CHARITON, Ia. — Football star T.J. Hockenson will be in the spotlight Thursday evening, walking on to a stage in Nashville, Tennessee — and into millions of living rooms via national television — as a first-round NFL draft pick.
The glow will extend to the 4,122 people in his southern Iowa hometown.
His former coaches will be among the overflow crowd expected to gather at the refurbished Hotel Charitone on Braden Street, where a community watch party has been planned for weeks.
“It wasn’t long ago that he was at my house shooting pool,” said Josh Snook, who coached Hockenson in football and track at Chariton High School. “And now, look at him. It shows that you can come from anywhere and make it big when you work hard.”
Cheri Arnold will be watching at her home, avoiding the big crowd downtown so she can actually hear what is being said about her daughter’s boyfriend during the biggest moment of his life so far.
“I’ll probably cry,” Arnold anticipated of the moment Hockenson learns what team has chosen him to be its new tight end. “I’m so excited for him. I want him to be happy, and he will be. He’ll be awesome.”
Even in Ames, there will be a dose of Chariton pride. That’s where Aaron Cain will be soaking up the moment with some friends at Iowa State, a group of Cyclones putting aside the rivalry for a moment to revel in the accomplishments of a former Iowa Hawkeye.
“It’s super crazy to think that four or five years ago I was throwing the football to a guy that’s going to be an NFL tight end,” said Cain, who was the Chariton Chargers' quarterback for the final season of Hockenson’s record-setting career. “I’m shocked still that he’s going to be a top-10 draft pick. I’m excited for him, and I’m not even going to be there.”
A visit to Chariton this week revealed a town united behind a single resident.
It’s a feeling previously known in Iowa communities such as Bode, which saw native son Dallas Clark taken in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft. Or in Manchester, when Robert Gallery was picked second overall in 2004. And most recently in Denison in 2015, when Brandon Scherff was the fifth player chosen.
Hockenson will join those former Hawkeyes are small-town heroes turned big-time stars come NFL Draft night. The latest USA TODAY mock draft has Hockenson going No. 7 to the Jacksonsville Jaguars. He's considered a rare talent at his position — a dozen tight ends have gone in the top 10 since 1970.
MORE DRAFT PROJECTIONS:Where the national experts think Hockenson will go
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our whole town, and I hope people will be able to pause this week and just be able to enjoy it. Because it’s really unbelievable,” said Tim Milledge, a Chariton native who serves as the athletic director at the high school. “You have to pinch yourself sometimes and think, 'Is this really happening to T.J.?' And we’re just fortunate enough to be on the ride with him. This has been his dream, and he’s included us many times. And we feel like we’re included again.”
Milledge was among many here who first met Hockenson when he arrived as a sixth-grader. The family moved from Cherokee when Tod Hockenson got a new position with Hy-Vee, the town's largest employer.
Hockenson was a big kid with obvious athletic talent who quickly fit in with peers such as Cain.
“He never acted like he was better than anybody else. He wanted to be your friend, before anything,” Cain said.
Hockenson became a frequent visitor to the Cain family pig farm. His initials are still etched into the concrete of a building there.
Cain said the last time he spoke with Hockenson, a few weeks ago, they discussed old times on the farm, not football.
“I was just trying to take his mind off all that,” Cain said. “He’s got plenty of people to talk about that with.”
Indeed, Hockenson has become one of the NFL’s most coveted young players, just three years removed from a career at Chariton that saw him set Iowa high school records with 238 receptions and 49 touchdowns.
Chariton coach Curt Smyser revamped his entire offense to feature Hockenson, quickly realizing the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder could catch just about anything thrown in his vicinity. Before and after Hockenson, the Chargers have been a team that thrives with an old-school running attack. For three years, though, it was Hockenson’s show.
Smyser split him out wide. Ran him in motion. Looked for any mismatch he could find. And his team made the playoffs in Class 3A as a result.
Opponents would try double- and even triple-teaming Hockenson. To no avail.
“Just get the ball close, and he would catch it,” Smyser said. “He was one of the most intelligent football players we’ve seen. Even as a freshman and sophomore, he would come to the sideline and tell us what coverages he was seeing. He made you look really good as a coach at times.”
