At the time of the New England Patriots offense lining up for a first-and-goal against the Houston Texans on December 1st, 2013, James Develin had only touched the football three times over the course of his 12.5-game NFL career. Despite his lack of experience and the team trailing by 10 points, however, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien trusted Develin to deliver — and deliver he did: Develin’s first NFL career touchdown was a thing of beauty.
Develin received the hand-off from quarterback Tom Brady on a fullback run behind center, but his initial momentum was stopped before he could cross the goal line. However, he kept the play alive by bouncing to the left and breaking four additional tackle attempts along the way before finally falling into the end zone for six points:
Wish James Develin a happy and healthy retirement. Immensely important player whose seasons lost to injury sent shockwaves through the offense.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 27, 2020
Tone setter, great locker room guy by all indications, pillar in the new dynasty, and haver of a dope ass beard, #Patriots great pic.twitter.com/wBzYQOh1fg
Develin fought for every inch on a play that became a signature moment for him — and one that is a perfect representation of an NFL career that began in unlikely fashion and ended on Monday when he announced his retirement.
After all, he joined the league on the other side of the line of scrimmage back in 2010: having spent his college career as a defensive end at Brown, where he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, Develin went undrafted and also did not see a contract offer extended to him in rookie free agency. He was invited to a tryout by the Cleveland Browns, but eventually left the team with no deal in hand and his NFL future very much in limbo.
With no other teams showing interest, Develin decided to take his talents to the Arena Football League and signed a contract with the Oklahoma Yard Dawgz. His tenure with the team lasted five weeks, but he appeared in only one game in a reserve role. The Yard Dawgz folded the same year Develin arrived, and he went on to join another franchise that no longer exists in a league that shut down just a few years later: the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League.
“That was a great experience for me, because when I got in there, it was probably their best year as far as the whole league went,” Develin told ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss about his experience in the UFL back in 2012. “That was a well-run organization and there were a bunch of NFL guys there. I got to experience the NFL pro lifestyle and kind of how to conduct yourself, take care of your body, and study — at a lesser level than the NFL. That’s where I made the transition to fullback.”
Playing a new position, Develin was signed to the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad shortly after the UFL’s 2010 season came to an end. Serving as a developmental emergency option behind Chris Pressley, he spent almost two years with the club but did not appear in a single non-preseason game before his release in 2012. While Develin had a grand total of zero NFL snaps on his résumé at that point in time, he was still only 24 years old and showing some promise playing the fullback position.
That’s when the Patriots called, and his career changed forever. New England signed him to its own practice squad a few days after his release by the Bengals, and three months later promoted him to the 53-man roster. Three weeks later, he made his NFL debut: Develin played 12 special teams snaps in a loss against the San Francisco 49ers. He was a footnote that day — the Patriots and 49ers played in a shootout and potential Super Bowl preview — but had taken the step and broken the next tackle in his journey.
By 2013, Develin started to find his footing in pro football: he earned a job as the Patriots’ fullback in September, and never looked back.
Fast forward to April 2020, and Develin’s retirement. When he announced that he would end his career due to “unforeseen complications” in his recovery from a neck injury that cost him most of the 2019 season, he had a productive decade in pro football to look back on: Develin appeared in 83 regular season games as well as 14 playoff contests and helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls. He was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2017 and proved himself a reliable player on the league’s premier team as well as one of its veteran leaders.
His journey may have started in an unusual position and taken numerous turns along the way, but eventually it led to success — just like his signature touchdown run against the Texans.