T.J. Fatinikun cried Sunday night after his Arena Football League season ended in Cleveland and he didn’t know what was next for him.
The former Perrysburg High School and University of Toledo standout woke up Monday morning to a text message from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers player personnel director asking if he was in Orlando.
“I was half asleep scrolling through my phone like, ‘Wait, what?’ and I popped right up,” Fatinikun said.
By Tuesday the defensive end flew to Tampa Bay, took his physical, and signed a contract to play in the NFL. Terms of the deal were not announced, but a base rookie contract in the NFL is $420,000 per year during the regular season.
Players are paid small stipends during the preseason.
“This is a huge blessing and the opportunity I’ve wanted and been praying for,” he said. “I’m so thankful just for the chance to compete.”
It has been a long road to achieve his dream of playing in the NFL. The 2009 Perrysburg graduate spent four years at UT racking up 10 sacks, but sat out his senior year with an torn left Achilles. The injury carried into his pro day and hurt his draft status as he went undrafted.
“Knowing what he went through with his injury we just wanted to see him get his chance,” said Perrysburg coach Matt Kregel. “I think he’s going to make the team, he’s a great player.”
After a workout with Kansas City didn’t lead to a job, he sat out last football season, too. He went to Houston to train, get hungry, and gain his faith, Fatinikun said.
Around the holidays, he decided he wanted to play a full year of football, which meant starting in February with Arena Football League camps through the NFL season. Fatinikun wanted to get good game film from the AFL, and show NFL scouts he’s healthy again. He said 37 tackles, five sacks, and three forced fumbles while playing 18 games did that.
His Orlando Predators team went all the way to the conference championship game before falling to the Cleveland Gladiators on Sunday. Workouts during the season with the Buccaneers made him optimistic for an NFL opportunity, but the team didn’t want to interfere with his AFL season.
Tampa Bay coaches didn’t let a day go by after Fatinikun’s AFL season to get him in.
“It proves that God works, I honestly had situations I thought [my dreams of the NFL] were over,” Fatinikun said. “I didn’t know where to go, I was stuck. But you got to believe in what God can do, and thank God.”
Starting today, he’ll hit the field and meeting rooms trying to catch up with the playbook and on the field.
“The coaches understand the fact I’m coming in late, [others] may have the upper-hand with the playbook but the coaches are fair and want me to show them what I can do,” Fatinikun said. “They told me they’ll put me in a position to succeed in base defensive forms.”
Kregel said he knew during Fatinikun’s sophomore year of high school when he had six sacks against rival Maumee he was something special. The coach wants to take his family down to Tampa Bay to see him play since his wife and daughters are close to him, too.
Fatinikun knows his journey has just begun and will have to work even harder to stay in the NFL. He said things may get harder, but that’s fine because he’ll believe in God and be thankful.
Saturday when he puts on an NFL uniform for the first time as the Buccaneers play the Miami Dolphins in the preseason he won’t forget it.
“I don’t even know how I’ll be,” he said. “I’ll be so nervous, anxious, excited. I’ll probably have every emotion inside of me, but I’ll be ready to go — it’s what I’ve been waiting for all of my life.”