Former Alabama tight end Hale Hentges started the 2020 NFL year with the Washington Football Team, spent most of the season with the Indianapolis Colts and finished the campaign with the Minnesota Vikings. He didn’t appear in a game, though, until the Vikings’ regular-season finale, when he got on the field for seven special-teams plays to cap a year full of COVID-19 tests and unprecedented NFL mandates that allowed the league to play during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was certainly a wild year, and I worked very hard to get to that point,” Hentges said of his chance to play. “And I was just so thankful to Minnesota and all the teams that I was a part of for just giving me a chance. Everything starts with a chance. You need one opportunity to get out there, and, hopefully, you’ll have other opportunities. And if not, I’m very thankful for where I’m at now.”
Hentges got an opportunity at Alabama and became a team captain and a two-time CFP national champion. He got an opportunity in the NFL and made a regular-season roster coming out of his first training camp, even though he was not drafted. And now he’s learning about opportunities in the business world this offseason with an externship with Zebra Technologies through the NFL Players Association.
Hentges said his opportunity at Alabama led to his opportunity in the NFL – and got him prepared for it.
“I think coach (Nick) Saban does a wonderful job of creating great opportunities for players like me,” Hentges said. “I don’t know if I would have gotten this opportunity if I didn’t play for Alabama, and that’s just a great testament to the success that we’ve had and the success that coach Saban has had creating players that are going to do well at the next level.
“I think so much of it is just the process that he’s created and the competition that I faced every day at practice in Alabama. Like in 2016, for example, I was going against a defense where every starting player played in the NFL. That’s something that not a lot of people can say, and it just got me ready for the next level. And all those defensive players played against great players on offense, so it’s just competition breeding excellence. And I think we just worked on that and compounded that and, all of sudden, you get to the NFL and you’re like, ‘This really isn’t too different because it’s like all the great competition I had at Alabama.’”
A Missouri native, Hentges played for Alabama from 2015 through 2018. In that span, the Crimson Tide reached the CFP national championship game every season and compiled a 55-4 record. That exposure to excellence and how to achieve it helped Hentges earn an NFL spot as a rookie even though his college stats totaled 15 receptions for 124 yards and six touchdowns, he said.
“I think it was just a desire to be great and work hard,” Hentges said. “Ever since I stepped onto Alabama’s campus, I really started to understand what it takes to be great at something. That’s a testament to coach Saban and all the great players that I was around, and it really stems from a love of football. Ever since I was kid, I wanted to play football professionally, so I was going to work as hard as I possibly could to accomplish that.
“And when you get in there and you’re surrounded by so many people doing the right thing – for instance, when I was a freshman, I’d see Derrick Henry squatting after practice. And I’m like, ‘That’s what I need to do to be successful.’ So I had such good examples, and I think I just kind of took that and ran with it and realized I had to work as hard to accomplish my dreams.”
But that doesn’t mean the NFL has been easy street for Hentges. He made the Colts’ regular-season roster as a rookie. But after Hentges didn’t play in the first four games of the 2019 season, Indianapolis waived the tight end because it had two safeties out with injuries for the fifth game. Indianapolis used Hentges’ roster spot to call up a practice-squad defensive back for the contest.
With its top two tight ends dealing with concussions at the time, Washington claimed Hentges off the NFL waiver wire. Hentges played in 11 games, with four starts, for Washington in 2019. He caught eight passes for 103 yards and one touchdown while getting on the field for 230 offensive snaps and 90 special-teams plays.
But in 2020, Washington released Hentges at the end of training camp, and he wound up back in Indianapolis as a member of the Colts’ practice squad. With tight end Kyle Rudolph sidelined by a foot injury, Minnesota signed Hentges to its active roster on Dec. 10, and he got his opportunity to play in the season finale.
