FOXBOROUGH — “The Catch,” as it still is called in Huntington, W.Va., and Greenville, N.C., and points between, seemed an orthopedic and optical impossibility. Aaron Dobson, with an East Carolina defender all but welded to him, reaches back and around and plucks the ball one-handed in the corner of the end zone in what ESPN ranked second among its Top Plays of 2011. Slow it down, view it from three different angles, and it’s still a wonder of pigskin prestidigitation.
“It was fun,” says the Marshall wide receiver whom the Patriots grabbed with their second pick in last month’s draft. “But I’m just kind of leaving that there.” The Catch is old-school now and all that matters is what Dobson can do when Tom Brady is throwing projectiles in his direction.
“Oh, man, that right there, you can’t beat that,” mused Dobson, whose most recent tosser was sophomore Rakeem Cato. “The best quarterback in the league. It’s amazing because I’ve been watching him for so long and now that I get the chance to play with him, it’s a blessing,”
Brady has worked with a couple of the rookie’s Thundering Herd predecessors in Troy Brown and Randy Moss, whom Dobson has chatted with but doesn’t know well. “They were two great players that played at Marshall,” he says, “but I’m just here to make my own mark, make my own name.”
That’s what the Patriot brain trust was hoping for when it selected Dobson 59th overall, the earliest they’ve taken a receiver since they tapped Chad Jackson with the 36th in 2006. What New England wanted was an X-receiver who could work outside the numbers and up in the air.
“He’ll be a different piece than they’ve had, that vertical presence,” says NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who’d predicted that Dobson would go before the third round. “Leave the intricate route running to [Danny] Amendola and the tight ends. Put him outside and let him stretch the field a little bit. They haven’t had anyone like that since Moss.”
Dobson may be no Moss but he’s what New England was looking for — a receiver with hands, speed, lift, smarts, focus, toughness, and character. He’s a modest, yes-sir-no-sir guy who’s both affable and polite. “He’s a genuine young man,” says John Rhodes, who recruited Dobson for basketball when he was a Northeastern assistant. “He’s the kind that if your daughter brought him home, you wouldn’t be mad.”
A respected leader
Dobson was the model student-athlete at South Charleston (W.Va.) High School, equally commendable in the classroom, in the corridors, in the locker room. “He was a leader in the school,” says principal Mike Arbogast. “I had 1,100 kids and I’d like to have had 1,100 Aaron Dobsons.”
What the Patriots liked was Dobson’s sticky fingers. Last season he was targeted 92 times with zero drops. “That’s what we do,” shrugged Dobson, who wasn’t aware of that distinction until someone told him. “That’s how we make our money, catching the ball.”
Dobson is particularly adept at catching it in traffic, which will be a plus in Foxborough. “The thing about Brady is, he can put a football in a mailbox,” says Jeremiah, who has scouted for the Eagles, Browns, and Ravens. “This kid has the strength and concentration to make that catch.”
His basketball background helps there and Dobson, who made first team all-state twice, was a coveted hoops prospect. “He had a motor that was always in high gear,” recalls Rhodes, who is a Duquesne assistant now but was recruiting for Ohio University then and spotted Dobson when he was playing for an Ohio AAU team. “When the AAU season ended if you hadn’t done your homework you would have lost track of him.”
That’s a common tale for West Virginia athletes, who often are overlooked by recruiters who don’t want to bother scaling mountains to find diamonds among the coal mines. “We’re in this black hole of space between Ohio and Virginia and Pennsylvania,” observes John Messinger, who coached Dobson in football at South Charleston. “There are all these constellations and universes around us and nobody seems interested in looking down and seeing what’s inside. If someone can shine a light and see what’s there . . .”
Star of the show
Dobson grew up in Dunbar, a 3-mile-square town on the Kanawha River whose populace of under 8,000 could fit into the Gillette Stadium end zone seats and that didn’t have its own high school. “He had a following,” recalls Rhodes, who watched him play football. “He was almost a rock star in a sense. He was really their Friday Night Lights.”
The Catch against ECU was merely a sequel to what South Charleston fans were accustomed to. “You can put together a whole highlight film of those plays,” says Messinger. When Dobson was a senior in 2008 the Black Eagles went unbeaten and won the AAA state title in a rout against crosstown rival George Washington. “Aaron pretty much singlehandedly won that game with receptions and returns,” his coach says. “They didn’t have anyone who could contain him.”
Yet not even West Virginia wanted him, opting instead for Tavon Austin, a Baltimore running back whom the Mountaineers converted into a receiver and who was drafted eighth overall by the Rams last month. So Dobson settled on Marshall, which was only 50 miles down the road and had a solid tradition. “I didn’t really have a choice,” he says. “Marshall was my biggest offer for football. It was definitely the best fit for me.”
Dobson started as a sophomore and dropped a calling card with a 96-yard touchdown play against WVU. But it was The Catch just before halftime in the 2011 regular-season finale against East Carolina that made him a YouTube sensation. “It was crazy,” Dobson said at the time. “The ball was in the air and I knew I had to make a play on it. He [defender Derek Blacknall] was kind of in front of me. The ball was kind of over there and I tried to go behind his back with two hands and he grabbed my left arm. And it just stuck to my hand and I brought it in.”
The Herd, which had taken the lead on Dobson’s 77-yard catch in the first quarter, went on to win, 34-27, in overtime to become eligible for the postseason and ended up beating Florida International in the Beef ‘O’Brady’s Bowl with Dobson scoring touchdowns in the final 30 seconds of each half of a 20-10 victory.
Nobody left Dobson unaccompanied last season, when he was smothered whenever Marshall ventured into the red zone and managed only three touchdowns all year. “Everybody knew about Aaron,” says offensive coordinator Bill Legg. “He got a lot of help coverage — corner presses, safeties over the top. But he continued to work hard and ran his routes and opened up things for other people.”
Though the Herd ended up 5-7, losing the finale to ECU, 65-59, in double overtime, Dobson was on everyone’s draft list, helped by a superb pro day during which he caught everything in his vicinity on a cold and blustery day. “I feel like I performed well,” he says. “There was definitely some buzz about that.”
The NFL Draft Report listed Dobson, who couldn’t run at the scouting combine because of a sore hamstring, on its Super Sleeper team. And while he sensed that the Patriots were interested, he didn’t count on anything until the phone rang at his home on draft day. “I had no idea where I was going to end up,” he says, “so when I got the call it was an exciting time for me.”
It wasn’t until Thursday, when Dobson was fitted for his Flying Elvis plastic hat, that reality arrived. “That’s when I got real excited,” he said. “I’m putting on the Patriots helmet.” This weekend was a whirlwind with Dobson and his newbie confreres undergoing their star-spangled indoctrination. “You’ve definitely got to stay on your toes out here,” he acknowledged. “You’ve got to know your playbook. You’re only here for a couple of days so you’ve got to learn quick and pick up on it fast.”
The real indoctrination won’t happen until Dobson has been chewed out by Brady in camp for messing up an assignment. “Oh, man, it’s going to happen,” he knows. But Dobson also understands that thousands of receivers gladly would give up their birthrights for the privilege of being upbraided by Brady. “It’s exciting just to be in the NFL, period,” Dobson says. “For me, just having the chance to come out here and play is a blessing.”