a spot on the Browns’ 90-man roster?

A birth defect left him with just two fingers on his left hand. A move back home midway through his college career left him fighting and scrapping for scouts to watch what he was accomplishing at Florida Tech, a Division II school that had just two players in its history sign an NFL contract. A 5-foot-11, 200-pound frame meant his days as a hard-hitting linebacker would be over the moment he walked into an NFL facility.

Impressed? Certainly. 

Proud? Beyond measure. 

But surprised? Kimberly couldn’t go that far.

“I always told my son he was destined for greatness,” Kimberly said. “Being born the way he was, he could have not been born at all. He was a miracle from the beginning … I feel like my son compensated not having a hand, he was determined even more.

“I'm not really that surprised because I know whatever in life he does, he accomplishes it. If there's an impossible, he'll make it possible.”

Hassell has one more impossible to check off his list, and he’ll get the chance to do it over the next few months in his pursuit for a spot on Cleveland’s 53-man roster. He’s a safety now, and the odds are steep to make a roster that’s been overhauled and infused with talent over the past year and a half.

All of that is understood. Hassell just carries the earned confidence that comes with already overcoming everything he has.

“Coming into here, I knew everything was against me,” Hassell said. “I had to transition to a whole new position and I'm learning free safety and strong safety at the same time. I have to work harder to make the team. Every day I get up early and stay late to do the most I can. 

“At the end of the day, God's plan will be God’s plan, whether it's football or not.”

\\*

In Kimberly’s eyes, it started when J.T. was still in the womb.

She calls him a “miracle baby” because what happened to his left hand could have easily happened to his entire body. In the first months of Kimberly’s pregnancy, when J.T. was transitioning from an embryo to a fetus, J.T. experienced what she called a “mini stroke.” The blood vessels in what would become his left hand burst, setting him up to develop just two of the normal five fingers.

Kimberly’s sorrow quickly turned to relief as she learned about what more could have happened.

“His whole body could have burst, and that's when you have a miscarriage,” she said. “All of the blood vessels could have burst but only the one for his hand burst because I think God had a greater plan for him.”

From the moment J.T. was old enough to hold a football or grab a bat, Kimberly implored him to treat his disability as an afterthought. It wouldn’t stop him, nor would it define him.

She made him wash the dishes and vacuum just like she would have if he were born with two normal hands. He’d play baseball, even though he was initially reluctant. And he’d have dreams of the NFL before he was able to play tackle football.

This mindset shaped the work ethic Hassell believes played the biggest part in him realizing these dreams with the Browns.

“I had to work twice as hard as anyone else,” he said. “It's kind of a blessing in disguise because when everyone looks at me, they say, ‘how does he do it?’ or ‘if I was in his situation I don't know how I would do it.’ 

“I think it's kind of a blessing because at the end of the day, whether I'm playing football or not, it will be something for me to help people and help inspire people.”

Check out the best photos of the 2019 rookie class this offseason by team photographer Matt Starkey

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Hassell’s arms and legs are covered in tattoos. The first one -- “RIP JG” placed on top of a football -- represents a tragedy that Hassell believes has shaped and defined him way more than a birth defect could.

Shortly before he began his high school football career, Hassell lost one of his best friends. According to news reports, 15-year-old Johntay Gowdie was struck in the head by a bullet and ultimately passed away a week later. Gowdie was one of three teens playing with a handgun when it inadvertently fired.

This was Hassell’s first experience with death of any kind, and it hit him hard.

“It was crazy mentally,” Hassell said. “We went to school together. We grew up playing football together. It was crazy for me at the time. I was young at the time. It was really hard. Everytime I'm on the field I'm thinking about him. 

“He lives through me now.”

Gowdie and Hassell were close on and off the field. Since they were in kindergarten, they vowed they’d make it to the NFL together. When he reflected on the origins of his NFL dream, J.T. first referred to it as “our dream” because of the role Gowdie played in it.

“After that happened, I really dug deep down and I said I'm going to do it for me,” J.T. said. “That's what really pushed me in my mind that I always wanted to play football and I love football. I just love being out there. Even if I'm third team or fifth team, I'm just having fun every day no matter what my job is. I just love the game.”

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Hassell was an absolute terror on the field during a high school career that was split between the two high schools in Titusville -- Titusville High and Astronaut High. He piled up more than 100 tackles in each of his varsity seasons. He forced a whopping 20 fumbles, intercepted five passes and scored four touchdowns.

