By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Something tells me that the Outback Bowl will be T.J. Hockenson’s last game as a member of the Iowa football team.
It’s just a hunch based on several factors, including timing, circumstance and money.
I know that Hockenson said recently that he wouldn’t be chasing money if he ultimately decides to declare for the 2019 NFL Draft as a third-year sophomore tight end, and I believe him to a point.
But we’re all chasing money in some respects because that is one of the main purposes in life.
I understand what Hockenson means in that he isn’t desperate for money, or under any financial pressure to forgo his final two seasons of college eligibility.
Hockenson's interest in the NFL is based more on him wanting to compete at the highest level because that is what fuels every competitor, the desire to prove yourself against the very best.
So that combined with the fact that Hockenson has momentum right now as the recent winner of the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate tight end, makes me think that he will, or already has made the decision to enter the 2019 draft.
Hockenson said Monday that he has a pretty good idea which way he is leaning, but he didn’t get any more specific than that.
He will announce his decision after facing Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day in Tampa, Fla., and either way, he comes out a winner.
Hockenson either will join his former college teammate and fellow tight end Noah Fant in the 2019 draft or he return to Iowa to build on what is already a spectacular career despite only being at the halfway point.
Hockenson would almost certainly own every receiving record for an Iowa tight end if he used all four seasons eligibility and kept producing at his current pace. He likely would own a bunch of records just by returning for one more season.
The Chariton native led Iowa during the regular season with 46 catches and 717 receiving yards. His six touchdown catches during the regular season were second on the team to Fant’s seven.
Of course, statistics matter, and being the big man on campus has to be a thrill for Hockenson.
But it was obvious on Monday that what matters most to him is the honor and the privilege of being an Iowa football player and being around his teammates and coaches.
Hockenson already is living a dream and hasn’t been paid one cent from the NFL yet.
He could easily follow Fant’s example and declare for the NFL Draft, and also skip the bowl game as a precautionary measure, because it’s looking more and more like they both could be high draft picks.
But Hockenson isn’t ready to go that far yet, and that seems mostly due to how much he enjoys being an Iowa football player, and how much he enjoys being a student-athlete at the University of Iowa. He has made friends for life while changing the course of his life in college, and sometimes, that’s hard to give up.
‘I love the university. I love these coaches,” Hockenson said Monday when asked why it was so important for him to play in the bowl game. “These people are amazing people and this is something you can’t get back is another bowl game with these guys. And these guys in particular. So whether I stay or whether I go, coming out of that Swarm again, that means a lot to somebody.”
Hockenson almost became emotional on Monday as he talked about his rapid ascent to stardom and about what it means to be an Iowa football player.
He was given the rare opportunity to play football for Iowa on scholarship and has made the most of that opportunity, on and off the field.
Hockenson will always remember his great catches and the plays in which he hurdled defenders or made a pancake block.
But judging from what he said on Monday, Hockenson will remember and cherish the people more than anything else, and that is the sign of a healthy program.
Iowa certainly has its flaw under Kirk Ferentz, like losing too often to Wisconsin, but the strength of the program was evident as Hockenson talked about the difficult decision that he now faces.
It’s only difficult because of how much Hockenson appreciates being a Hawkeye, and playing for Ferentz.
Hockenson came to Iowa with individual goals like every recruit does. But he has exceeded those goals beyond his wildest imagination.
And now he is dealing with that reality, which he describes as surreal.
Hockenson’s parents also are dealing with a new reality, which includes random phone calls from strangers who are either looking to advise, assist or benefit should their son decide to enter the NFL Draft.
This is an exciting time for Hockenson and for his family, but also a scary, confusing and conflicted time.
He is getting ready to make what is by far the biggest decision in his left to this point, and there is no turning back once he makes that decision.
Hockenson said his parents are completely neutral and will support whatever he decides.
He has reached out to former Iowa tight end Dallas Clark for advice, but also realizes that Clark's decision to enter the 2003 NFL Draft as a junior was different that Hockenson's decision. Clark also had won the John Mackey Award, but was 23 years old and had been out of high school for almost five years when he decided to skip his senior season.
Hockenson, on the other hand, is just 21 and less than three years removed from high school.
He talked on Monday about what he still has to accomplish should he return to Iowa.
Hockenson said there still is so much to do and so much to learn from Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz if he does return. Brian Ferentz also coaches the tight ends, so they’re kind of joined at the hip.
"There is so much to learn and so much to get better at," Hockenson said. "When you're forty, there is obviously always going to be something to get better at whether it's in football or your respective thing."
My only hope is that Hockenson will make the best decision for him because his future is what matters the most in this case.
It was the same with Fant, and hopefully, his decision to leave early for the draft will pay dividends. Fant shouldn't be criticized for acting in his best interest and for doing what he thinks will benefit him the most in the future.
As much as Hockenson loves being a Hawkeye, there is a time when you have to put yourself in front of the team, and that time is now for Hockenson.
If he decides that it would be in his best interest to return to Iowa for his junior season, then great and more power to him and won’t that be fun.
And more power to Hockenson should he decide to enter the draft.
He has played well enough to put himself in a win-win situation and there are lots of people that have helped along the way.
Those people should only want what is best for T.J. Hockenson.