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James Develin: The Final Ode

NFL: AFC Championship Game-New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Humans love a good narrative.

American essayist Joan Didion, at the start of The White Album, wrote this in her work as an anthem to California during the 1960s:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea...We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

For Americans, perhaps no storyline is more essential to our nature, in fact our very existence, than the tale of the underdog. Our shared experience is that of unlikeliness. In an interview with WBUR back in 2018 historian Ed Ayers summed up America’s identification with underdogs this way:

Well, I think ever since 13 scrappy Colonies went up against the largest empire in the modern world. The beauty of America is everybody can think of themselves as an underdog in some way. The only true ones were the indigenous people who had home-court advantage but still ended up really suffering from all that. I think that it does seem to be something that’s hardwired into the American psyche, to somehow cheer for people who seem as if they are up against the odds. I mean, I think that’s what the country is really about — the American dream is everybody has a chance, and if you find that the underdogs don’t have a chance, it kinda pokes holes in that dream.

Brian Balogh, a fellow historian and the co-host of the “BackStory” podcast with Ayres, continued:

I do think it’s human nature to root for underdogs. But I would argue there is something in American history probably pretty connected to not having an aristocracy or a ruling class ... that makes us feel that we all come from an even playing field, and the best man or woman should win the race.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. And in America, perhaps their is no story more quintessential than the tale of the underdog.

Here at SB Nation it is underdog week, and sites across the network are regaling readers with their own stories of the underappreciated. The longshots, counted out but victorious in the end.

Many teams may make the case for their status as the ultimate dog, but allow me for a moment to submit a nomination for the New England Patriots. A team viewed as a laughing stock for years. An organization that made it to two different Super Bowls, losing one in historic fashion in the 80s, and then seeing a kick returner run them out of the same building a decade later. A team associated with failures, from a region of the country associated with that same American underdog beginning.

But then, a change. A change after the turn of the century, led by a brilliant head coach and another underdog story at the quarterback position. Seemingly overnight, the ultimate underdogs were world champions, and began a historical run of their own that saw them transform from underdogs to villains, and back and forth again. We love stories, and Batman is a good one: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain.”

Imagine doing that twice.

Along the way, the team viewed as underdogs became comprised of many such individuals. Of course Tom Brady was, at one time, the ultimate underdog. A sixth-round draft pick who had to fight for his job first in college, selected after six other players at his position. But Brady is not the only underdog in this collective story. Julian Edelman, Malcolm Butler, Troy Brown, David Givens. Essential players in this story who are also considered underdogs.

In the closing years of this era, there is another. One who just closed the book on his football story, but is worthy of honor and praise anew.

James Develin.

It is difficult to find a football resume more deserving of the title “underdog.” Develin was a defensive end at Brown University, an institution known for churning out NFL players. Despite tallying 15 sacks during his career in the Ivy League, the NFL did not exactly come calling. There would be no trip to Indianapolis for the 2010 Scouting Combine, only a Pro Day workout. At said Pro Day, Develin put up 39 reps on the bench press, which was more than two defensive ends who would be drafted in 2010 turned in: Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy.

It was not enough. Develin did not hear his name called.

Following the draft, one team did give him a phone call, the Cleveland Browns. But despite an invitation to try out for the team, a contract did not follow. Develin began thinking it was time to give football up, and turn to his backup plan: Mechanical engineering. A degree in mechanical engineering from an Ivy League school is quite the fallback option. But football dreams do not die, and his phone rang again. An opportunity. A professional football tryout with the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz of the Arena Football League.

As Develin described it:

It was a little bit of a leap of faith, but I knew that if I didn’t give it a shot, no matter what level, I would always regret it. So I went ahead and took a chance. . . . If I started my engineering career and started doing well and I’d never given football a chance, I’d always look back and think, ‘What if?’

He made the team. Develin signed, appeared in one game and one game alone.

Develin’s journey took him next to the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League. It was with the Tuskers that Develin’s football career took a critical turn. He switched positions, moving from defensive end to fullback. The coach that guided that switch? Jay Gruden.

During the nine weeks Develin spent with the Tuskers, he learned the ins and outs of playing on the offensive side of the ball for the first time since his youth. Develin did enough during that small period of time that when the UFL season ended, the Cincinnati Bengals came calling:

A day after our [UFL] season ended, they called and brought me in for a tryout. That was another very good learning experience. I spent a lot of time watching film and going through practice, and it was very valuable spending time behind Chris Pressley, who is a great fullback. I shadowed him and how he played the game, while learning from a great coach in Jim Anderson.