“It definitely can be a stresser,” Hentges said of life in the NFL for a player in the active roster/practice squad borderland. “I think how you deal with it is to realize that that’s the nature of the business, that what we’re doing right now, what we’re a part of is not guaranteed at all, it’s not for certain. Even if you make the team, there’s definitely a feeling of, ‘OK, what’s next? I don’t know how long I’m going to be on this team. I’ve got to work every day as hard as I possibly can to cement my status with this team.’
“And that really sets me up, I feel like, for life in the business world after football because nothing’s guaranteed and every day is a series of just working as hard as you possibly can to gain an advantage over your competitors, and I think football has really taught me that. You have to work as hard as you can with the situation that you have.”
Joining the Vikings reunited Hentges with Irv Smith Jr., who became Minnesota’s No. 1 tight end with Rudolph out. Hentges and Smith played together for three seasons at Alabama.
“It was wonderful, let me tell you,” Hentges said of finding a familiar face on a new team. “Irv Smith Jr. is one of my best friends and someone who I really, really grew to enjoy during my time at Alabama. We were almost the same age and we worked out very closely together, and it was just really refreshing to get to Minnesota and have him there to help show me the ropes because any time you switch teams or a company or whatever, it’s challenging, and to have someone there to kind of take me under their wing was just so meaningful for me, and it really helped me make a smooth transition.”
Making transitions was part of what defined the NFL’s pandemic season.
“I think if you ask any player, it was definitely a unique challenge,” Hentges said. “It was something that required a lot of flexibility, and that’s something that I’m learning as an intern at Zebra – in order to be successful, you have to be flexible. That’s something that they’ve done, and that’s something that I continue to see and try to implement in my own daily practices.
“Flexibility is really the key to gaining a competitive advantage. For me, it was moving to a couple of different teams, and I had to be flexible and to be able to learn a playbook on short notice and be able to adapt to new teams and situations and environments, so it was definitely a challenge. But I welcomed it because I think it helped me grow as a person and got me ready for any challenge, I feel like, that might come up.”
The Vikings have Hentges under contract for the 2021 season. The tight end is training for the new football year – whenever it might begin.
“With COVID, we’re not really quite sure when we’re going to be called back to start offseason training and training camp and all of those things,” Hentges said, “so it’s pretty much just staying ready. For me right now, (the offseason) looks like growing my business acumen trying to figure out life after football, so I’m taking great advantage of this opportunity. And aside from that, just training, mostly running trying to be in the best shape that I can to create a great opportunity for myself.”
In football, Zebra Technologies had made its mark with the player-tracking innovations behind the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. But Zebra Technologies also works with retail, manufacturing, health-care and transportation logistics industries on tracking and data management.
Hentges earned a master’s degree in marketing at Alabama, but he views his externship with Zebra Technologies as a chance for wide-ranging exposure to the opportunities available when football is no longer an option.
“I, personally, am very interested in learning how each section works,” Hentges said. “I don’t have a whole lot of experience outside of football, so for me this is an opportunity to get ready for life after football. Zebra has kindly taken me in and really just created opportunities to get around some leaders in marketing, sales, HR, PR and really just create a great opportunity to grow into a life after football.”
But exploring the possibilities of life after football has also included some football for Hentges.
“I think we’re really just scratching the surface of where player tracking can go,” Hentges said, “and that’s something that a lot of my meetings have been about. How can we make this data better? What do you guys see as players to use this to gain a competitive advantage over your opponents? I’m very interested in all the metrics that they provide, and I hope to see it continue to gain influence as we move further along.”
While Hentges is examining his opportunities after football, he’s not eager for that day to arrive.
“You never know in the NFL,” Hentges said. “You could be on a team today and cut the next day and that could be it, so I’m really enjoying where I’m at currently with Zebra, just trying to learn more about business and what it’s going to take to make a successful transition to life after football.
“But I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can and just ride out football as long as I can. But I’m definitely looking toward life after football. It’s certainly something that you’ve just got to wake up every day and be thankful for where you’re at.”
Mark Inabinett is a sports reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @AMarkG1.