The roots of how Troy Hairston beat the odds to become the Texans' starting fullback stretch back to Mount Pleasant, Michigan: a college town with a population of 21,688 and the home of the Central Michigan Chippewas.
Hairston was an ultra-productive defensive end and linebacker, recording 129 career tackles, 15 sacks and 33 tackles for losses, but he lacked ideal size at a chiseled 5-foot-11, 245 pounds. He was just right, though, for a fullback.
"I've been told I look like a fullback," Hairston said in the lobby of the Texans' training facility at NRG Stadium. "Probably the way I move, but that doesn't matter to me. There's a lot of guys in the league that ball regardless of size. It's what God gave me. I'm going to use it."
When Texans college area scout Najja Johnson attended the Central Michigan campus Pro Day workout, the major draw was offensive line draft prospect Bernhard Raimann.
While Raimann was drafted in the third round by the Indianapolis Colts, Hairston also left a big impression.
It wasn't only that the former Co-Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year bench pressed 225 pounds 30 times and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.76 seconds, it was the versatility he displayed. Hairston performed adeptly in defensive line and linebacker drills. He also worked out at fullback and tight end.
"Fire up, Chips," Texans general manager Nick Caserio said.
A former John Carroll University standout quarterback, Caserio was a graduate assistant at Central Michigan in 2001 before being hired by the New England Patriots where he climbed the ladder from coaching and scouting to eventually become Bill Belichick's top lieutenant and, now, the architect of the Texans' overhauled roster.
Caserio credited Johnson for detailing how Hairston could potentially be utilized at the NFL level.
“Troy is an interesting case or situation," Caserio said. "We put a lot on our college scouts during the course of the spring. When there's a workout, we evaluate the workout, what happened in a workout, what did you see, sending information back to us. And one of the things that he put in his write-up was Troy did all the drills at defensive end, he did them all at linebacker, then they worked him out as a fullback, and this might be an opportunity potentially to maybe develop a fullback, because obviously if you look at this position throughout the league, very few fullbacks were fullbacks. They come from another position."
There's Baltimore Ravens 290-pound fullback Patrick Ricard, a defensive tackle. With the Patriots, they had an All-Pro fullback in James Develin, a former Brown University defensive end.
That gave Caserio and the Texans a background in evaluating Hairston's ability to make the conversion to a new position with a unique skill set and physical requirements.
"Playing fullback is about a mentality, it's about a mindset, and it's about a toughness," Caserio said. "I would say when you look at Troy, he has certain athletic traits and attributes that we thought potentially had the opportunity to translate. Now, when a player never does something, then you really don't know. You can't say, ‘Oh, yeah, we're going to have potentially a starting fullback.’ I think it was a good example of the process and kind of how we worked through that process.
"I think there was a hope and an expectation based on his physical attributes and characteristics that he would have an opportunity to compete in the kicking game. Troy has got a long way to go, but Troy works as hard as anybody. He's got a great attitude. He wants to get better each day. He wants to improve. When he's been on the field, he's had some positive plays, so we'll see if he can continue that moving forward.”
At every stage since joining the Texans after initially working as a linebacker, Hairston checked boxes. He proved to be a punishing lead blocker in I-formation sets. He was physical and fast in his work for special-teams coordinator Frank Ross.
It was evident how active Hairston was in every phase at the NFL level after recording 50 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks, 13 1/2 tackles for losses and four forced fumbles during his final college season. Hairston ran for two yards against the New Orleans Saints in his NFL debut and had a four-yard reception against the Los Angeles Rams.
It wasn't a surprise for Hairston when he learned that the Texans wanted to move him to fullback.
“It wasn’t really a surprise, it was something I was aware of," Hairston said. "Whatever I had to do to get where I need to go, I was willing to do. When they approached me, that was almost my mentality or expectation, that it was going to be brought up. When it happened, I just told myself it’s go-time. You’re getting a shot.”
It was a beautifully simplistic and well-executed play for the Texans that suggests a smash-mouth style is what offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton wants to establish as the identity of the offense.
Hairston fired out of his stance in the I-formation to run interference for rookie running back Dameon Pierce. Nine yards later, Pierce was smiling and the running game was clicking.
The Texans rushed for 156 yards on 36 carries along with nine first downs and one touchdown, scored by Pierce, who gained 86 yards on 11 preseason carries. Texans coach Lovie Smith characterized the smash-mouth run as one of his favorite plays.
Applying his defensive background as a fullback, Hairston has had to make some adjustments to succeed as a fullback.
