Last year Jakob Johnson was the biggest underdog at Patriots training camp. A German fullback who came to New England through the International Player Pathway program, Johnson had spent a year back home playing for his old German Football League club and working part-time as a waiter before earning his shot with the Patriots.
This year, his main competitor for the fullback spot might be the only guy in the NFL with a more unlikely backstory.
Paul Quessenberry spent five years out of football before signing with the Patriots earlier this month. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in 2015, the 28-year-old fullback spent his post-college years serving with the Marines before eventually deciding to give football another shot.
“Somewhere along that journey, I don’t really have a specific moment in time where I decided to pursue football again, but my love and passion for the game was burning hot as ever and I felt like I had maintained relatively good shape,” Quessenberry said. “It wouldn’t be too difficult of a transition if I just committed to a different style of physical training to get into football shape.”
Quessenberry’s dream was ambitious, but not without merit. He’d previously earned a tryout with the Houston Texans after finishing his football career at Navy, and throughout his military service he stayed plugged in to the NFL thanks to his brothers David and Scott, both of whom are NFL offensive linemen.
“When I told them I was thinking about coming and giving it another go, they backed me 100%,” Quessenberry said. “Without my brothers being in the NFL, I wouldn’t have sought out his path in life because I don’t know if the certainty in my mind would have been the same.”
Once he committed to football, Quessenberry had to figure out the complicated logistics of how he would earn his shot.
For one, he needed to figure out what position he’d play.
During his earlier tryout with the Texans, it became apparent that Quessenberry didn’t have the physical traits to play defensive end in the NFL like he had in college. He eventually settled on playing fullback and had hoped to try and get on the NFL radar by taking part in San Diego State’s pro day back in March.
That, of course, was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but through a confluence of circumstances and a few key recommendations, Quessenberry eventually landed on New England’s radar and earned a chance to try out.
“Paul is a great guy, working extremely hard, of course with his military background you can definitely see that in how hard he’s working and how hard he’s preparing,” Johnson said. “We’re really excited to have him here and we’ll keep grinding through this camp.”
Since his arrival, Quessenberry says he’s spent more time with Johnson than anyone else on the team. The two have bonded over their unusual paths to the league, and while they are competing for the same spot on the roster, Quessenberry said Johnson has been tremendously helpful, saying he knows everything there is to know about being a fullback.
“He’s been nothing but just the best blueprint of a teammate you can ask for,” Quessenberry said. “He’s never going to hesitate to help me out, even if it’s late at night. I’ll text him like ‘Hey, Jaka, I got a question on this play, you busy?’ Every time he’s like ‘What you got man, let me know.’ Having his support in this has been huge for my development.”
Quessenberry acknowledges he’s a long shot to make the team, but if there is anyone in the league he can look to for inspiration, it’s Johnson. By Bill Belichick’s own admission, Johnson was the last man on the totem pole when he arrived in camp last year, and yet he was still able to work his way onto the practice squad and eventually earn the starting job after James Develin went down due to injury.
Can Quessenberry do the same? Only time will tell, but even by making it this far Quessenberry has already defied the odds.
“To be get the opportunity with the New England Patriots, it’s truly an honor and I’m very fortunate to be here,” Quessenberry said. “I just want to keep working hard and do everything I can to stay and be a part of this football team.”