Football Alumnus Overcomes Personal Obstacles to Become First Panther to Play in the NFL

By Jerry Durney and Florida Tech Athletic Communications

Walking off the field at FirstEnergy Stadium Nov. 24, 2019, J.T. Hassell had completed two tackles, one win and one lifelong dream: becoming a professional football player in the National Football League (NFL).

Although thousands of young football players have shared Hassell’s dream, few have had to overcome the obstacles that have littered his path to accomplishing it.

While he was still in his mother’s womb, an abnormality caused the blood vessels in Hassell’s left hand to burst, leaving him with just two fingers on that hand when he was born. 

But Hassell never let the birth defect hinder him. Instead, he learned to overcome adversity from an early age.

“I always had to figure out other ways to do things,” Hassell says. “Whether it was in the weight room or catching the ball or anything, I always had to find my own way.”

The Beginning

Growing up in Titusville, Florida, Hassell was a stud on the high school gridiron. 

Having played at both Titusville High School and Astronaut High School during his prep career, he quickly developed a reputation as one of the top defensive standouts in Brevard County. 

After high school, Hassell signed a scholarship to play Division I football at South Dakota State University (SDSU). Proving he belonged right from the beginning, he started 14 games as a true freshman for the Jackrabbits, who that year competed in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs. He went on to register 62 tackles over his two seasons with the team.

Playing Division I football was everything Hassell had dreamed it would be. However, he quickly learned that some things are more important than football. 

Shortly before he had left for South Dakota State, his son, Cameron, was born.

“While I was up there, I felt deep down in my heart I needed to be in my son’s life,” Hassell says. “Because, my dad’s in my life now, but for a short period of time, he wasn’t there, and I remember every day what that felt like growing up.”

So, following his sophomore season in 2015, Hassell transferred to a university a little closer to home: Florida Tech.

Florida Tech vs. North Greenville University Nov. 23, 2018, at Florida Tech Panther Stadium. Credit: Matthew Lanoue

“After just a couple months, me and the coaching staff were able to see for ourselves that he was such a team player, a leader, a role model, funny to be around and, overall, just great for our team,” says Florida Tech head football coach Steve Englehart.

Hassell made an immediate impact on the defense during his first season as a Panther in 2017. He had 79 tackles, including nine for loss and two sacks, on the way to earning Second Team All-Gulf South Conference honors.

But the impact of his playing stats paled in comparison to his leadership on and off the field.

“He always had fun playing and showed the same emotion, no matter if we were winning or losing,” Englehart says, recalling a particular 20-something loss against University of North Alabama in 2017. “At the end of the game, while everyone was walking to the locker room, obviously upset, he had a smile on his face and would say, ‘That’s OK; we’ll be alright. Keep your head up.’ He always brought that type of leadership and energy.”

Hassell’s senior season in 2018 was one of the best individual seasons in program history. He logged a program single-season record 124 tackles, anchoring a Panther defense that helped the team to an 8-4 record and its second playoff berth. That year, Hassell earned the Gulf South Conference Defensive Player of the Year award, joining J.J. Sanders as the only Panthers to win the award.

The Big League

On April 27, 2019, just hours after the NFL draft in Nashville, Tennessee, the Cleveland Browns organization announced its plans to sign Hassell as an undrafted free agent. 

Hassell had made it to the big league, and he signed to make it official May 3, 2019. 

When he reported to rookie camp shortly thereafter, he faced his next challenge. Listed at 5 feet, 11 inches tall, Hassell was told that while he may have been of college linebacker size, in the pros, his stature better fit the safety position, and he needed to decide which route to pursue. 

Learning to play a new position may not be easy, but to Hassell, the decision was. If it meant a better chance at playing in the NFL, he would learn. 

Coming into the 2019 season, the Browns received a considerable amount of attention, thanks to star players like Odell Beckham Jr. and Baker Mayfield. But even the marquee names, Pro Bowl players and first-round picks on the roster couldn’t distract the Browns from noticing the work that the rookie from Florida Tech was putting in to earn a roster spot after training camp.

JT Hassell playing for the Cleveland Browns. Credit: Matt Starkey

So, on Nov. 20, 2019, they gave it to him.

Four days after moving from the practice squad to the 53-man active roster, Hassel made his NFL debut against the Miami Dolphins in Cleveland, and that Sunday afternoon, he became the first Panther in school history to play in an NFL regular season game.

Hassell concluded his first season with the Browns, recording seven tackles in four games. His high for the season came in a Week 13 game, in which he had four tackles against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Some of the vets here, guys come up to me all the time; they still ask me ‘How do you do it?’” Hassell says. “They tell me I am an inspiration to them.”

And Bigger

Hassell meets Michael Aponte, a 7-year-old from Lorain, Ohio, with a similar hand condition.

His teammates aren’t the only people Hassell, his success and his attitude have inspired.

Since Hassell became a professional athlete, the spotlight on his hand condition has considerably increased, and he has embraced the roles of public figure and role model, as well.

Through public speaking opportunities and organizations like the Lucky Fin Project, Hassell raises awareness about his condition within the community and reaches out to others, especially children, who were born with the same defect.

“Growing up, I just thought I was different all the time—like I wasn’t normal,” Hassell says. “I would always hide my hand in my pocket. Now, I’m more comfortable with it and just being who I am.”

While his spring and summer schedules are packed with a new round of organized team activities, training camps and more to prepare for another season with the Browns, Hassell plans to use any downtime he has before the start of the 2020 season to return to his roots, sharing his knowledge and experience with Titusville youth.

In the meantime, Hassell looks forward to his second season in the NFL and believes the 2020 campaign will be a special one. 

Given his record, there’s no reason to think otherwise. 

This story was featured in the spring 2020 edition of Florida Tech Magazine. Read the full issue here.

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