Tommy Hatton Is Driven

Incoming Tar Heel offensive lineman Tommy Hatton is consumed by his goals.

He’s too young to remember the Four Horsemen or probably even WCW but Tommy Hatton is channeling Arn Anderson right now. He’s right in the middle of an early ’90s Saturday morning wrestling promo disguised as a phone interview and his words and passion are coming rapid fire.

“I feel like the one thing that makes me stand out the most is I have a chip on my shoulder at all times,” Hatton says. “I’m always trying to prove things. I always feel disrespected and people don’t give me the benefit of the doubt, which is good. I don’t want them to give me the benefit of the doubt. I’m trying to make my dreams a reality and I got a chip and it won’t go away.”

For the uninitiated, Arn Anderson was the right hand man to wrestling superstar Ric Flair. Nicknamed The Enforcer, Anderson looked more like a plumber or a Lynyrd Skynyrd roadie than a pro athlete. He had thinning hair and a Friar Tuck bald spot for a solid 20 years. His gut protruded slightly past his chest. He always wore kneepads, for some reason, and would slap his arms as he was sizing up his opponent. It’s guys like Anderson who allow guys like Ric Flair to be Ric Flair. It’s guys like Anderson who will walk into the middle of a brawl without flinching because they’re completely unafraid, whether they should be or not.

Hatton, a center from Montvale, N.J., is a guy like Anderson. He’s tough, blue collar. He goes paragraphs without formally taking a breath, pausing only to say “man” to emphasize his point. He uses every question as an opportunity to lay out his goals and make promises—almost reminding himself to stay on track within the conversation. Falling in love with the process, he calls it.

“Just growing up, man, nothing really came easy to me,” Hatton says. “I was never really the biggest, never really the strongest, never the fastest, none of that. I just knew if I worked hard, good things would happen. That’s what my mom would always tell me. Work hard. Keep your head down. Keep quiet. Stay humble and you never know what could happen. I’ve done that and I’ve had a pretty successful high school career. I’m going to continue to do that. I’m just going to be the hardest working kid I know I can be. I have goals I’m trying to achieve and they’re big goals and I’m confident in myself. I know one day hopefully I’ll be playing in the NFL and yeah, I mean, that’s it.”

But that’s not it. There’s more.

“What really started the chip on my shoulder for football was actually, y’all man,” Hatton says. “Y’all ranked me very low. Not just Scout but Rivals and stuff. I would see these guys ranked ahead of me and I was like, ‘Man, there’s no way these guys should be ranked ahead of me.’ So that’s what got me mad, man. I think I show that on the field. I play to the whistle. I’m competitive. I want to put you on your back. I want you to know every single play that you’ve been physically dominated. I don’t know. I’m intense, man. I don’t shy away from no one. At the end of the day, you’re going to beat me but I’m going to give you all you can handle.”

The above quotes—and more—took only about two and a half minutes for Hatton to get through, including introductory pleasantries and two questions sprinkled in. It was free-flowing and honest, too quick a pace for a filter. It was impassioned. It was beautiful.

If you haven’t gathered by now, Hatton is a talker. That’s a reputation that precedes him but recently he’s been kind of hard to get on the phone. It’s nothing personal; he’s just kind of done with the recruiting thing. If he doesn’t know your number or if your area code isn’t right, you’re probably going to get passed on.

But seven calls and a text message later when he does answer, he apologizes for his lack of responsiveness, and now that he’s on the line, he’s all yours. He doesn’t do anything halfway. So for the next 30 minutes, any question will get his full attention and honesty.

***

This would be the only time offensive linemen got on ESPN. Tommy Hatton knew that. Offensive linemen are supposed to be the blurs in the background while the skill players do amazing things. The Final 5 portion of Nike’s The Opening camp—the top five offensive linemen versus the top five defensive linemen—was the only time the guys in the trenches would come into focus last July.

Hatton was matched up against five-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack, a guy he describes as a man-child, for three plays. Hatton had been giving Mack the business all day (his words). Mack was a straight bull rush guy and Hatton had done his homework. So, he’d been cutting him down every play, dominating him (again, his words). He was ready to finish up his clinic on national television but his ankle had a different idea.

The first play, Hatton got his hands on Mack, sat down in his stance and stoned him. The second play, Hatton expected Mack to go inside, but he set high and got put on skates with the bull rush. Tied 1-1. The third play, Hatton got set, had his hands on Mack, had him, had him, and then—pop.

“At the last second I feel my foot going in, going in, and I hear it go,” Hatton says.

