To hear Buffalo Bills veteran tight end Robert Royal tell it, rookie tight end Derek Fine was on the verge of a breakdown a few months back, when a broken thumb threatened to derail his rookie season.
The injury, sustained during a preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts in August, had Fine convinced — according to Royal, at least — that his tenure in the NFL was about to come to an end.
“He was coming up to me, ‘Man, am I going to get cut? I broke my thumb,’” said Royal, smiling at the memory. “I said, ‘Man, you’re going to be all right; just take your time.’”
Fine later described his teammate’s story as a gross exaggeration — “I didn’t say that,” he said of Royal’s version of the events — but the way things are going for the former Kansas standout, there doesn’t appear to be much to worry about.
After missing the team’s first six games following surgery for the broken thumb, Fine, drafted in the fourth round of last spring’s NFL Draft, has begun to emerge as a legitimate part of the Buffalo offense. In only his second professional game, he caught his first career pass, a nine-yard touchdown from quarterback Trent Edwards, and in the Bills’ 54-31 thrashing of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, Fine received his first career start.
He caught only one pass, for 14 yards, but played more snaps than he ever had, while doing enough to catch the eye of at least one teammate.
“Obviously, getting out there the first couple games as a rookie, he was a little nervous,” Royal said. “But now it’s starting to slow down for him. I see that he’s making the adjustments that he needs to make on the field, which is huge.”
What has also been huge, apparently, is the comedic effect Fine’s Oklahoma accent has had on his teammates.
“You know the thing that’s impressed me the most about him?” Royal said. “It hasn’t been his game, it’s been the way he talks. He’s straight got that country talk. He’ll come up in here talking about” — and with this, Royal delves into a parlance straight out of “The Beverly Hillbillies” — “‘Hey y’all!’”
Some good-natured barbs notwithstanding, Fine seems to have taken nicely to his transition to the pro game. He’s enjoying the city of Buffalo, with the possible exception of the quickly dwindling temperatures, and has had little trouble adjusting to the relatively small-town feel of the place.
The NFL lifestyle, he assures, hasn’t been too much of a hindrance, either.
“Really, the only difference is I’m getting paid now,” Fine said. “And the other big difference is I can put more time into football as far as being in the meeting room, because I don’t have to go to class or anything like that.
“It’s cool,” he adds. “It’s really fun. The guys on the team are great, treating me real good. So it’s been a pretty easy transition so far.”
He also has found time to keep up with his former team. He has managed to take in just about every KU football game so far this season, paying particular attention to the on-field exploits of friend and former roommate Todd Reesing.
“He’s a freaking playmaker,” Fine said. “And he’s playing awesome. I haven’t told him yet, and I meant to, but I’m so proud of him when I watch him play, man. It’s just so awesome and so much fun to watch him play.”
To borrow a phrase from his former coach, Mark Mangino, he is still far from a finished product. There’s plenty to work on, Fine admits. Route-running, for instance, represents a significant area for improvement. And he could stand to improve his on-field concentration a bit, as well.
After his touchdown catch against the Jets, a pleasantly surprised Fine — who was Edwards’ third progression on the play — opted to keep things simple in his celebration, spiking the ball and then taking off toward the sideline.
A few moments later, when he’d reached the bench, Bills running back Marshawn Lynch walked up to him holding the touchdown ball.
“Thank goodness he brought it,” Fine said, “or I would have forgotten all about it.”
But as a rookie starter on a team that sits just two games out of first place in the AFC East, he also realizes there are worse positions to be in.
“Even just to get where I’m at now, I’ve worked really hard,” he said. “I really appreciate every day and every opportunity I get, because obviously there’s been a lot of luck to go along with it for me. But it just shows that a lot of hard work pays off.”