James Hanna earns spot with his favorite team

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James Hanna was a two-time All-Big 12 performer for Oklahoma at tight end, where he averaged 16.1 yards per catch as a senior in 2011.

Of the thousands of college football players hoping to realize their dream of playing in the NFL, few are visibly calm during the week of the NFL draft. Even fewer find ways to pacify themselves internally. But by all accounts, former University of Oklahoma tight end James Hanna was one of those anomalies during April's draft.

As each team's selection flew by, it would have been easy for Hanna to get restless. But instead, Hanna sat in his family's home in Flower Mound, Texas, with the same coolness he displays when he runs a drag route into coverage with ferocious defenders swarming him. All of a sudden, Hanna's phone rang.

"It was a coach from a team that had just drafted someone else but wanted to tell me that if I didn't get drafted they were going to offer me a tryout," Hanna said.

That was it? That was the call? When you're an NFL hopeful and your phone rings during the NFL draft, it's supposed to be better news.

Little did Hanna know, it was actually his call-waiting beep that signaled his dream-come-true moment.

"While I was on the phone with that coach, I had missed a call from my area code so I didn't bother answering it," Hanna said. "But then my mom, who had been watching TV in the other room, came running into the room saying I had been drafted by the Dallas Cowboys."

Hanna's hometown Cowboys had selected him in the sixth round with the 186th pick.

Just like that, everything was right in the Metroplex. A boy who had grown up on the other side of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport from where the Cowboys played would now don the uniform of so many of his childhood heroes.

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James Hanna improved his draft stock with an impressive combine performance, posting the quickest 40 time for a tight end (4.49 seconds).

The next local call came to Hanna's phone moments later, and he made sure to answer.

"It was a secretary who put me on the line with Jerry Jones," Hanna said. "In a matter of 10 minutes, I went from being on a phone call with a team that wasn't going to draft me to talking to the owner of the Dallas Cowboys."

To realize the impact of this occasion is to understand Hanna's full story.

Hanna's mother remarried when James was 6 years old, and James' stepfather was a huge Cowboys and Oklahoma Sooners fan. Sundays in the Hanna household were spent watching the Boys, and James couldn't keep his eyes off Deion Sanders.

"I liked Deion because I felt that any play he was on the field, he could score," he said.

Hanna went to some games with his family and got Cowboys players to autograph a football. When Sanders, a player known as Primetime, found the time to stop by and sign James' ball, Hanna was hooked.

From there, Hanna began to blossom as a football player, putting himself in a position to accept a scholarship to play for his stepfather's favorite college team.

Like any college-bound student, Hanna left for the Oklahoma campus with all of the accoutrements that reminded him of his hometown. Most were emblazoned with the famed Dallas Cowboys' star, including his checkbook and credit card.

Trent Ratterree, a teammate and fellow die-hard Cowboys fan, made an immediate connection with Hanna.

"When we met each other, we were both competing for the fourth tight end spot on the team, but then some guys got hurt and all of a sudden we were going after each other for the starting spot," Ratterree said.

Hanna's innate physical gifts prevailed, and he would not only start for the Sooners, he would star for them. By graduation, Hanna had earned All-Big 12 honors in his final two seasons, in part because of how hard his position-mate, and best friend, was pushing him.

"I remember the point that I realized I wasn't going to make it [in the NFL], but I told him, 'I'm gonna make damn sure you make it,'" Ratterree said.

That's why Ratterree grinned wider than a Texas steer's horns when he got the text Hanna had been drafted by the Cowboys. He was at a music festival in Norman that day, but hearing of Hanna's achievement was the sweetest sound he heard.

"I was like, 'Oh my god!'" Ratterree said. "I had goose bumps. I was screaming at him through texts, saying, 'THAT IS THE GREATEST!'"

Hanna's response was, "Relax, man. I haven't made the team yet."

That attitude is indicative of Hanna's approach to life -- always even-keel, always middle-of-the-road. It's a demeanor Ratterree said contributes to his best friend's on-field success.

Hanna did make the team and now plays mere miles from his childhood home and the TV through which he witnessed so many great Cowboys moments. As he catches a pass against the defending-champion New York Giants or recovers a critical onside kick against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFL rookie is creating memorable moments for a new generation, many of whom will grow up wanting to emulate a man who didn't have to throw away his Cowboys paraphernalia in order to achieve his dream.

"There are 32 teams in the league. What are the odds I would get to stay at home?" Hanna said. "I don't really think about the fact that I play for the Cowboys when I'm around my teammates, but sometimes when I'm at the grocery store or something I stop and say, 'Wow, this is pretty cool.'"

When he goes to the checkout counter to purchase those groceries, it's still the same James with the same Cowboys credit card. He just has a little higher limit now.

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