Develin got his first real chance at a roster spot in the NFL during the 2011 season. The Bengals hired a new head coach in February of 2011. That coach? Jay Gruden. Develin was given a chance to win a roster spot in training camp, competing with Cedric Peerman and Fui Vakapuna for a spot as a fullback. But at the start of September the team waived him, signing him back to their practice squad the next day after clearing waivers. Develin spent his entire 2011 season on the Bengals’ practice squad.

That same storyline played out in 2012. He fought for a job during training camp, lost again, and was waived. Only this time, a different team picked him up.

The New England Patriots

Develin had a new home, and while he began the 2012 season on the Patriots’ practice squad, that was not a permanent place for him. He was promoted to the active roster in November of that year and the following month he made his NFL debut, during a loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday Night Football. It was one game, but it was a start.

The following season Develin was again on the roster bubble during training camp, and was eventually released during the final roster cuts. But a few days later he returned to the roster and was named the team’s starting fullback. He made his first NFL start in the season-opener, a victory over the Buffalo Bills, and scored his first NFL touchdown in December in a victory over the Houston Texans.

Over the next few years, Develin continued to be a component of the Patriots offense. He appeared in all 16 games during the 2014 season, and caught a pass in Super Bowl XLIX, as the Patriots began their second dynasty of the Brady/Belichick Era with a victory over the Seattle Seahawks. While he missed the entire 2015 season due to a broken right tibia, he re-signed with the team prior to 2016 and earned his second Super Bowl ring, as the Patriots knocked off the Atlanta Falcons in dramatic fashion.

The 2017 campaign finally brought league-wide recognition, as Develin was named to his first Pro Bowl as the AFC’s starting fullback. He could not attend, as there were larger matters at hand: Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles. We, of course, know how that one ended. A loss at the hands of another underdog story, one I’m sure you can read about over at Bleeding Green Nation.

But in 2018 a new challenge awaited, and perhaps the pinnacle of Develin’s career.

The 2018 NFL season saw the dawn of Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, while the New England Patriots seemed to undergo a transformation of their own. They dealt with injuries to tight end Rob Gronkowski, questions about the health of Brady as fall gave way to winter, and during the stretch run to the playoffs the team looked more like a power running offense than the Brady spread passing games of old. That season the Patriots used 21 offensive personnel - two wide receivers, one tight end and two running backs - on 42% of their offensive snaps. That accounted for 213 plays, and it was the second-highest percentage of any team in the league.

What did they do on those 213 plays? They threw two passes, and ran the football 211 times. Over those 211 plays they averaged 4.7 yards per carry, and scored five touchdowns. Often, it was Develin leading the way for a Patriots’ tailback, either Rex Burkhead or rookie Sony Michel. But Develin also contributed as a ball-carrier, notching a career-high four touchdowns as a runner.

Standing in the way of a return trip to the Super Bowl? Mahomes and those Kansas City Chiefs. On a frigid night at Arrowhead Stadium, Mahomes and Brady went down to the wire and into overtime. But in the end, while Brady’s arm got the Patriots into scoring range, it was Burkhead, with Develin paving the way, that booked them a trip to Super Bowl LIII:

In fact, Burkhead lead the way on all four of New England’s rushing touchdowns that evening, leading Maurice Jones-Drew to call him the most important running back in Super Bowl LIII.

A game the Patriots would win over the Los Angeles Rams 13-3. On the game’s only offensive touchdown, who led the way?

Develin. Of course:

There is Develin, erasing Mark Barron in the hole, clearing the path.

Boys and girls don’t grow up dreaming of being fullbacks. No young fan of the game goes into their backyard or down to the nearest neighborhood park and, after saying something like “with two minutes left in the Super Bowl” then lines up in a three-point stance to throw a critical block. They grow up wanting to be quarterbacks, or wide receivers. My son’s bedroom wall has posters of Carson Wentz and Lamar Jackson. Those jerseys are the ones hanging in his closet, not Kyle Juszczyk’s or Patrick Ricard’s.

The second Patriots’ dynasty was encapsulated best, perhaps, in a three word phrase: “Do your job.” It was the rallying cry of that team that beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. While many players perhaps embodied that spirit, it was perhaps Develin that captured it best. An underdog who traveled the unlikeliest path from the college game to the pinnacle of the sport. A player who was known more for what he did for those around him, than what he did for himself. A player who might not be featured on many bedroom walls, but drove a way into all of our hearts.

The ultimate underdog story.

His is a tale worth telling.