MOBILE, Ala. — Iowa TE C.J. Fiedorowicz had an NFL-rooted support system that should prepare him for the making the step up to the big leagues, perhaps more so than many of the players at this week's Senior Bowl.
His college head coach, Kirk Ferentz, coached in the league for six years. Ferentz's son, Brian, was the Hawkeyes' offensive line coach (also working with the tight ends) the past two years after four seasons with the New England Patriots, and he just accepted a position on Bill O'Brien's staff with the Houston Texans.
But Fiedorowicz's other, more interesting connection to the NFL is an indirect one, but also a deep-rooted relationship with his tight ends coach at Iowa, D.J. Hernandez. As in, the brother of imprisoned former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.
D.J. Hernandez played quarterback in college football and was a captain at Connecticut from 2004 to 2009, and he joined Ferentz's staff at Iowa less than a year ago as a graduate assistant working primarily with the tight ends.
What a year it was for Hernandez.
On June 26, Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with the first-degree murder of Odin Lloyd in what police called an execution-style shooting near Hernandez's house in North Attleborough, Mass.
Nearly 1,200 miles across the country, D.J. Hernandez wept in front of his new team.
The new coach, who was still getting to know the players on the team, gathered the players and told them what he was going through a few days after his brother's arrest. Fiedorowicz was in awe as his position coach bared his soul to nearly a hundred young men.
"He gave us all a speech, he just let it all out and he started crying a little bit," Fiedorowicz said. "He told us the whole story of what happened with [Aaron].
"But he never really showed much emotion after that. He just let it all out that one day. You could tell he was down some days, he was pissed off. But he always tried to be strong, to hold it together."
The team and Fiedorowicz had no choice but to move on and rally around Hernandez. Some were afraid to ask him about what was going on, or pry too much, but Fiedorowicz said they built a bond slowly through the course of the season, and Hernandez opened up some more about what he was going through on a daily basis while his brother sat in a jail cell, awaiting trial.
"He got to talk to his brother a few times, and he said he wrote him letters all the time," Fiedorowicz said. "I can’t even imagine what going through that was like for him. We definitely bonded over that experience.
"But otherwise, he was the same guy around [the rest of the team] every day. He’d come in, tell us what we were doing that day, tell us what we were doing wrong, tell us how we needed to get better, tell us to pick our [stuff] up. He was on top of stuff."
And he could coach, too, Fiedorowicz said.
"He pushed us hard. He's a good athlete, and he knows football," he said. "And, obviously, he’s seen his brother play, so he knows what it takes to be a great player."
Fiedorowicz had a tame senior season from a receiving standpoint (30 catches, 299 yards, six touchdowns) but was plagued by inconsistent quarterback play and also was still regarded as one of the nation's best blocking tight ends.
It has been clearly on display at Senior Bowl practices, too. On one toss sweep play on Wednesday morning, it was a Big Ten Student Body Right play: Michigan OG Michael Schofield, Ohio State OT Jack Mewhort and Fiedorowicz paving the way and clearing a huge lane for Wisconsin RB James White for what would have been a touchdown run.
"He blocks like an offensive lineman," Mewhort said. "Big and powerful. He just cleans dudes up."
"If you don't watch yourself, he'll plant you," said Fiedorowicz's college teammate, Iowa LB Christian Kirksey. "He gets those big hands on you and doesn't let up."
Fiedorowicz also has used those big hands to catch the ball consistently well throughout the week, and he's shown enough functional speed to get notice as a second-level receiver.
He credits his NFL-steeped coaching staff for getting him to this time and place, and he can't help but think he's as prepared as anyone down here because of it.
"They ran practices the same way [the Atlanta Falcons'] coaches are running it here," Fiedorowicz said. "I am very comfortable with the way they are doing things, and I am just enjoying the experience so far."
But he also can't help but think of what Hernandez went through, and Fiedorowicz knows he took a valuable lesson in their one year together.
"You know, that guy [Hernandez] is a tough dude," Fiedorowicz said. "I don't know that I could have held myself together so well. I just had a lot of respect for him and how he handled things."
- - - - - - -