September 9, 2022

“I had to work harder than everybody else because of my disability”

It was all evident in J.T. Hassell’s face and in his voice – a mix of pure joy and a sincere gratitude for his latest opportunity.

The basic background to his story goes like this: the 27-year-old product of Titusville, Fla will make his Canadian Football League debut with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Saturday’s Banjo Bowl against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The hope is the former Cleveland Brown and New York Jets defensive back – a guy who arrived in Winnipeg just a few days ago – can make an immediate impact on special teams and, perhaps, in the defensive backfield in the coming weeks.

Yet, it’s the stuff beyond that – what Hassell has overcome just to get here – that makes his story so very compelling and inspirational.

Hassell was born with a birth defect that left him with just two fingers on his left hand. Raised by a single parent – his mother Kim Hassell – he kept working and working and working, first playing his college ball at South Dakota State, then Florida Tech before landing his NFL opportunity as an undrafted free agent.

He has seven NFL regular season games to his name but had been waiting for another opportunity since last summer. And then the Blue Bombers called.

“I saw what they were doing up here and the team that they have, the first day I walked into the locker room I’ve been smiling and laughing,” Hassell said after Friday’s walk-through practice at IG Field. “It already feels like I’m home and I just fit in.

“It’s a blessing, coming from where I come from and what I’ve been through. I just thank God every day for this opportunity. And for me to be able to help them grow with whatever they’re doing is a blessing. Barely making it out of my mom’s stomach, that was a blessing within itself. And then everything else I’ve been through… I could cry right now. It’s just an honour to be here. I’m lost for words, honestly.”

Hassell was born with a tiny pinky and a small thumb on his left hand, but no other fingers. He learned to play wearing special gloves sewn by his mother – the same lady who worked three jobs to pay the bills, has driven a school bus for two decades and donated her plasma to help save money so that they would never miss one of his games.

“I’m the mom that’s always there,” she told The New York Post in December of 2020. “I would go donate my plasma, and I would save my money in the offseason on my plasma card so I could travel to go to his college games.”

Hassell is in Winnipeg today for many reasons, not the least of which is his athleticism. But it’s that undying will that earned him his shot in the NFL, too, followed by his new opportunity with the Blue Bombers.

“It’s really just hard work, man,” he said. “That’s for all the kids who are going to go through a similar situation or even worse situations. We all go through stuff. But it’s just perseverance, dedication, and hard work. That’s how I made it to this point.

“Basically, I was the guy in the background my whole life. Nobody’s ever counted on me. I was undrafted. I was never picked early in anything I did. Obviously with my hand people shut me down a lot, told me no, but I just kept it going.

“Life in general, you have to learn to adjust,” he added. “Everybody, we all have problems, whether it’s physical or mental, we all have problems. It’s all about how you adjust with your problems. Obviously, I had to work harder than everybody else because of my disability, but at the end of the day it’s my hard work and faith in God.

“Like I said, the first day I got here, I hadn’t even stepped on the field yet, and meeting the coaches and the players… it was crazy. I just felt like I was part of the team already because everyone here was so welcoming to me. I felt like I was on of them. I’ve been smiling and laughing since I got here. I’ve been on teams at the NFL, high school and college level where you walk into the locker room and everybody’s mad, everybody’s stressed and there’s a whole bunch of business going on.

“Here I feel like I can be free and be myself and I love that because that’s what this sport is all about.”

FYI, Hassell has established a not-for-profit foundation – The Hassell Foundation – with the mission to ‘educate, empower, and support families and communities to better understand how to care for the mental health of our youth.’

And so, while Saturday will be all about doing his thing on special teams and trying to help the Blue Bombers, in the big picture Hassell’s story is about so much more.

“I’ve had to prove myself my whole life, but that’s what made me the person I am today,” he said. “If my hand wasn’t like this I don’t think I would be the person I am today. I’m thankful for it. It’s a blessing in disguise.”