Eric Ebron sat back at Glow Spa and Nails, soaking his size 15s in a plastic tub filled with warm water and Epsom salt.
The scrubbing was next. Then came the clipping and filing of his toenails. Finally, the foot massage and moisturizer.
The callouses from all the miles behind him had been rubbed away. His feet felt so fresh, so renewed.
Then the vibrating of his cellphone interrupted. It was Bob Quinn, general manager of the Lions. Now this was a surprise.
Ebron had recently finished his fourth season with the Lions. He and his wife, Gabriela, were getting ready for a vacation in Curacao, an island in the Caribbean. He was under contract for another year, and he wasn’t thinking about football.
“Hey Ebron,” Quinn said. “Just calling to let you know we are letting you go. We know you will do great somewhere else and find a home soon.”
Stunned, Ebron hung up the phone, finished up at Glow Spa and Nails, and drove to his Houston home. There had been talk that the Lions were trying to trade him. But he never suspected they would cut him.
He had been the 10th overall choice in the 2014 draft, taken two picks ahead of Odell Beckham Jr., and three ahead of Aaron Donald. He was supposed to really be something. But Ebron never played like his abilities promised he would, and Lions fans resented him for it. The Detroit Free Press called him “the most hated man” in Detroit sports.
After he arrived home, he was hit by “a roller coaster of emotions.” He lost it. The frustrations of four dismal seasons streamed down his cheeks.
“I was hurt,” he says. “I felt I let myself down. You get drafted, you want to be on one team forever. That was my thing. In high school my team wasn’t so good. With a few other players, we took that team from nothing to undefeated. In college, [North] Carolina was good, then went down. I come there, football program goes back up, we had tons of draft picks. Then I get picked 10th, Detroit is struggling. My thing was to help out. It didn’t work the way I wanted to. I felt I failed myself.”
He doesn’t feel that way now. A new city, a new team and a new day have changed everything. The tight end who couldn’t do anything right for the Lions can’t do anything wrong for the Colts.
A tattoo on the back of the left hand is of Jesus’ face, a reminder of sacrifice and security. A tattoo on the back of the right hand is a lion, a reminder of power and dominance. On game days, he tapes each finger at its base, and then between the knuckle and the joint. From the outside of his thumb to the outside of his pinky finger, each outstretched hand measures 10 inches.
If you could imagine a pair of hands you’d want to trust, you would imagine hands that looked like these.
But during Ebron’s time in Detroit, no one could trust those hands. Ebron dropped every kind of throw imaginable—high passes, low passes, lasers on the money and soft floaters. He failed to hold onto the kind of catches that little kids routinely make in their backyards. One after another after another.
In college, Ebron made some big runs after the catch. Ron Prince, his first tight ends coach in Detroit, said he thought Ebron started thinking about running before he secured the football. Martin Mayhew, the general manager who drafted Ebron, had a different theory. “I think it was nervousness, being picked so early, the expectations,” he says.
“I thought way too much,” Ebron says. “I thought I needed to do more than I really needed to. I let it all get to me.”
In the months before the NFL draft, Ebron thought he might have a chance to be a mid-to-late first-round pick. But before his senior season at North Carolina, he wasn’t even sure the NFL would want him. He had just started playing football as a junior in high school, and he began as a wide receiver and defensive end.
Yet, he did not lack for bravado as the draft approached. He proclaimed he would play the tight end position like no one else. During an interview with the Falcons that winter, a front office man mentioned they were trying to replace Tony Gonzalez, who is likely to be a Hall of Famer soon.
Front office man: “Those are mighty big shoes to fill.”
Ebron, without skipping a beat: “I’ve got some mighty big feet.”
“I think there was some immaturity,” Mayhew says. “He was a little lacking in confidence. He had some anxiety, and it manifested itself in trying to pretend to be more confident than he was.”
Ebron was not ready to be the 10th pick in the draft. “I had just turned 21. Everything happened so fast,” Ebron said. “I only was playing two years in high school, then three years in college, and here I was, the 10th pick in the draft. I was surprised to go so high. I was really young. I didn’t expect it.”
The Lions had just invested in wide receiver Golden Tate, so they didn’t really need another wide receiver. They also were hesitant to draft a wide receiver in the top 10 after taking Mike Williams, Roy Williams and Charles Rogers with top-10 selections over a four-year stretch. “We had a bad team history with first-round receivers,” Mayhew said.
