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There’s Something Different About DeAndre

Once deemed too small and slow to be a star, DeAndre Hopkins has emerged as an All-Pro receiver. The Texans standout has done it with a style all his own.

Rarely is DeAndre Hopkins self-conscious, but right now the silence is getting to him. Half a dozen people are pointing cameras in his direction, but the only sound in this lavish Houston dining room is the pop-pop-pop emanating from a light propped up in a corner. After trying — and failing — to make some casual conversation, he finally hits his limit for awkwardness.

"Does somebody have Pandora?" Hopkins asks. When no one volunteers their phone, he grabs his, does some swiping, and then places it in a glass bowl on a nearby table. He wants the sound to carry. As Citizen Cope’s "Penitentiary" fills the space, the wide receiver turned model instantly appears more at ease.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in late July, and the Texans’ All-Pro pass catcher is posing for Luxe Life, the Houston Chronicle’s new lifestyle magazine. Coming off a 2015 season in which he racked up 111 catches for more than 1,500 yards, Hopkins, 24, has morphed from promising talent into a glossy cover boy. He was the first player ever to reach those totals on a team that started four different quarterbacks. From what he wears to how he plays, Hopkins’s style has always been his own.

A local family offered up its home for the occasion; in this setting, looking like football royalty is easy. The entryway is all high ceilings, plaster walls, and reclaimed limestone floors. To make the wood-beam-lined ceiling, a centuries-old barn had to die. Most of the room is a stark off-white, with the only splashes of color coming from a collection of kaleidoscopic paintings by artist Alexander Kroll. The largest one — a 7-foot slathering of blue — acts as the shoot’s backdrop.

Seated on a chair, all 220 pounds of Hopkins are packed into a cobalt-colored suit. It’s tight enough that he can barely cross his arms, but it never looks small. As he folds his right leg over his left, the tassels on his crimson, velvet loafers dangle in the air. He’s not wearing socks; when Hopkins is to the nines, he usually isn’t. "People that have money can try to make [themselves] look good," says Tajh Boyd, Hopkins’s former quarterback at Clemson. "They can try to have this swag about them. But it’s something you have to naturally have. And Nuk naturally has it."

Hopkins’s penchant for fashion started long before he had an NFL paycheck. As a teenager, he found the right outfit provided respite from the realities of impoverished Central, South Carolina. Donning a rainbow scarf plucked from a bin at Goodwill was his choice. It represented a shred of control in a world often void of it.

For this shoot, Houston-area stylist Summar Salah asked Hopkins to bring a pair of his own shoes. He showed up with a pair of Versace loafers that cost more than some couches. "Sometimes you [ask athletes to bring shoes] because they’re a size 16," Salah says. "It’s not because I’m hoping they’re going to walk in with velvet Versace slippers."

When it comes time for his second ensemble, Hopkins leafs through the rack of clothes stationed next to his makeshift changing room. He comes across a pindot-pattern white shirt and fingers the sleeve. "Do I get to keep this stuff?" he asks Salah.

"Not this time," she says.

As he heads to the bathroom, his shoulders slump.

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

To transport his Versace slip-ons, Hopkins put them in the first shoebox he could find. It had originally been home to a pair of Stacy Adams dress shoes, size 13 — big, but nothing that can’t be found in any store. In person, Hopkins looks no taller than his listed 6-foot-1. For a record-breaking receiver who survives on physicality, he cuts a figure that’s jarringly … average. "When people see him [play]," Boyd says, "they always think he’s taller than what he is."

On an otherwise ordinary frame, only one feature hints at how Hopkins has become one of football’s most potent offensive weapons: He has the strangest hands you’ll ever see.

They’re massive, of course — 10 inches, pinky to thumb — but what’s bizarre is how they’re big. Most people have almost no gap between the top of their metacarpal bones, which begin at the wrist and run through most of the hand, and the base of their fingers. On Hopkins, that space is nearly half an inch long. His "extended palms," as he calls them, pull the skin between his fingers, creating a sort of natural webbing.

