As New England readies to face Philadelphia in Super Bowl LII next Sunday, fullback James Develin is at once the most unlikely Patriot and the most likely one. There’s an important distinction there that 1) explains both how Develin went from a spot on Brown’s less-than-mighty Ivy League defense to this season’s offensive Pro Bowl roster and 2) how the Patriots run their football operations. Because what’s improbable is how Develin made New England’s roster and played 65 games for the Pats since 2012. What’s not? That he did.
Develin grew up in Gilbertsville, Pa., where he was an Eagles fan, and he watched their appearance in Super Bowl XXXIX in the basement at his best friend’s house. He was in high school then. The Patriots topped his Eagles, 24-21, to capture their third championship in four seasons. A game like that felt unreachable. A million miles away.
Still, when he arrived at Brown in 2006, he planned to study mechanical engineering and play defensive end. And, sure, he held some crazy dreams about one day playing professional football—any kind of professional football. But he also was realistic. “I didn’t know how feasible that was,” he says.
While at Brown, Develin focused as much on his studies as on his playbook. He had to. The classes were super hard. He took a lot of physics in his early years, then enrolled in electrical engineering, thermodynamics and quantum physics courses, all while leaning heavily on his teachers’ assistants and professors. “It was a struggle, man,” he says. “It really was.”
In 2008, his junior year, Develin made second-team All-Ivy League, and in his senior year, he had 53 tackles, five sacks and an interception. He still hoped to play pro football but couldn’t find an agent, though he did know one. His neighbors had a cousin named Jim Ulrich, who worked at Enter-Sports Management in New Jersey. Ulrich had met Develin at a family birthday party when Develin was 16 and stood 6’4” and weighed 250 pounds. Ulrich figured he looked like a right tackle. Then Develin stopped growing. Then he went to Brown.
Ulrich happened to have a prospective client at Brown whom he wanted to represent, and he planned to see him at the Brown-Harvard game in Providence in 2009. Before Ulrich left, his cousins told him he should keep an eye on Develin. Ulrich didn’t plan to, but during the game, his wife, who accompanied him on the trip, kept pointing out No. 44, and all the plays that No. 44 had made. “Wow, you’re going to represent him,” she said.
“Nah,” he responded. “That’s Jim Develin. That’s the guy I don’t want to represent.”
Develin started pestering Ulrich anyway. The agent kindly suggested he look for an engineering job, where his career options—and his long-term health prognosis—were better. But Develin persisted until Ulrich caved. “Look, here’s the deal,” Ulrich told him. “I can get you into pro football, but you have to do whatever I say.” Develin agreed.
That summer, 2010, Ulrich took Develin to a friend’s house, and this particular friend was Jim Garrett, a longtime football coach and scout whose son, Jason, would later become the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. They worked out Develin in Jim’s backyard, and when the workout ended, Jim had seen enough to believe that Develin had promise. He told Ulrich that Develin was too small to play defensive end and too slow to play linebacker, but there was a position he could play—fullback—and he could play that in the NFL. “I knew if I got him an opportunity he could be at least a core special-teamer,” Ulrich says.
Develin received exactly zero invites to NFL training camps in 2010. He did, however, get a Facebook message from a lower-rung Arena Football League named the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz, so he borrowed money from his parents and flew there, knowing he’d always regret his choice if he didn’t at least try. The Yard Dawgz signed Develin, but he later found out he made the team only because they needed more bodies at practice. He made half a tackle on special teams in his first game, then was promptly released.
Ulrich called a few months later, still in 2010. He had lined up a gig with a United Football League team. The Florida Tuskers were owned in part by Joe Theismann and coached by a young Jay Gruden. Ulrich had another surprise—the tryout would be at fullback. “You said you’d do whatever I asked,” Ulrich reminded him.
Develin had been going on engineering interviews but decided to hit pause on those plans once more. He flew down to Florida and pretended he’d played fullback before. He had not—but he learned, and won the starting job. And since the UFL season ended in the middle of the NFL season, Develin received an immediate call from the Cincinnati Bengals, who Ulrich says already knew they wanted to hire Gruden the following season as offensive coordinator. Develin spent the 2011 season on the Bengals’ practice squad.
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Before the next season started, Cincinnait cut Develin. But Tampa Bay called, and so did New England, a team that for many years didn’t even use a fullback. Develin asked Ulrich for his advice. The 2012 season was approaching. The Bucs coach, Greg Schiano, was telling Ulrich that Develin would beat his guy out and be starting by midseason. The Patriots weren’t making any promises. “This might be one of those situations where you’re mad at me in 25 years,” Ulrich told Develin, “but my gut is telling me New England. You’re a Bill Belichick [type of] guy. You play both sides of the ball. You’re tough. You’re smart. Bill will value you in ways that others won’t.”
He added one last piece of advice. If Develin signed with Tampa and was cut, his career was likely over. If he was cut by New England, there was a chance that at another team might sign him strictly because Belichick had shown even mild interest.
That did it. Develin signed with the Patriots. He spent most of that 2012 season on their practice squad and was released in 2013 to make room for … Tim Tebow. The Patriots ended up re-signing him, and he started against Buffalo in the 2013 opener. From there, he stuck. “It’s funny,” Develin says. “They always seem to find guys like me, outcasts or whatever,” Develin says.
Develin played in all 16 games for New England in four of the past five seasons. He made the Pro Bowl this year. When that news came out, Ulrich called Develin. “It’s all come full circle now,” he told Develin.
“How did this happen?” he asked himself.
Now, Develin is here, in another Super Bowl. It’s just like that night in his friend’s basement, New England vs. Philadelphia, with the possibility to win three titles in four years. Only now, Devlin is hoping for the same ending as back then.
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