If it was surprising to many observers of the CFL that defensive back J.T. Hassell earned a spot in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ line-up just a few days after signing a contract, it probably shouldn’t have been.
Hassell has been surprising people his whole life.
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“I was born with a birth defect on my left hand, only having two fingers, and barely making it out of my mom’s stomach,” Hassell said Friday after the Bombers held a walk through at IG Field.
“Growing up, single mom. You know, that’s a blessing within itself and just everything else I’ve been through.”
Hassell, a 27-year-old from Titusville, on Florida’s Space Coast, never let difficult circumstances get in his way. Despite having a deformed hand, he made peewee teams and high school teams and eventually played football at the Florida Institute of Technology.
He then became the only player in that school’s history to make it to the NFL. The school’s football program has since been discontinued.
Though undrafted, Hassell played four games with the Cleveland Browns in 2019 and three with the New York Jets in 2020. He had eight career tackles and blocked a kick with the Jets in 2020.
He’d been at home for more than a year when the Bombers came calling recently. An injury to American cornerback DeMerio Houston left the Bombers secondary a little thin and Hassell provides depth and pro experience.
“It’s just an honour (to be here),” Hassell said. “I could cry right now. It’s just an honour to be here. I’m at a loss for words, honestly.”
Hassell will be in the line-up as a backup on Saturday when the Bombers host the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the annual Banjo Bowl at sold-out IG Field. The Bombers are favoured by 7.5 points.
He’ll likely see time on special teams, having been recommended to the Bombers in part for his tenacity on kick coverage.
It’s not often a player who is completely unfamiliar with the CFL gets into the line-up in his first week with the team, but the Bombers think there’s something special about Hassell.
“Right away, from the scouting department, there was (information) about his ability to play special teams,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said. “Then you talk to coaches that he had in the NFL and they talked about special teams and what he can do. That’s what we’re looking for right away, somebody that understands that part of the game.
“I know there are some nuances to the Canadian game, compared to the American game, but he’s certainly a very sharp guy. His first hours at the stadium, he was not prepared to leave. He was looking for more information, watching more film and looking to figure this out very quickly. It looks like he has.”
Working hard is nothing new for Hassell. He always felt he had to work a little harder than the next player because of his hand.
With the support of his mother, he was always able to prove himself, even when people immediately dismissed him.
“Nobody’s ever counted on me,” Hassell said. “I was undrafted, I was never picked early in anything I did, but obviously with my hand, people shut me down and told me no a lot, but I just kept going.
“I’ve learned that life in general, you have to learn to adjust. Everybody, whether it’s physical or mental, we all have problems. But it’s all about how you adjust with your problems. Obviously, I had to work harder than everybody else cause of my disability.”
It didn’t take long for O’Shea and his staff to take notice of the player who will wear No. 49 in his CFL debut on Saturday.
“He’s a terrific athlete,” O’Shea said. “He has above-average athleticism. Obviously, he’s got that mentality that allows him to overcome whatever people have labeled him as. I haven’t spoken to him about his hand, but obviously there have been different opportunities arise for him and the ones he creates are based on hard work.”
Until recently, Hassell only had vague knowledge of the CFL. He was at home in Titusville, waiting for a call from the NFL when the Bombers finally reached out.
“I’ve heard of it before,” Hassell said. “I never thought I’d be here, but like I said, it’s a blessing. I don’t take it for granted at all. I know I played in the NFL and stuff, but this is an awesome experience for me and I thank the coaches and the staff for having me here.
“Man, I just saw what they were doing up here. The team that they have, since the first day I walked in the locker room, I’ve been smiling and laughing and it already feels like I’m home and that I fit in.”
He hasn’t played a game since the NFL pre-season of 2021, when he suited up for the Jets against the New York Giants.
Clearly he’s in good shape or the Bombers wouldn’t put him in the line-up so soon, but he also believes he’s found a good situation.
“I’ve been on teams, even within the NFL, the high school, and college level where you walk in the locker room and everybody’s mad, there’s a lot of stress, and there’s a whole bunch of business and stuff going on,” Hassell said. “But here, I feel like I can be free and be myself and I love that because that’s what the sport is all about.”
Having grown up with a disability, Hassell put it on himself to help kids in difficult situations in his home state. He created the Hassell Foundation to help youths and adults with mental health disorders like anxiety and depression and disabilities in general.
“Football is just a game,” Hassell said. “There’s so much more to life. I do reach out to high schools and go do a whole bunch of stuff with the youth.
“I’ve had to prove myself my whole life, but that’s what made me the person I am today. I don’t think if my hand wasn’t like this that I’d be the person that I am today. So, I’m thankful for it. It’s a blessing in disguise.”
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