Waukon native Parker Hesse reflects on his first season in the NFL

NFL pre-season game ... Waukon native Parker Hesse looks in a pass during warm-ups for the Tennessee Titans’ August 25 NFL pre-season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers this past season. Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Titans.

Preparing his team ... Waukon High School 2014 graduate Parker Hesse heads upfield after catching a pass in practice during the Tennessee Titans’ recently completed 2019 season. After being signed as an undrafted free agent in May of last year, Hesse was then one of 10 players named to the Titans’ practice squad in September, where he spent his first NFL season this past fall. Submitted photo.

Giving back to their community ... Former Waukon and University of Iowa football stand-out Parker Hesse joins some of his Tennessee Titans teammates for a picture while making a visit to a long-term care facility in the Nashville, TN community during this past NFL season. Pictured with Hesse surrounding two Titans fans at the facility are, left to right, offensive right guard Nate Davis, free safety and Hesse’s former University of Iowa teammate Amani Hooker, strong safety and fellow practice squad player Kareem Orr, and linebacker David Long. Submitted photo.

Former Indian and Hawkeye stand-out shares his thoughts on early uncertainties with continuation of his football career, making all the transitions and helping his team prepare through a deep play-off run

The past year has been quite a rollercoaster for 2014 Waukon High School graduate Parker Hesse in regard to continuing to play the game that he loves, a game that has provided him with opportunities that have been dreams for many but never before realized by others who have put on a Waukon football uniform.

This past year those opportunities reached a near pinnacle of Hesse’s childhood dream of playing in the National Football League (NFL). He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Tennessee Titans in May of this past year and spent this 2019 NFL season as a member of the Titans’ 10-player practice squad.

With that signing being surrounded on each side by sometimes day-to-day uncertainty as he had try-out opportunities with several teams beforehand and then had to work his way through all the downsizing moves of Titan personnel during pre-season activities, Hesse’s football path this past year very much mirrored the season of the team that signed him. The Titans also got off to a somewhat slow, uncertain start of a 2-4 record but turned that trend around as the season marched on to end up playing to the very brink of the ultimate dream of playing in a Super Bowl, and now further holding even greater anticipation for the future that lies ahead.

“Looking back on the last year, it has been an incredible experience, but it didn’t always feel that way,” Hesse admitted. “Preparing for Pro Day (at the University of Iowa) and going through the draft process was stressful, due to the uncertainty of where you measure up and what opportunities lie ahead. Obviously, I was pretty disappointed to not be drafted or signed immediately after the draft. Even after being signed out of rookie mini camp with the Titans there was a long way to go and I learned a lot about myself as I potentially faced the end of my football career. It worked out for the best, though; I was able to spend a year developing within a first-class organization and be a part of a deep play-off run.”

After that 2-4 start to the Titans’ regular season, their fortune transitioned to victories in seven of their final 10 regular season games to earn a wild card berth in the AFC Play-Offs. Helping fuel that regular season transition was a four-game win streak midway through that, ironically, began with a 35-32 win over the same Kansas City Chiefs team that beat the Titans in the AFC Championship game and just won its first Super Bowl in 50 years this past Sunday.

“In all honesty, we didn’t do much that was different throughout the whole year, which made the way the season started particularly frustrating because we knew we were doing things the right way,” Hesse said of the Titans staying the course in their weekly preparation throughout the season. “Thankfully, we stuck to the details and fundamentals and were able to continue to improve every week as the season went on. It sounds simple, but that’s how teams win in the postseason.”

Even in that deep play-off run, Hesse said the approach to the game and his team’s preparation remained the same. That also was an approach that Hesse applied to his own situation in spite of the added hype of the play-offs.

“The play-offs definitely bring a little something extra,” he explained. “I try to keep everything the same as far as routines go, but opportunities to play in meaningful games are the best part of sports. There’s certainly an added bit of focus that everyone brings.”

After being signed in May of this past year as an undrafted free agent, Hesse joined the Titans for all of their organized team activities (OTA) that included mandatory mini camp in mid-June and training camp that began in July, playing in many of Tennessee’s pre-season games. That participation included a transition to a position different from where he made his mark at any other level of football he played, as he was groomed as a tight end after becoming a mainstay at defensive end for the University of Iowa during his collegiate career.

Although more than willing to make that transition in order to best contribute to the team - much like he did in transitioning to defensive end after being recruited by Iowa as a linebacker, Hesse still faced the same uncertainty that many of his fellow Titans faced throughout the pre-season process. Although he was not named to the Titans’ final 53-man active roster that would suit up on game days at the August 31 deadline for such final cuts, Hesse was one of 10 players named to the Titans’ practice squad the very next day.

“Having the opportunity to be on the practice squad and continue playing was a great feeling after going though the draft process and a position change,” Hesse said. “But as in any level of football, the most enjoyable part is contributing to the success of the team. Playing the way we did at the end of the season and into the play-offs made showing up to the building every day a lot of fun.”

