Waukon High School graduate Parker Hesse making his way further up the NFL ladder as tight end with the Atlanta Falcons

Flying high as a Falcon ... Waukon High School 2014 graduate Parker Hesse looks in a pass during a practice session with the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League. Initially a practice squad player for the Falcons when signed last year, Hesse has not only worked his way on to the active roster full time in Atlanta this season but also up the ranks to a starting tight end position and currently the number-one listing on the weekly depth chart for the Falcons’ active tight ends. Submitted photo.

Waukon High School 2014 graduate Parker Hesse continues to climb toward the pinnacle of his NFL (National Football League) dream as he plays through his fourth season at the ultimate level of the sport he loves.

Having served as a practice squad player with the Tennessee Titans his first two seasons in the league, beginning in 2019, Hesse saw his first action as an active roster player last season after transitioning to the Atlanta Falcons, where he continues to elevate his status and his career as now one of the top tight ends for that current Atlanta squad.

Ascending to that role in a new position from what he’s consistently played in previous levels of football, Hesse says the most important thing he’s developed in his growth and advancement in the league may not have anything to do with a football at all.

“Obviously, after a position change I’ve had to improve and still need to continue to improve things from a skill perspective,” Hesse said in regard to his new NFL role at tight end after playing defensive end in college. “The most important thing I’ve been able to build in the last few years is confidence. Every time you do something new there are doubts

if you belong or if you can handle it. Once you face that fear, you can really start to focus on the details that create real progress. I’m fortunate that I’ve had coaches who have believed in me throughout my development as a tight end and that’s what’s allowed me to believe in myself.”

With the growth in his confidence, and thus in his contributions to his team as a player, Hesse said the day-to-day routine for him has not changed much in his elevation from a practice squad player to being an every Sunday contributor on the Falcon active roster. The team as a whole prepares for every game together, as one never knows when they may be called upon to take the field.

“There isn’t much difference between being on the practice squad and the active roster in terms of what you do a majority of the time,” Hesse explained. “We are all in meetings to learn that week’s gameplan, everyone lifts, everyone practices. Obviously, when there are things in the gameplan specifically for me, I spend a little extra time studying them. And then it’s just going out there on Sunday and letting it fly.”

Without much difference in weekly preparation during his now four years in the NFL, Hesse also says preparation of himself hasn’t changed much throughout any of his higher levels of gridiron glory. “Generally speaking, I haven’t changed much from what I did in the off-seasons in college,” he noted. “I still train at the University of Iowa. As you get older and hopefully wiser, you identify areas each year that maybe you need to push harder or things that maybe need more time to rest. I really just try to be smart and consistent with my training, sleep and diet in a way that’s most applicable to my job as a tight end.”

The one thing that has changed over the course of his journey from high school to college to the professional level of football is the role he prepares himself for in the position he plays. But even that adaptation is rooted in a strong foundation he established early in his athletic career and continues to draw from.

“I didn’t really have a choice,” Hesse said of adapting to new roles in order to continue to play the game he loves. “If I wanted to continue playing football, moving positions has been the only option available to me both in college and again to tight end. I think playing unstructured sports (on the playground, in the backyard), multiple sports in junior high and high school, and going to a variety of camps as I grew up helped me develop a broad understanding of competition and how to be coachable.”

Hesse’s NFL journey began in 2019 following his graduation from the University of Iowa, where he played to All-Conference honors as a defensive end for the Hawkeyes. Not being drafted out of college, he was asked to work out as a tight end and was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Tennessee Titans in May 2019, ultimately spending two seasons as a member of the Titans’ 10-player practice squad before being waived by the team in May 2021.

Several days after being released by Tennessee, Hesse was signed by the Atlanta Falcons. Likely factoring into that signing was the fact that the offensive coordinator Hesse played under during his time with the Titans, Arthur Smith, had been hired as Atlanta’s head coach following completion of the 2020-2021 NFL season.

Initially signed to the Falcons’ practice squad as the 2021 NFL season got underway last fall, Hesse continued to show his propensity to prove ready when called upon and to make his mark when doing so. Placement of Falcon starting tight ends Hayden Hurst and then rookie first-round (fourth overall) draft choice Kyle Pitts late in that 2021-2022 campaign resulted in Hesse being vaulted to the active roster for the Falcons, where he started one game, played in eight games and caught five passes for 43 yards, including a season-best 17-yard reception and, thus far, a career-high three receptions for 31 yards in a January 2, 2022 game played at Buffalo.