"I have to be under control a lot more on the offense," Hairston said. "On defense, you want to get extension. I have to get extension, set blocks. Get off the block I don’t want that guy getting close. Where as fullback, you want him in close because that guy can get around you and make the play. You have to be under control, hold him in, get close, and make sure you drive your feet. It’s different making contact.”
The Texans cut veteran fullback Andy Janovich on Sunday, leaving Hairston to compete with fullback Paul Quessenberry. Quessenberry got the bulk of the work with the first-team offense in I-formation alignments, but Hairston beat him out and now Quessenberry is on the practice squad.
When Hairston realized that he made the team when his phone never range during the initial roster cutdown to 53 players, he was overjoyed and phoned his father to share the good news. He had realized his dream.
“Making the team was a blessing," Hairston said. "They really don’t tell you when you make the team, so I waited a good amount of that day. I ended up calling my dad at like 5 o’clock and let him know that I’m good. I’m cool. I’m here. It was a very emotional time for him. He was a little teary-eyed, a lot of pride. It was a blessing. There’s no place I’d rather be."
“I wasn’t FaceTiming him. He has an Android. I’m trying to get him caught up. It is what it is. I’ve been trying to get him, so maybe he’ll change now. You could hear it in his voice. My dad is not a super emotional dude, but you could hear that’s what he wanted from me. I know that it was a proud moment for him, and I hope I can experience something like that one day.”
There was some information sharing among the nine draft picks who made the team and three undrafted rookies who made the squad: Hairston, defensive tackle Kurt Hinish and linebacker Jake Hansen.
“To be honest, I called a couple of the rookies to see what’s up: ‘You good? How are you doing?’" Hairston said. "We’re all like, ‘We’re good. We made it. We’re here.’ Now, it’s time to turn it up. That doesn’t mean just because we’re here that we start to be okay or be comfortable with where we’re at. That means we’ve got to turn it up more. Just because you’re here doesn’t mean you’re here forever.”
During the preseason, Hairston established several things about his game.
He's tough. He's capable of playing special teams. And he delivers a lot of pop and push as a lead blocker.
"He’s caught our eye throughout camp,” Smith said. “Versatile player. Was a defensive lineman in college. A little linebacker. Normally, those guys can transition over to the fullback position. Brings a lot of athletic ability. He’s an excellent special teams player also. Good lead blocker. We’ve liked a lot of the things he’s done.”
Signed to a three-year, $2.588 million contract that includes $85,000 guaranteed with $60,000 of his $705,000 base salary guaranteed along with a $25,000 signing bonus, Hairston accomplished a difficult task to crack the Texans' initial 53-man roster.
Hairston broke into a smile when told that Smith called his block for Pierce his favorite play.
“He said that was his favorite play? Really? The defensive guy? I think that’s dope," he said. "I think that’s super cool. I’m speechless, I didn’t know that. I personally thought it was one of the coolest things, to block for Dameon Pierce and to turn around and see him going tough-nosed football, just run nine yards, eight yards, and run somebody over.
"I thought that was the coolest thing, that I got to lead block for him. Keep going up and around, and he’s still running down the field. I’m honored. I didn’t know that. That’s awesome.”
Difficult to block as a college defensive player due to his combination of speed, quickness and aggressiveness, Hairston is applying those qualities on the offensive side of the football.
It's his job to create pathways for the running game and to protect the quarterback as a blocker.
“It’s a grind mentality, it’s a tough mentality," Hairston said. "For me, I know I’m willing to do anything to play this game and play as long as I can. It’s really a tough mentality of how much you really want it.
"It’s what you’re willing to do to win and what you’re willing to do for your team. It’s a physical position but the dude behind me needs it. The dude with the ball, needs it. Whatever I’ve got to do to make sure he can gain as many yards as he can.”
Hairston found out from his father about Caserio's 'Fire Chips,' comment: "That was awesome."
And the congratulatory texts keep pouring into his phone.
It's a heady time for Hairston, but he knows there's more work ahead of him starting with the Texans' season-opener against an Indianapolis Colts defense headlined by linebacker Shaquille Leonard, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
"Everybody was proud," Hairston said. "They're like. You came a long way. Your story is crazy. You deserve it. .. It was emotional, but for me, I don’t think it really clicked in. I don’t think I really realized what I’ve done. For me, it’s football. It’s work for me.
"My mentality was more like, I just can’t wait to get right back to work, get back with my boys and grind, get ready to win some games. It’s still slowly setting in because a lot of times, I have to pinch myself to realize where I’m at."
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.