Being a member of a team’s practice squad involves all the duties one would imagine in holding such a title, while the extremes of the dream spectrum of being called up to the 53-man active roster or being released were day-to-day possibilities should circumstances warrant. Much like he has always done during his football career, Hesse made sure he did whatever he could to control his own destiny.

“On the practice squad I spent the week lifting, meeting and practicing with the team,” he explained. “My role in practice would change each week depending on the look our starting defense needed along with preparing for each week’s game plan.”

Although much of his time was spent in the blue collar preparation of his team assuming the roles of the next week’s opponent, Hesse said on occasion he would achieve opposing “celebrity” status by specifically assuming the role of one of the opposing team’s key players. His playground time as a youngster doing that very same thing likely made that role assumption a natural fit.

“For the most part I would just run plays as the opposing teams’ tight ends,” he shared. “Sometimes that was a high-profile player like Travis Kelce (of the Kansas City Chiefs) or Hunter Henry (of the Los Angeles Chargers), but a lot of times it was guys who would have more of a blocking role in their particular offense. I also played on the defensive look squad a few times just because I have experience doing that.”

Although fully embracing and grateful for the opportunity to take this first step in realizing his NFL dream, Hesse said watching his team compete each Sunday from either a seat in the stadium or on television was a big adjustment for his competitive nature. Having played nearly every snap in high school on both offense and defense and being on the field nearly every game of his collegiate career, Hesse said not being in the heat of battle on game days was something that took some getting used to - even more so than the absence he felt in watching his former collegiate squad take to the field without him this fall for the first time in four years.

“It was more difficult for me watching us play on Sundays than it has been watching Iowa this season,” the first-year NFL player said. “I still got really into the Iowa games, but it’s harder when it’s the guys you’ve been practicing and meeting with every day out there competing and you’re unable to contribute on game days.”

In addition to the challenges he overcame to get in his current position, as well as the challenges that current position holds within itself, Hesse says just the overall jump to another level of the game of football provided its own situational aspects that needed to be adjusted to. As one might expect, the degree of those aspects tends to go hand-in-hand with each higher level of play.

“My situation makes it kind of tough to compare different levels of play because I moved to offense (after playing on the defensive line at Iowa),” Hesse explained. “In my opinion, as you move from high school to college and college to the NFL the complexity of the game and increased general understanding by every player on the field is the biggest transition. Obviously, the level of competition is greater, just as with the move from high school to college, so the importance of the details is amplified.”

Although all the transitions, and the respective challenges and complexity that come with them, can take their toll, Hesse said he found the best way to address all of that was to simply return to the very foundation that began his love for the game he continues to play.

“One thing I tried to focus more on as the season progressed is taking time to enjoy the experience, and to enjoy the fact I still get to play the game I’ve loved playing for so long,” Hesse shared. “You can burn a lot of nervous energy thinking about the uncertainty of how things will play out. I’ve found I have a lot more fun and play better if I still approach it like a game on the playground.”

Any uncertainties for the former All-State football Indian turned All-Conference Hawkeye were eased a bit in late January when Hesse and his fellow Titans practice squad members were each signed to futures contracts by their Tennessee squad. According to information available through the National Football League, futures contracts are often used on players who did not occupy an active roster spot at the end of the regular season but who teams think may have potential to compete for an active roster spot next season. The typically minimal salary contract allows teams to claim the rights to that player, thus keeping him in place for next season’s OTAs and training camp and avoiding the threat of another team signing him away.

“I am currently under contract with the Titans and am scheduled to start OTAs (mini camp) again with them in the spring and then fall camp,” Hesse said. “As it is with every year, the final roster is determined at the end of camp. In the meantime, I’ll spend the next few months in Iowa, enjoying time with friends and family and training in Iowa City. I’m excited to spend this entire off-season training as a tight end, so I can put my best foot forward in camp and the pre-season next year.”

In addition to his efforts on the field with the Titans, Hesse was also able to represent the team off the field in several aspects. He and some of his teammates would make visits to hospitals, long-term care facilities and schools, including getting the opportunity to thrill young fans with the Take a Titan 2 School contest hosted by Nashville television station WKRN. Although the school contests certainly were the most celebrated of those visits, Hesse said the visits to the health care organizations - much like he did at the University of Iowa - struck a deeper meaning with him.

“I am very fortunate that I’ve had the chance to positively impact lives of people going through tough times,” he said. “It’s always a little surprising to see the reaction people have to myself and my teammates, simply because we’re all just people that see each other every day. I usually just think back to myself as a kid, and how much it meant to me to interact with athletes I looked up too. I just try my best to do what those individuals did for me in my life.”

No matter what level of play he has accelerated to, or how far away that may keep him from home, Hesse said he’s never strayed too far from keeping tabs on the level of the game where the foundation of his current dream realization began to take shape.

“I was extremely proud following Waukon’s football season this fall,” the former Indian stand-out said of his high school alma mater. “The consistency and toughness shown by the players and staff represent our community so well. I never miss an opportunity to brag on my former high school having an undefeated regular season and playing for a State title.”

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