FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Eric Tomlinson is a big, burly tight end whose main job for the New York Jets isn't catching footballs, it's throwing blocks on defenders.
That's the gritty, unglamorous life of a so-called blocking tight end in the NFL — and Tomlinson fully embraces the role.
"It's definitely tough, but I love to block," Tomlinson said after a recent training camp practice. "I take passion in it. When the passes come, and there might not be many, you've got to make the most of those opportunities.
"But, blocking, I really like it."
The long-haired, bushy-bearded Tomlinson is far from flashy, but he serves a vital role in the Jets' revamped offence under new co-ordinator John Morton.
While Austin Seferian-Jenkins and rookie Jordan Leggett are considered primarily pass-catching tight ends, Tomlinson sees his fair share of snaps to help open up holes in the running game or try to hold off sack-happy defenders.
"In this league, you're going up against great guys every week on defence," Tomlinson said, "so if you can go out there and block them consistently, I guess you're considered a blocking tight end."
Tomlinson has worn that label — part-tight end, part-fullback, part-offensive lineman — well since his college days at UTEP as an immovable wall at the line of scrimmage for the Miners.
The 6-foot-6, 263-pound Tomlinson caught 59 passes for 547 yards and four touchdowns in his four-year college career, but it was his improvement in blocking that made him an NFL prospect. He worked regularly with UTEP tight ends coach Brian Natkin, a former All-American at the position for the Miners who played for the Tennessee Titans in 2001.
"I learned that it's just a mindset," Tomlinson said. "He taught me a lot about technique in the run game and just firing off the ball, and I think that helped a lot with my blocking."
Natkin acknowledged that it's tough to find players at that position who truly focus on blocking, and that set Tomlinson apart at the college level.
"He's one of the rare ones," Natkin said in a telephone interview. "He was a willing blocker and that's half of it. He's physical by nature and he really was a strong blocker before I met him, but that attitude that he had to block — that's what he wanted to do. He caught some balls, but his main thing was he wanted to block people."
Tomlinson played defensive end at Klein High School in Texas, and also was a rebound-snagging centre on the basketball team. He incorporated parts of both into his game as a tight end.
"You can take a lot from basketball, as far as the footwork aspect of it," he said. "A lot of it transfers over to football."
But on the football field, it's not just elbows flying around as on a basketball court. There's lots of pushing, shoving and grabbing — and Tomlinson found out the hard way.
During a game in his senior year against Kansas State, Tomlinson was sporting a long beard that flowed down past his neck. That changed in a split-second when a defender tugged at it.
"I looked down on the field and a big chunk of my beard had gotten pulled out," Tomlinson said with a laugh.
"After that, I was like, 'OK, it's time to shave this down a little bit.' I just figured I'd grow it while I can and no one really cares. But, man, I looked down and a big patch of my beard was on the ground."
The shorter-bearded Tomlinson went undrafted in 2015, but signed with Philadelphia as a free agent. He was among the Eagles' final cuts that summer, but was immediately signed by Houston and spent his rookie season on the Texans' practice squad.
He was again cut last summer, but then added to Houston's practice squad — from where the tight end-needy Jets signed him last November. Tomlinson made his NFL regular-season debut last season, playing in seven games with five starts. He had no catches, but made plenty of blocks while also contributing on special teams.
"It's not a huge deal to me, getting a catch," he said. "I mean, it would be nice, but I'm just trying to contribute any way I can, really."
The 25-year-old Tomlinson takes a humble approach to his NFL opportunity, something that was ingrained in him during the weeklong mission trips he took every summer with Cypress Creek Christian Church from seventh grade through his senior year of high school.
"To me, he's one of the best people I've ever met, just as a person," Natkin said.
Tomlinson helped out at an orphanage in Mexico one year. There was a trip to the Bolivar Peninsula in Galveston, Texas, to help rebuild homes affected by Hurricane Ike in 2008. Tomlinson also travelled to Belize one summer to assist a church.
"You look at all of these people deal with adversity and they bounce back and they're as happy as can be," Tomlinson said. "They just lost everything, but they're around you laughing and have a smile on their faces and just thankful for you being there. I think that helped me a lot, just gave me a different outlook on life."
Tomlinson tries to keep everything in perspective because of those experiences, even while not being drafted or getting cut twice — or having to live in relative anonymity as an NFL player with an under-the-radar job.
"I'm a pretty simple guy," Tomlinson said with a chuckle. "I'm just a guy who blocks. And when they throw it to me, I'll make sure I catch them. But I just want to help."
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