They wanted to give new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi a tight end who could do for him in Detroit what Jimmy Graham had done for Lombardi in New Orleans.
In hindsight, the Lions thought they were drafting a 25-year old Ebron instead of a 21-year old Ebron.
“He was a developmental player,” Prince says. “There were a lot of things about being a tight end that he had not been exposed to. Some of the routes he was going to run in the NFL he had not experienced. There was a great anticipation of being able to pair him with Calvin Johnson and creating a duo that was very difficult to match up with. Many of those route concepts that he was working on were new to him, the nuances of the coverages.”
Prince said Ebron was inexperienced “about a lot of things tight ends are asked to do in the National Football League. But there was no doubt about his talent.”
He finished his rookie season with 25 catches for 248 yards and one touchdown, and more skeptics than fans. Beckham, meanwhile, made one of the most spectacular catches in NFL history and led the league in yards per game.
Ebron often was reminded he wasn’t Beckham. He says he was always happy for Beckham, whom he met and became friends with in the months before the draft.
“I felt like the draft is based on what scheme you are in,” he says. “[Beckham] was drafted in a great scheme. He was taken advantage of. When I was drafted, I was the fourth option. They had Calvin Johnson, they had just signed Golden Tate and they had [tight end] Brandon Pettigrew. It was kind of rough to understand that coming from college, where I was the man. I kind of went negative about it. I thought, ‘I need to play now. I’m the best person on the field.’ But that wasn’t the case. I needed to work my way up the system.”
He overslept and missed meetings twice, by his recollection. He said he didn’t commit himself to learning the intricacies of his position. He didn’t pay enough attention to what defenses were doing. He wasn’t invested.
All of it snowballed. “Some of my worst days,” he says, “consisted of small mistakes, then overthinking and then second-guessing myself.”
In his final year in Detroit, negativity was all around him. Whenever a ball was thrown his way at Ford Field, boos. If the announcer said his name, boos. When his image appeared on the video screen, boos.
“I guess they just didn’t like me,” he says. “I would get booed over stuff that wasn’t even my fault, like if a ball was overthrown but thrown in my direction. When they started booing me, I was playing my best. I just lost connection with our fans.”
Mayhew believes if Ebron had been the 25th pick instead of the 10th, he could have played a dozen years for the Lions.
That’s all Ebron could think about when those tears were streaming down his face after being cut. What he couldn’t yet conceive was what was about to begin.
The phone call from Quinn meant Ebron’s island vacation would be put on hold. The Panthers called. Since he went to high school in Greensboro, North Carolina, and college at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and the Panthers would be his first stop. But there were other options, good options. Also interested were the Ravens, Patriots, Broncos, Seahawks and Colts.
The Colts were the most aggressive suitor, so Ebron traveled to Indianapolis next. New coach Frank Reich had coordinated offenses in Philadelphia and San Diego that featured tight ends Zach Ertz and Antonio Gates. In Ebron, he saw a weapon with similar potential. Ebron, he thought, had the explosiveness to be a playmaker.
Investing in Ebron would require some research. Reich called a number of his friends who knew Ebron well, including Jim Caldwell, for whom he had worked when Caldwell was the head coach of the Colts and Reich was an assistant. Caldwell had been Ebron’s head coach in Detroit, and he spoke more of his potential than his disappointments. “I got nothing but positive feedback about the kind of person he is,” Reich says.
Before Ebron could visit another team, the Colts signed him to a two-year, $13 million contract. Replacing Honolulu blue with royal blue, Ebron moved about 300 miles to another Midwest town.
“It’s a place where we didn’t know anyone,” he says. “We were going to start from ground zero and build our way up with this state, these people, this team. … Indy is so peaceful, so relaxing and nice to live in. My family loves it here. The people are appreciative and so accepting of who I [am] and [they] allow me to be me.”
He also felt at home in the Colts’ system. “This offense allows me to get the matchups I want—or that we want—to make plays,” Ebron says. “The [Lions] offense was more given towards our wide receivers. That’s how [Matthew] Stafford liked it. I feel here it’s more about the tight end.”
Part of Reich’s vision was to have Ebron do what he does best. That means playing maybe half the snaps, with an emphasis on third downs and the red zone. The Colts don’t need Ebron on the field all the time because they have a Pro Bowl tight end in Jack Doyle, who is a better blocker.