It was during that game at Buffalo that then Falcons teammate and fellow tight end Lee Smith expressed his thoughts on Hesse toward the tail end of a live-microphone situation offered to players at times throughout the season by the NFL, a video of which can still be found online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvXJqc5u_gI. Lee Smith was an 11-year NFL veteran tight end who had played six of his seasons with Buffalo, including a two-year stint before playing in Atlanta for the 2021-2022 campaign and then retiring from the league.

Lee Smith played a very similar role to what Hesse has now assumed for the Falcons, serving primarily as a blocking tight end but also getting the occasional pass thrown his way, including just nine receptions for 65 yards last season in his NFL swan song. Having somewhat taken Hesse under his wing as an NFL veteran, Lee Smith had this to say during his “mic’d up” game at Buffalo:

“I love Parker, he’s just a ballplayer, man! Great in the locker room, great player, a great person. Reliable, out there just making plays.”

Having only been teammates with Lee Smith for just one season, Hesse took every opportunity to learn from him, both on and off the field. Now assuming the role he played on the field, Hesse gives Lee Smith a great deal of credit for his own advancement in both playing and living the life of an NFL player.

“There’s only one Lee Smith, both as a person and as a player - the guy is a character,” Hesse reflected. “I was so fortunate to have him in the locker room last year, not only to see how he approached playing the position but, more importantly, how he saw the business and his relationships to teammates and coaches. He provided a lot of value as a teammate and a communicator to the teams he played on. I’ve really tried to model a lot of those off-the-field attributes of his.”

With Smith retiring and the previously-mentioned Hurst not having his fifth-year option picked up by the Falcons, Hesse resumed his active roster spot with Atlanta as this 2022 season got underway. In somewhat of an ironic twist, two tight ends Hesse had been teammates with at Tennessee in his first two NFL seasons were also brought over to Atlanta at the start of this current season. Anthony Firkser and MyCole Pruitt had both been active roster tight ends for the Titans during Hesse’s practice squad stints in Tennessee.

Even more ironic, and further showing the growth Hesse had made in adjusting to his tight end position with the Falcons, is the fact that the team roles for those former Titan teammates were switched for much of this season in Atlanta, as Hesse remained an active roster player while those two, more veteran tight ends were early-season practice squad signings for Atlanta. Both Pruitt and Firkser have now been elevated to the active roster in recent weeks in an effort to fill the role of Pitts, who has once again been sidelined by injury, this time for the remainder of this season with a knee ailment.

Prior to solidifying his active roster spot for this season, Hesse and his teammates went through all of the same pre-season work and exhibition game scenarios that helped shape this season’s Falcon roster. It was during Atlanta’s first pre-season game of this fall’s campaign that he hauled in his first touchdown pass in the NFL, a one-yard reception in a 27-23 Falcon win at Detroit August 12.

“That was a great feeling, but I’d really like to go out and catch some this year in the regular season,” Hesse said of that touchdown catch. “The games being played now are when it really counts. So, I’m still dreaming of that first one, in my opinion.”

That touchdown pass came from Atlanta’s then number-two quarterback, rookie Desmond Ridder. In a full circle of irony, Ridder assumed the starting quarterback reins this past weekend for the first time this regular season in the Falcons’ 21-18 loss at New Orleans this past Sunday, December 18, although there were no passes thrown Hesse’s way in Sunday’s loss that drops Atlanta’s season win-loss record to 5-9.

As this 2022-2023 NFL season winds down and the Falcons have just three games left to play on their regular season schedule - including this Saturday at Baltimore beginning at 12 noon, their play-off hopes still remain within reach as their NFC South division currently features all four teams sitting within a game of one another in the standings that would determine the division champion and automatic play-off qualifier. While the most immediate focus for the former Indian who now wears #46 for Atlanta is to help his team win and possibly make a play-off push yet this season, his overall goal is to continue to play the game he loves for as long as he can and make the greatest contributions he can along the way.

“I’m very fortunate that I get to do something that I really enjoy for a job,” he shared. “The highs and the lows, though sometimes stressful, give you a feeling that’s hard to find elsewhere. You have to risk failure to truly feel accomplishment. My goals are to help the Falcons win and play my best for as long as I can. The organization here in Atlanta is enjoyable to be a part of and is doing things the right way. I hope to stick around and contribute into the future.”