BEREA — As J.T. Hassell played and talked with the kids at the Browns youth football camp, he was happy to show them his left hand — he was born with two fingers — and proud to share his inspirational story.
A couple of months ago he wasn’t ready to be so vulnerable.
“I never even talked about my hand until I got to this level because I was always like, I wouldn’t say embarrassed, but it was just really hard for me,” Hassell, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound undrafted rookie safety, said Wednesday during the youth camp. “Like when I took pictures, I always used to hide it.
“So now I just feel like I understand that it’s a gift.”
Hassell’s mom started him in sports as a kid because she got tired of him “running around, driving her crazy.” He played basketball and baseball, but football was his favorite after he began at 7 years old on a flag team.
“I just found my love for the game of football running around and hitting people,” he said.
Despite the disadvantage of having only two fingers on the left hand, Hassell excelled. During high school in Florida, he had more than 100 tackles in each varsity season and finished with 20 forced fumbles, five interceptions and four touchdowns.
He said he never had an issue tackling or catching but acknowledged he has to work much harder than a player without his issue. His mom asked if he wanted a prosthesis but he declined.
“I was like, ‘At the end of the day, I don’t. I just want to be the way God made me,’” he said. “And now I definitely understand it and I’m so thankful for it.”
The NFL was always a dream but Hassell admitted he never thought he’d make it.
He started his college career at South Dakota State but transferred after two years to Division II Florida Tech to be close to his son, Cameron, who’s 5. He knew dropping levels would hurt his draft prospects but felt it necessary to be in his son’s life.
In 12 games as a senior, he had 124 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception while playing linebacker. But he was well off the NFL’s radar until running a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at his pro day. The Browns heard about it, had him in for a visit and signed him after the draft.
“He’s growing. He had the skill set. He’s really, really fast,” pass game coodinator/secondary coach Joe Whitt said during organized team activities. “He’s a guy that’s going to show a little more when the pads go on because he’s a physical man. That’s where his skill set comes.”
Hassell is making the switch to safety and has practiced at the strong and free positions. The safety room is crowded, but even if he doesn’t make the 53-man roster he could stick on the practice squad if the speed translates to production in training camp and the preseason.
He’s aiming higher than the practice squad.
“I feel like once I get (safety) down, I’ll probably be one of the best players in this league,” he said. “I always knew my worth even though I didn’t get drafted, I was like God definitely put me here for a reason, it wasn’t a mistake. So I felt I could definitely compete.”
As Hassell started the uphill climb of trying to make it in the NFL as an undrafted rookie from an unknown school, he began to understand the impact he could have by telling his story.
“People started talking to me and telling me that I inspire them and they’re thankful for me, so I just felt like I could use it just to help people and reach out to people,” he said.
The campers looking up to Hassell and his fellow rookies with wide eyes are his target audience.
“The kids is one of the biggest things for me, because growing up as a kid I didn’t really have this setting to be around guys in the NFL and guys that I looked up to,” he said. “So every chance I get I tell the kids, look, I’ve been through all this and with my disability, in life you can do whatever you put your mind to.”
As a kid he didn’t understand why the disability happened to him. He now views it as the “best thing,” as he was forced to find ways to overcome, including figuring out different ways to catch a ball and lift weights.
He’s drawn inspiration from second-year Seahawks linebacker Shaquem Griffin, who lost his hand and was a fifth-round pick and played 16 games as a rookie.
“I thought I was the only one with a disability and trying to fight to get to the top just to get people to hear my story,” Hassell said. “But I’m very thankful for him and his grind and his ability to make it to the top to inspire me.”
They haven’t talked but Hassell plans to reach out once he establishes himself.
“I don’t want to be treated any differently because of my disability,” he said. “I just want to play football and have fun and inspire people.”