“I don’t want [Ebron] to block 30 times a game,” Reich says. “I don’t think that’s his strength. It’s hard to have elite athletic ability and run the way he runs and also be an above average blocker. If you put Eric in the run game too many times, that’s bad coaching. You will wear him down, take away his energy from the pass game. But I’d like to ask him to block five or seven times a game and know I’m going to get a good effort and know he’s going to do his job. He’s shown a willingness to do that.”
That arrangement is cool with Ebron. In part because of Doyle’s presence, expectations for Ebron have been more manageable than they were in Detroit. “The pressure is not all on him,” Colts quarterback Andrew Luck says. “We’ve got a great group of tight ends. And I don’t think he’s putting undo pressure on himself.”
There were times, Ebron is certain, when Stafford became frustrated with him. Luck has not been. Luck and Ebron had a connection from the start. Luck went to Stratford High School in Houston with Ebron’s wife’s sister. Ebron sits behind him in meetings so they can compare notes, and so Ebron can laugh at Luck’s corny jokes. When Luck warms up before practice, Ebron volunteers to run routes for him.
Doyle and Luck have been together for five years, so Doyle is Luck’s guy. But when Doyle had to sit out with a hip injury, Luck was forced to throw to Ebron more, and subsequently learned to trust him more. In those five games, Ebron scored four touchdowns. “Eric stepped up, and has earned more and more trust with Andrew,” Reich says.
Ebron should hold a property title to the red zone. At 6’4″, 260 pounds, and with 4.60-second speed in the 40-yard dash, he gets off the line easily and gets on defensive backs quicker than expected. And then he uses his size and athleticism to give them lessons in humility.
With nine receiving touchdowns, Ebron is tied for second in the league. He also has a rushing touchdown.
He only wishes he had drafted himself on his fantasy football team. His best friend drafted him before Ebron could take himself, forcing Ebron to take Rob Gronkowski. When Ebron played his best friend, Ebron lost in part because Ebron put up 22 fantasy points in a game against the Patriots while Gronkowski put up seven.
“To be one of the best in fantasy is cool,” he says. “The more people who cheer for you and know you, the better. As long as I’m helping my team win and getting people their points, I’m guess I’m doing my job.”
In the second quarter of the season opener, Ebron caught his first touchdown pass of the season in the right corner of the end zone. He followed with a celebration in which he fell to his knees like a downed Fortnite character, then was “revived” by T.Y. Hilton and Nyheim Hines. And then, the “Hype” dance.
It was as if he spread the ashes of the old Ebron right there in the end zone at Lucas Oil Stadium, and the new Ebron emerged.
After another touchdown catch in an October game against the Raiders, Ebron did a strut straight out of a Victoria Secret fashion show, swinging his arms and swaying his hips.
“It was to let people know when you are walking down the walkway and looking good, it’s amazing,” he says. “I’m letting them know I am who I am. I am an amazing athlete, person. I am the baddest of what I do. Yeah, I’ll let you know. I’m in a class of my own at my position now.”
The new Ebron is having enough fun to make up for the fun he missed the previous four years.
“He’s a fun-loving person,” Reich says. “And I love that. I love that about him. I don’t want him to change.”
Ebron radiates energy. Even when he was living in the shadows in Detroit, Ebron still was an energy giver. The Colts are more receptive to it than the Lions were, however.
“They allow me to be me here,” he says. “I can be the goofball, tell the jokes. When it’s business, I handle my business, and the more I do that, the more fun I have.”
Ebron still is full of youthful spirit, but now he’s a husband and father who has experienced failure. Once, he was all Call of Duty. Now, he’s all changing diapers and washing baby bottles. He and Gabriela are expecting their second child in January.
He has perspective he could not have imagined when he showed up in Allen Park, Michigan, on May 9, 2014, stood at a podium and announced, “It’s just insane to be the 10th overall pick in the draft. That’s forever written in stone that you have that label.”
These days, Ebron handles the truth better than he used to handle some of Stafford’s passes. He acknowledges his missteps and takes responsibility for them.
But regrets? Not really.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t change anything,” he says. “When you go through life, everything is about lessons. It’s about learning. … I know now you might have a drop. You might blow an assignment. Things happen, but you have to roll with it and keep pushing. Everything that happened was meant to happen. … It’s led to where I am now.”
And where he is now often is in an opponent’s end zone.