His impact, though, went well beyond the numbers. You didn’t just see Hassell play in Brevard County. You felt him. And not once did you even think about his left hand.

“He's one of those ones where if you watched Astronaut play when he was there, the kids knew who he was,” said Justin Worden, the current head coach at Astronaut High who was an assistant during the early part of Hassell’s high school career and coached against him as he grew older. 

“He's the guy that blows you up when you cut back. When you run at J.T., you're probably going to get hit. He has that reputation. It's almost like they revere you when you hit people like he does.

“Shoot, he caught a touchdown pass against us.”

Hassell’s dream of playing Division I football came true when he signed a scholarship to attend South Dakota State. Hundreds of miles from home, Hassell showed he belonged right from the jump, starting 14 games as a freshman and registering 62 tackles over two seasons.

On the field, everything was going as planned. Off the field, though, Hassell felt too distant from his family in Florida. He missed his son, Cameron -- who was born shortly before Hassell went off to school -- and the sudden death of his grandfather put his family in a tough spot. 

It was time to come home, even if his football options weren’t as palatable. Hassell waited and waited for a potential offer to stay in Division I but it never came. He opted for an understandably thrilled Florida Tech, a Division II school located less than an hour from his old high school.

“It was really tough for me to go D-1 to D-2,” Hassell said. “At first I thought I lost everything but I was in my son's life. It was just hard because the dudes that get drafted are mostly all D-1 for this year's draft. It's kind of like that every year. It's hard to be at D-2, D-3, JUCO. It's one of the hardest things and people don't realize that.”

Hassell did his part on the field.

In 23 games over two seasons, Hassell had more than 200 tackles, eight sacks and five forced fumbles. He had 20 tackles in a single game. He was a finalist for the 2018 Cliff Harris Award, given to the Small College Defensive Player of the Year, and landed on four Division II All-American teams.

Simply put, he was a local legend who was promptly inducted into the Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame shortly after his college career came to a close.

“The best way I can describe it is it's almost like a ghost the way (high schoolers) talk about him,” Worden said. “He's been so busy with college and doing everything there that he hasn't been around the program as much since he left as some of the other ones who obviously aren't tied up with sports. Some of these kids have never even met him but it's just the way they talk about him and the reverence they talk about him. It's really cool to see.”

The local notoriety just didn’t translate to much outside the Space Coast, so Hassell had to try everything to receive any kind of attention leading up to the NFL Draft.

Hassell reached out to anyone he knew with even the faintest connection to NFL coaches and scouts in attempts to get his film in front of the right set of eyes. South Dakota State denied Hassell’s request to participate in its Pro Day, so Hassell settled for Florida Tech’s, which was attended by two NFL scouts -- both from the Miami Dolphins, Hassell said. After posting impressive times -- 4.38-second 40-yard dash, 6.84-second three-cone drill and a 42-inch vertical leap -- Hassell sent those numbers to the 20 or so scouts whose information was posted on a bulletin board inside Florida Tech’s football offices.

The Browns called the next day. He made a visit to Berea a few days later for his one and only top-30 visit during the pre-draft process.

“They just really liked me,” Hassell said. “They heard about my disability, the way I was born and how I've overcome a lot of stuff in my life. They saw my Pro Day results and how I play on film. They just really believed I could be a piece to this puzzle.”

Hassell got the news he’d be a Brown late on Day 3 of the draft. He was one of 15 undrafted free agents added to the roster before the start of OTAs.

“I just feel like he deserves to live his dream,” Kimberly said. “He has inspired me so much. When I feel like I'm down in my days or down on myself, I just think about how my son wouldn't quit and my son wouldn't give up so I'm just going to keep moving forward myself.”

Hassell has never met Seattle linebacker Shaquem Griffin, who dealt with a similar birth defect to one of his hands, but was inspired to watch him burst on the scene in his final season at Central Florida, land with the Seahawks as a fifth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and hold down a roster spot through his entire rookie season.  

As an undrafted free agent on a talent-rich team who is learning a new position, Hassell understands the odds against him are even steeper. It just isn’t fazing him.

“At least somebody made it to show people somebody with a disability can do it,” Hassell said. “There's people today that are in wheelchairs or can't see or can't walk and they'll never play football. Imagine how they feel. 

“There's kids at home that can't do it but wish they could. Through me and Shaquem Griffin, we kind of give them hope.”

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