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Troy Niklas, Tight End / Arizona Cardinals - The Players' Tribune

Not again …

I was out in Southern California at a local high school, running routes and catching some balls in the offseason, when I felt my hamstring tighten up. I had just gone through a long rehab process from an ankle surgery that ended my rookie season. When training camp came around, all I wanted was to be healthy, because up to that point, being in the NFL had just been … frustrating.

Here are some significant numbers from my rookie year:

Games: 7
Broken hands: 1
Hyperextended knees: 1
High ankle sprains: 2
Ankle surgeries: 1

Throw in one trip to season-ending IR, and you have numbers nobody wants to see.

All those injuries ran through my head as I tried to work that knot out of my hamstring. But like I feared, it was more than a cramp. I was diagnosed with a pretty nasty pull that kept me out for the first two weeks of training camp.

When I finally got back on the field, I was only practicing for about a week and a half before I felt my hamstring tugging again. This time, it was more painful.

In my rush to get back on the field, I guess I hadn’t let my hamstring fully heal, because an MRI revealed it was torn.

When you get drafted in the second round, people expect things from you. They expect you to contribute. You can only spend so much time on the sidelines or the trainer’s table before you get shown the door. You’re also expected to have a certain level of competence. That was pretty tough for me to develop as a rookie because not only was I unable to stay on the field consistently, but I was still learning how to play tight end, the position I was drafted to play

***

Captain America. Thor. Hercules. Guys called me a lot of things back at Notre Dame. But Hercules was the nickname that stuck. I was almost 6’7’’ and 250 pounds, and I was really into weight lifting. That — along with following a pretty strict diet from my high school trainer — had me shredded by the time I got to South Bend.

After playing offensive tackle, tight end, defensive end and offensive guard in high school, Notre Dame didn’t recruit me for any particular position. They basically recruited me as a skilled big guy. When I got to campus, they were set at tight end with Tyler Eifert, so they moved me elsewhere. I started out as a drop linebacker, which is an outside linebacker who plays mostly in flat coverage and run support. It was cool because I started playing right away as a true freshman. I was splitting time, but I was getting some quality snaps … until we played Air Force.

Air Force ran the triple-option, so in our defensive scheme for that game, we moved the linebacker to defensive end and the safety up into the linebacker slot to combat the option. My position basically got eliminated from the game plan. That week, I was sitting on the sidelines most of practice, just watching. Out of sheer boredom, I told my coach, “Look, I’m probably not going to play against these guys. But I’m just standing here … I bet I could give a pretty good look at tight end on scout team.”

The same thing happened when we played USC a few weeks later. We adjusted our defensive scheme to account for their fast wide receivers, and my position basically disappeared. I got to go in and give them a look by playing as the USC tight end on scout team.

Some of the guys on defense came up to me and told me I needed to chill because I was going too hard.

I made a couple of good catches over the middle and I was hammering our defensive ends when I stayed in to block. I was just trying to get my work in and give a good look, but some of the guys on defense came up to me and told me I needed to chill because I was going too hard. After practice, some would even say, “You make a pretty awesome tight end … you should switch over.” But we had an incredible tight end in Tyler Eifert, and I was just a freshman, so I wasn’t about to go making demands or suggestions on where I was going to play. I just kind of kept my head down and did what I was told. So I just finished the year splitting time at my linebacker position.

At the beginning of the offseason, I went to our weightlifting coach and said, “I know I’m playing outside linebacker, and I’ll probably be a starter next year, but I’d really like to play tight end. I really feel like that’s what my size and strength is made for — where my skill set fits best.”

He took that to Coach Kelly.

To this day, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if Coach Kelly watched practice film of me playing tight end, or if he had an OLB recruit he wanted to make room for — I don’t know why he did it. But he decided to move me to tight end, and I’m pretty thankful he did, because I kind of started rolling from there. I played my entire sophomore season learning the position behind Tyler, an All-American. I soaked in as much as I could, and when he left for the NFL after that season, I became the starter. As it turned out, I did make a pretty good tight end. After my junior year, I declared for the 2014 NFL Draft, and the Cardinals picked me in the second round.

It was kind of crazy. Only one year after working up the courage to ask about switching positions, I had an NFL team bringing me in to play tight end.

***

I don’t play fantasy football. But if I did, I would own myself. Which means back in Week 8 of this season — after my hamstring had finally healed and I was starting in place of Darren Fells, who was hurt — I would have started myself in my fantasy lineup. That would have made me one of the select few (if any) fantasy owners who benefited from me catching my first two career touchdowns that day.

I mean, who starts a guy who’s only caught a few passes in the NFL and has never scored a touchdown?

But when I think about that game, I don’t even think about the touchdowns. I think about everything that happened before that. All the different positions I played until I finally found a home at tight end. All the injuries and time spent on the sideline and on the trainer’s table. The hamstring injury — the kind that just lingers week to week — that finally healed. It’s been a long journey. These last few weeks have been the longest stretch of my young career where I’ve been able to consistently practice — where I can actually let myself and others see what I’m capable of week in and week out.

My Hercules nickname hasn’t carried over to the NFL. At this level, you have to earn your nickname. Every now and then my college teammate Michael Floyd will still call me that, but I have a lot of work to do before I earn anything at this level. But I feel good. For the first time since getting drafted, I’m firing on all cylinders and I’ve made some big steps toward getting to where I want to be and where the Cardinals need me to be: In uniform, contributing and helping this team win.