Cowboys rookie living a dream

IRVING, Texas -- The way Donnie Brake remembers it, the field was "partial grass, dirt and rocks."

It was about 20 yards wide and 38 yards long, give or take. When the offense wanted to work on the passing game, they went the long way. When they wanted to run, they went the wide way.

James Hanna was a 16-year-old sophomore then, playing six-man football at Coram Deo Academy in Highland Village, Texas, with Brake as his coach.

"I remember practicing outside of our building on really not very good fields over there," Hanna said, "and thinking about going to play football for Oklahoma and then I'd go play for the Dallas Cowboys because my stepdad went to Oklahoma and has been a Cowboy fan, so I grew up watching Oklahoma and the Cowboys. As luck would have it, it's worked out that way. Literally, it's a dream come true."

How many kids have those dreams? Hundreds? Thousands?

Hanna, whom the Cowboys selected in the sixth round in last week's NFL draft, is one of the few who get to live it.

Hanna and his new teammates will get their first chances to wear the star on their helmets and pull on practice jerseys today at the Cowboys' rookie minicamp.

The drive from Hanna's Flower Mound home to Valley Ranch takes about 20 minutes, but the journey from that partial grass, dirt and rocks practice field to the plush, manicured fields the Cowboys use was much longer than that.

Hanna spent his freshman and sophomore years at Coram Deo, a private Christian school. The football program was new and Brake and his assistants learned the six-man game from tapes sent to them from a friend in Austin. Coram Deo went 9-2 that first year and 11-1 the next, winning the Texas Christian Athletic Fellowship state championship.

"James was already very physically talented," Brake remembered. "He was just a beast at the time. In six-man, one of the nice things about it is it's all about athleticism. While 11-man is too, there's a lot less coordination in six-man where if you have the best athletes, by and large you're going to win … With his strength and athleticism, he scored a lot."

But very few six-man players go on to play major college football or in the NFL, so Hanna left Coram Deo for Flower Mound High School, a Class 5A school, to get noticed.

Cody Vanderford, who started Flower Mound's program in 1999, didn't know about Hanna until Hanna walked in one day for spring practice.

"We knew immediately he had a lot of talent," Vanderford said. "I think it took him some time to learn and adjust to playing the 11-man game as opposed to the six-man game. With the six-man game, he was definitely a man among boys, I'm sure. He came in really raw, but he had so much God-given ability he quickly overcame that."

Hanna caught 53 passes for 764 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior. He carried the ball 17 times for 131 yards. He returned punts and kickoffs, scoring touchdowns doing both.

"Oklahoma wasn't one of the first teams to offer me," Hanna said. "They were one of the later ones to offer me. I was actually not planning on going there once the recruiting process started and I was getting offers. I let that [OU] dream go just because I didn't think it was on the table. Turns out it was."

Hanna moved from wide receiver to tight end at Oklahoma. In four years, he caught 52 passes for 720 yards and nine touchdowns for the Sooners. He had seven touchdowns as a junior and 27 receptions as a senior, starting 25 of 27 games over his last two years.

But it was a staggering 4.46-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine that made people take more notice. With the way offenses are using tight ends nowadays, Hanna's speed and athleticism could make him a matchup problem for safeties or linebackers.

After the Cowboys drafted Hanna in the sixth round, coach Jason Garrett said the tight end's receiving ability stood out.

"Often times we describe tight ends in a few different ways: this guy's a blocking tight end, this guy is more of a receiving tight end, this guy's a combination guy," Garrett said. "We feel like probably a better description of Hanna is that he's a combination guy. I meant that as a compliment, that he's a receiver-type guy and he can get down the field. We also feel like has the measurables to be an on-the-line tight end, put his hand in the ground and block defensive ends in this league. So we like his upside and I think his receiving ability is pretty apparent, and his speed to really run down the field is apparent as well."

Eight years ago, Hanna was playing six-man football. Now, as the first graduate drafted in the NFL out of Flower Mound -- and by extension Coram Deo -- he is one step closer to his dream.

"I'm trying hard not to think about that stuff just because I have so much work ahead of me," Hanna said. "I haven't made it yet. I've made it, but I haven't solidified anything. I've got a lot of work to do. I'm more thinking about the future than the past right now."