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Monson: Utes' Hatfield an extraordinary man doing extraordinary things

Published August 20, 2014 9:16 am

College football • Cornerback? Receiver? How about both?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Dominique Hatfield felt the plumbing back up in his eyes and spill out of his eye sockets the day they buried his close friend and teammate, Marvin, in his football jersey five years ago. Talk about traumatic and devastating. Both kids were just 14 years old.

Marvin was walking home from the store in Crenshaw, on one of the meaner streets in one of the meaner neighborhoods in Los Angeles. That's where he and Hatfield lived, in housing on those streets, slammed between desperation and despair.

Hatfield's tears splashed off the floor at the funeral, punctuating one of those defining moments in the cruel life of a young person forced to choose for himself which direction to take. He had seen drugs sold and used, he had seen shootings, he had seen gangs doing their business.

And he was tempted, just like so many other youngsters there, to get sucked into a destructive vortex bound to bring quick cash and lasting heartache. He knew from what he had already witnessed and felt that there was no real future in any of that.

"I wasn't always the smartest guy," he says. "I didn't always make the best decisions. But with help of family and friends, I took a different road."

That road led him to Utah, where the 19-year-old sophomore will do something this season that almost nobody does anymore.

He will play both offense and defense — as a receiver and as a cornerback. And he's looking forward to an uncommon challenge that pales in comparison to what he's already overcome.

"Coming out of Crenshaw, I saw some of the best football and basketball players that nobody's ever heard of that went down a bad route, and now things aren't good for them," he says. "Seeing them helped me make it out. … It's up to you if you want to get out. If you want something better, you have to choose. And you need help from some of the people around you. I had that help from family and friends. That's why I'm here."

Utah recruited Hatfield early on in high school, on a team that included De'Anthony Thomas and Marcus Martin, and stayed on him.

When it came time to make a decision about where he'd play his college ball, he says he remembered the Utes' effort: "Coming out of high school, I feel like I was underrated. Utah stuck with me, helped me grind it out. It was a tough road to get here and they were there every step of the way. They committed to me and I committed to them. And now we're just … here."

Here, there, everywhere.

Hatfield started out at Utah as a promising receiver and it looked as though that's where he would make his mark — until injuries in preseason practices called him back to the defensive side, a role he had played at Crenshaw High. Now, cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah says Hatfield will play both ways.

"I watched him play corner [in high school] in championship games," he says. "I wanted him at corner before they wanted him at receiver. I wanted him. But coach Whit said, 'Shut up, quit poisoning the well. Let him play receiver.' He's phenomenal. I love him. He's got things to work on, but I love what he brings.

"[He has] unbelievably good hips. He can deduce relatively quickly what a receiver is doing. He's able to put himself in a position to make a play. That's a natural trait because he played receiver at this level. And his aggressiveness for a guy 5-10, 160, soaking wet with two shoulder pads on. He's tough. He loves the competition. He loves a personal battle. … I love his skill set. Tremendous ball skills. Now, it's getting him disciplined, to have cornerback eyes, not receiver eyes. You're a playmaker. You have to stop the reception."

Shah says Hatfield has great natural instincts — "He has phenomenally quick feet" — and he's a fast learner, which he would have to be to play two such critical positions.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we see him on both sides of the ball throughout the year," Shah says. "He's a fighter."

The coach says Hatfield's rough background and frame of reference is the "perfect formula" for playing cornerback at the highest of levels. And the confident Hatfield says the two-way thing, though rare now, is nothing he can't handle:

"[Cornerback] is coming back quickly. I'm working at it everyday. I get one-on-one time where we're working on the field. I do extra film study. I watch the best defenders like Deion Sanders and Richard Sherman. I watch them daily, just to see what I can do better. It's coming back pretty easy.

"When I came in, I was playing receiver, so I just stuck with that until now. You need good footwork to play both positions.

You need good hips. And you need the hands. As a defensive back, that really helps when the ball comes your way, you can turn into the receiver instead of a defensive back just breaking up the pass.

"There are times when I can play both ways. That's the plan. Hopefully, I can do it all in the game. I can get a touchdown receiving. I can get an interception. I can get some tackles on special teams. Do whatever I can to help the team. I think I can do it."

If he could pick only one position, Hatfield says it's "50-50."

But he adds that he'd rather intercept a potential game-winning touchdown pass by an opponent than catch one for the Utes.

On account of those difficult decisions he faced and faced down as a kid, and encouragement from a few people around him, as well as his talent and hard work — "That's my best asset," he says — Hatfield's now in a position, in two positions, to do something extraordinary, to do both. Maybe in the same game.

"I don't know, you just have to find a way," he says. "As long as you have positive people in your corner, you can do what you need to do. You can make it. I'm living proof of that. I say, don't let anything discourage you. Anything is possible. Never lose hope. Never lose faith. And you'll overcome."

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.