Hatton’s ankle was broken. After surgery, doctors told him it would need 10 weeks to heal. The start of his high school season was Sept. 5 against McDonogh. Conventional wisdom said Hatton had a scholarship already. He had already won a state title. He was already an Under Armour All-American. He had absolutely nothing to prove. Hatton saw it differently.

Hatton rehabbed hard. He went to physical therapy and sports recovery doctors. In six and a half weeks, he was cleared to play. The doctor said he had never seen such a complete recovery in such a short amount of time.

It’s important to note that cleared to play does not equal 100 percent. Hatton’s leg would get so sore after playing that he could only practice once a week. This lasted all season and his ankle wasn’t fully healed until deep into the winter. It didn’t affect his season at all though. Tommy suited up for the first game and every one after it. He fulfilled his duty as team captain as his team won its third state title.

“My team needed me,” Tommy says. “So I was there.”

***

Some people go a lifetime without having a wall like this, Mindy Hatton says. Heck, she doesn’t have a wall like this. She wishes she did.

“Honestly, I’m in awe sometimes of how driven he is for an 18-year-old kid,” Tommy’s mother Mindy says. “But even before that, he’s just always been driven.”

The wall in question is to the left of Tommy’s bed in his Montvale home. It’s about as ornate as you’d expect a kid with tree trunks for arms and cigars for fingers could reasonably produce. It’s mostly pieces of computer paper with detailed goals, reminders of how to achieve those goals and inspirational quotes scribbled in Sharpie:

Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

The only way to be successful is to outwork your competition every day.

What am I going to do today to set myself apart from the competition?

And this one, which his mom found recently:

Sometimes the best thing you can do is not think, not wonder, not imagine, not obsess, just breathe, and have faith that everything will work out for the best.

Mindy wishes she could take credit for this side of her son, but she can’t. She and her husband Ken stressed working hard but this extra gear is something he developed on his own. This isn’t the only side of him, of course. Mindy says he’s a sweet kid with a great sense of humor, but admits he keeps them on their toes with his ambition.

Tommy desperately wants to be great and he knows his path is through hard work. He gets excited by the future and what he can accomplish in it. He gets excited hearing the name Tyler Hansbrough, another guy who got by on grit and spit. He says he tries to wear out his opponent with his motor but admits he often wears himself out, too.

Tommy wasn’t always a football player. He started out in wrestling—the real kind—as a third grader and won several state titles and placed all the years he didn’t win. He took his wrestling seriously, even back then. After matches he’d sit down with his coaches and watch tape, always looking to get better.

His interests changed when he started going to high school football games with his dad at nearby Glen Rock. Glen Rock won five straight state titles from 1998-2002 and Tommy got to see great players like Brian Cushing and Will Hill come through town. That’s when Tommy fell in love with football.

“I would just watch their games and I was counting down the days until I could play at Glen Rock,” Hatton says. “Fast forward 10 or 12 years later and I played for a Catholic School. I didn’t play for Glen Rock. It’s crazy where your life is going to take you.”

Chapel Hill is where life will take Hatton next and he’ll be prepared there, too. Every day he works with a trainer, who he says tries to break him mentally. He also watches a lot of tape. Hatton thinks some guys fall in love with the weight room too much and neglect the finer points of the game. His high school has end zone cameras that run during practice and games. So he watches his own tape and tape of other players.

“Coach (Fedora) can’t give us anything for a while so I’m just breaking down film from when they had Russell Bodine and I’m watching him and seeing what he’s doing. Watching his full tape and just picking up little things,” Hatton says. “I watch film as much as possible. If I’m just lying around, I’ll pop film in on Jason Kelce, LeCharles Bentley, all the best centers in the NFL and college that I can watch. That’s the biggest thing for me. Just working hard at my craft.”

The possibility created by doing one more rep, putting in just a little more work clearly intrigues Hatton. His highlight reel is full of plays where he’s finishing off a block 10 yards from the ball, prompting the obvious question of why? Why would you block a guy who’s on his back 10 yards off the ball?

“What can this one block do? Maybe if I get this block he breaks it off the seam and we’re out the gate,” Hatton says. “I’m a teammate out there so I need to lead by example. I need to tell everybody that we’re going to be the most physical, baddest team out there and I set the pace early.”

Hatton is the first to admit he might not have the physical gifts of some other players, which means he has to be perfect mentally and that starts in the film room.

“I’m just trying to be the best I can be. Preparation is the most important thing,” Hatton says. “Too many kids nowadays get too involved in this recruiting process ... I hate the recruiting process. It makes kids soft. ... I know I’m about to be a freshman and I’ve got a lot to prove. So I’m excited for that. I’m done with people telling me how great I am for my high school career and all that stuff. I’m ready for that stuff to be over and to get going.”

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