Kim Hassell has to pause to fight back the tears, because the memory of her son’s words that day are words a mother can never forget when her heart is pierced the way it was, even 20 years later.
The boy was in kindergarten when it hit him, and hit him terribly hard, that no one else had a left hand that looked anything like his, a tiny hand deformed at birth with only the semblance of a pinky and a thumb maybe an inch in size, the middle of the hand bent in. And he turned to his mother in their Titusville, Fla., home that day and asked:
“How come God didn’t make me like my friends? How come God didn’t make me like the rest of the kids in my class? If I just die, then I can get born again, then maybe I can be like everyone else.”
The boy remembers. Of course he does.
“Just being around other kids, and seeing them how happy all the time, and then being able to do things on a daily basis with both hands, I didn’t understand why I was different,” J.T. Hassell told The Post after Jets practice on Wednesday. “I kinda began to hate myself in a way and hate the way I was born.”
On this Christmas Day, Hassell can look back on a remarkable journey that has somehow, some way, taken him to the Jets. They somehow became the 1-13 Jets on the day he made his debut with the team and blocked a punt that set up a field goal in the 23-20 upset of the Rams barring a miracle, will send Trevor Lawrence to the Jaguars.
Hassell can look in the mirror now and see an inspiration not only to his mother, but also to everyone with a disability, to everyone forced to endure the cruel slings and arrows from small-minded bullies, to everyone who has lost a best friend to gun violence, to everyone who grew up struggling in a single-mother home, to everyone searching for a father figure, to everyone who refuses to take no for an answer and can author a story about the triumph of the human spirit.
He can smile through the ups and downs of a life and the precarious NFL career he dreamed of as a boy believing now that God never hated him, but always loved him.
“For me to be in this situation on the phone with you right now, it’s all God,” Hassell said. “I don’t even know how I do it sometimes. I’m the type of person I have to find a way. Sometimes there might be like there’s not a way for me or there’s not an opportunity for me because of certain reasons, but I just have to go and make a way.”
A way to make tackles with gloves sewn by his mother. A way to lift weights at his Pro Day. A way to go from South Dakota State, to Florida Tech, to being an undrafted free agent, to playing four games at safety and on special teams with the 2019 Browns, to the Patriots’ practice squad for several days, to the Jets.
“I’m thankful for all the things I go through ’cause it allows me to help others,” Hassell said. “A lot of people come to me for help and motivation and just want to tell me about themselves, because they know like I’ve been through everything. They just see a smile on my face every day no matter what I’m going through. For them to see the strength and the courage and the passion that I have every day in life no matter what I’m going through, that’s somebody that you want to be around, and somebody that motivates you to live a happy life.”
They say it takes a village sometimes.
“The teachers were not gonna allow people to make fun of him,” Kim Hassell said. “They were not gonna allow him to be treated any different.”
She worked three jobs to try to make ends meet, and has driven a school bus for Brevard County school board for 19 years. She never missed J.T.’s high school games, first at Titusville H.S., then at Astronaut H.S. And she only missed one game at Florida Tech, an hour’s drive from her home, because of an impending hurricane.
“I’m the mom that’s always there,” Kim said. “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.”
She offered to have a prosthetic made for him when he was around 10, but J.T. declined.
“I want to be the way God made me,” he said.
She is one of the biggest motivations in his life, along with his son Cameron, who turns 7 in February. She and a small group of family erupted when he blocked that punt against the Rams.
“We came out of our chairs and everybody’s standing up screaming!” Kim said.
She knew exactly what living this NFL dream meant to him.
“Seeing him being able to accomplish a lifetime goal that he’s made, it’s very heartwarming for me,” Kim said. “He would be the first one there at practice, and the last one to leave at practice. On the weekends, kids are sleeping in — not my son. Six o’clock in the morning, ‘Can you drive me to the gym?’ ”
“Before that play happened,” J.T. said, “I was literally talking to my teammates on the sideline, I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m on the sideline right now playing in this game.’ I was literally just at my mom’s house.
“And then I went and blocked the punt, and it gave me so much joy for me and my teammates.”
He only wishes Johntay Gowdie could have shared it with him, too.
“My best friend got shot in the head when I was younger, he was like a close brother to me, we grew up playing football together. I still think about that every day,” J.T. said.
He is proud of himself today, and deserves to be, and has finished writing a book about his 25-year-old life.
“Even outside the hand situation, I’ve been through so much in my life,” Hassell said. “No matter what I go through I just keep going. … I’m more proud than anybody can be. I’m my biggest fan.Everybody doesn’t know the things I’ve been through, or how hard it is to get to this point in my life.”
Against all odds, he got there. “Now being here,” J.T. Hassell said, “it’s really a dream come true.”
A dream Christmas.