If Smyser hadn’t changed his offense to showcase Hockenson, he may never have gotten the attention of Iowa and Iowa State. Those were the only two schools to offer him football scholarships. His parents, Tod and Teri, both graduated from Iowa State. But Hockenson had his heart set on being a Hawkeye.
INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC:Every Iowa Hawkeye ever selected in the NFL Draft
He redshirted his first year in Iowa City, adding muscle and learning to block, something he never had to do at Chariton but one thing Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa coaching staff insist from their tight ends.
The next season, Hockenson was on the field for nearly every snap, catching 24 passes for 320 yards. Then came 2018 and one of the greatest seasons in Hawkeye history. Now at 250 pounds, Hockenson was Iowa’s top pass-catcher, with 49 receptions for 760 yards. He proved to be a devastating blocker. He received the Mackey Award as the best tight end in college football.
And he left school two years early, with NFL scouts salivating over his talent.
In Chariton, even his former coaches were surprised by how rapidly Hockenson became a bona fide star. Smyser said he thought Hockenson had a chance to start at Iowa by his junior and senior seasons.
Instead, Smyser has spent the past few months fielding questions from NFL teams about Hockenson’s character, his grades, his relationships with others.
“I told them he’s a great kid. Really, he is,” Smyser said. “Everything the kid does has turned to gold. … He’s worked his butt off, and he’s really talented. A kid like that could be big-headed, but he’s pretty humble.”
Hockenson returns to Chariton frequently. He visits his old school, where he’s happy to sign autographs.
Arnold, a teacher, has a shrine of sorts in a corner of her classroom at Columbus Elementary. It’s packed with Hawkeye memorabilia and newspaper clippings about Hockenson. He has even visited her students, who were thrilled to be in the company of the town’s most famous resident.
Actually, Hockenson is part of the town’s celebrity couple. Carley Arnold was Miss Iowa Teen USA in 2017 and is now a student at Northern Iowa. They have been dating since their senior year of high school. They were decked out in black and gold for their senior prom.
Cheri Arnold, Carley's mom and already a football fan, has taken to zeroing in on Hockenson on every play when she attends games. She marvels at his athletic abilities, and also the impact he can have in a town such as Chariton.
“If people paid attention in high school and saw all of his awards, it’s not that big of a surprise that he’s going to be an NFL player,” she said. “I think it’s just great for the kids to have someone to look up to and realize that if you have this dream and work hard, that you’ve got that chance, too. Whether it’s sports or anything.”
That’s the same message that Smyser and Snook are delivering at the high school. They started a leadership class this winter, a Wednesday gathering for interested students. Hockenson was the subject of a recent lesson. Smyser pointed out that his former athlete chose to play in Iowa’s Outback Bowl game Jan. 1, despite the fact that he was already assured of an NFL future. Other players, notably fellow Hawkeye tight end Noah Fant, have chosen to skip bowl games in those situations in order to avoid possible injury with a big payday looming.
“He put his team ahead of himself,” Smyser told his students. “That’s why he’s going to be successful, the choices he’s made.”
Hockenson was in Chariton this weekend before heading to Nashville with family and friends for his big moments on the red carpet, in the green room, on TV screens everywhere.
Milledge was doing work in his yard south of town, removing his shirt in the spring sunshine. Hockenson drove by with some friends.
Milledge heard a familiar voice shout: “Hey, nice dad bod!”
“You think, this guy is getting ready to become this multimillion-dollar athlete, and he’s still a kid at heart and still hanging out with his friends on the weekend and still yelling out of the car at me,” Milledge laughed.
“For as many years as I can remember, you mention Chariton and everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s the home of Hy-Vee.’ And we’re so grateful for that. But now you start to mention Chariton and you’re getting, ‘That’s T.J. Hockenson’s hometown.’ It’s another great thing to be known for.
“I’m not an NFL fan. I don’t have an NFL team. But I will, as of Thursday night. And I’m guessing 4,500 Lucas County residents will have a brand-new team as well.”
Mark Emmert covers University of Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.