FOXBOROUGH — Like most Ivy League students, James Develin had thoughts of a successful professional career motivating him as his college days drew to a close.
Armed with a degree in mechanical engineering from Brown, Develin began lining up interviews with companies he felt might best be suited for the technical skills he had learned. His head might have been preparing for life in the corporate world, but his heart couldn’t let go of an athletic dream, far-fetched as it was.
Develin, an All-Ivy defensive end for the Bears, wanted to continue playing football. He wanted to switch from defense to offense — fullback seemed like a good fit — and play in the NFL. Despite the fact he had really never played fullback, and despite the fact he wouldn’t be getting drafted by any NFL team.
Talk about long odds.
“Football is something that is not around your entire life. I’ve got that degree in my back pocket, and that will be there with me until the day I die,” Develin said. “I knew if I didn’t give it my best shot to play football as a career, that I’d always regret it. I took a little bit of a risk, and luckily it worked out.”
Develin was saying this from inside the Patriots’ locker room, a place he’s quietly called home for two seasons. It required a route that wasn’t exactly direct, with stops in the Arena Football League and the now-defunct United Football League, but Develin somehow made it to the NFL. As a fullback.
Prior to Sunday, there likely were some Patriots fans who didn’t know who Develin was, or what he looks like, or what number he wears. But then he scored on a 1-yard touchdown run against the Texans, when he seemingly made contact with all 11 defenders on the field before barreling across the goal line. Develin caught a 12-yard pass, too, in the Patriots’ 34-31 win, and has spent much of the time since answering questions about his star turn and the legendary touchdown run.
Develin had never been given a rushing attempt in the NFL before Sunday, and had caught two passes in his career. But he was a vital piece to the Patriots’ win, which is rare; usually, Develin spends most of his time blocking and playing special teams. Anonymous roles, far from the spotlight. You know, the dirty work.
He is a trained mechanical engineer, after all.
“It’s a very selfless position. You’re not going to get a lot of carries or catches. It’s really about springing holes for other people, and whether that’s the running back or protecting for the quarterback so you can drop back and throw it to the receivers, it’s all about the team at that position,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “He brings it. He’s earned that spot.”
Develin joined the Patriots at the beginning of the 2012 season, after he spent more than a year on Cincinnati’s practice squad. That’s also where he started with New England, before earning a promotion to the active squad late in the year, when Develin was inactive for three games but appeared in one, making his NFL debut and playing on special teams against the 49ers.
He’s been in uniform for all 12 games for the 9-3 Patriots in 2013, and is expected to be out there again on Sunday, when the Browns visit.
There might not be any rushing attempts or carries, but whatever Develin is asked to do against Cleveland, he’ll embrace.
“I don’t think he’s ever going to be out there for every play offensively, that’s not his role, but when we do have him out there or when we have him out there in the kicking game, he works hard at what he’s asked to do and he’s been a good contributor for the team,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “He’s smart, he’s tough, he works hard, he’s a very dependable guy, and there’s an awful lot to be said for that.”
There’s a lot to be said about Develin’s football journey, too. After graduating from Brown in 2010, he briefly latched on with the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz (who have since been put down) in the Arena Football League, then played for the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League. Before any of that, though, he needed to convince his parents that exploring the professional football business and letting his Brown degree collect dust was in his best interests.
“My parents were kind of doubting that choice, but I knew I wanted to play football somewhere, didn’t matter what level,” Develin said. “They knew I would make the smart choice for me. It was a personal decision, I needed to try to see what I could do with football, because that was my dream.”
He’s done more than most would have imagined so far. Despite only getting five touches on the season — two carries, three catches — Develin has personified what a good role player is: dependable, versatile, and opportunistic. His touchdown run against the Texans may have had teammates doing a double take twice — once in the huddle when the play was called, then in the film room watching the replay — but it’s the kind of hard-nosed determination play that coaches like to hold up as a model for the effort they’d like to see from everybody, especially with the playoffs fast approaching.
“We were so happy for him,” fellow running back Shane Vereen said. “We watched it again and gave him a little more praise, but he’s a humble guy, so he just took it as what he’s supposed to do.”
That’s the career path Develin has selected, perhaps unconventionally, when common sense might have sent him toward regular work. He’s paid his dues in lower leagues that many laugh at, but there Develin was, scoring a highlight-reel NFL touchdown on Sunday.
“You really can never doubt yourself when you’re trying to accomplish your dream, you just have to take the right steps to get where you’re trying to go,” Develin said. “If things didn’t work out, so be it, but I wanted to fight and do everything that I could to put myself in the best position for this to come true.”
And if this football thing ever stops working for him in the near future, Develin still has that mechanical engineering degree from Brown. It’s a nice fall-back option. He’d certainly have some interesting stories to tell at a job interview.
“Hopefully I don’t need it,” he said.