"I think that God truly makes people for certain things," Boyd says. "Michael Phelps, he has a long torso, but a short lower body with stumpy legs and webbed feet. He’s built to swim. Nuk has these super-long arms, big hands. Shit, I don’t know, he’s just built for this."

Hopkins may have the surest hands of any man alive — on 192 targets last season, he dropped only three balls — but his signature style comes from conjuring receptions out of passes that have no business being caught. His body control, the ability to navigate the sideline while minding a ball’s flight path, is unparalleled. "He defies the laws of gravity with the way he contorts his body," says Chad Morris, the former Clemson offensive coordinator and current SMU head coach. "I’ve seen him go in a full-speed, vertical direction, and then at the last second, it’s like his bottom half of his body stays moving forward but his torso turns."

Morris isn’t talking about a specific catch, but his assessment perfectly describes one of Hopkins’s favorite plays. It happened last preseason, when the Texans visited New Orleans in August. On a first-and-5 from the Saints’ 19, Houston quarterback Brian Hoyer lofted a pass toward Hopkins, who was tearing down the right sideline. In a full sprint while tracking the throw, Hopkins planted his left foot on the 2-yard line and launched his body airborne. Doing a 180-degree turn, and with cornerback Keenan Lewis draped all over him, Hopkins stuck out his right hand and corralled the ball. Stumbling backward, he transferred it from one hand to the other, the factor that ultimately led officials to deem the pass incomplete. Hopkins is still bitter about the call.

"It’s almost like a sixth sense," he says. "You kind of glance at the ball, but you don’t turn your head. Because when you turn your head, the DB is going to turn his head and look for the ball also. It’s a timing thing, in a sense."

AP Images
AP Images

In describing how he developed that sense, Hopkins cites a drill he’s never seen anyone else do. He sets up behind a goal post, his chest pressed against the cushion. A makeshift QB, usually his cousin and trainer Javis Austin, stands on the goal line and throws a baseball. Out of one eye, Hopkins can see the ball leave Austin’s hand, but by the time it reaches him, it’s vanished from view. Securing it is entirely dependent on knowing exactly how long it’ll take to get from the release point to where he’s standing.

At full speed, catches like this one are part padded Cirque du Soleil and part psychokinesis. They also show off Hopkins’s distinct brand of cornerback mistreatment, and how he was able thrive in 2015 while sifting through the tendencies of four different quarterbacks. He doesn’t need Antonio Brown’s route-running savvy, Odell Beckham Jr.’s speed, or A.J. Green’s size. His singularity comes from an ability to always know what he’s reaching for — and how to get it.

By the time Hopkins was 8 months old, his mother’s living room had become a boneyard for pacifier boxes. He weighed 10 pounds at birth, with a big mouth to match, and most brands couldn’t handle the punishment he doled out. "He would devour these pacifiers," his mother, Sabrina Greenlee, recalls. "I bought so many. I remember once buying 10 at one time."

By process of evisceration, Greenlee learned only one brand could withstand the pounding: NUK. "So I started nicknaming him Nuk," she says. It stuck.

Moments of levity were precious to Greenlee in those days. Only a few months earlier, on a rainy afternoon, she and DeAndre’s father, Steve Hopkins, were driving home from a visit with family in Georgia when they hit a patch of water on Interstate 85. Their car hydroplaned, flipped three times and then smashed into the driver’s-side guardrail. Eight days later, Steve was pronounced dead. At the time of the crash, he’d been out on bail, awaiting trial on a litany of drug charges that could have brought decades of jail time. Instead, before DeAndre turned 1 year old, he was gone.

As DeAndre got older, Greenlee saw flashes of Steve’s idiosyncrasies in her son. He talked a mile a minute. He had his father’s vice-grip handshake. He slept on top of the covers, no matter what. "It was so weird that he would sleep on the mattress," she says. "He had no idea his dad slept the same way."

AP Images
AP Images

He also inherited his dad’s affinity for flash. Steve would often don a floor-length fur coat, which Greenlee still keeps in the closet. He owned a maroon Ford Mustang, with — this being 1990 — "Can’t Touch This" painted on the back in gold letters. "Everything he did," Greenlee says, "just had to be bold and big." Boldness was never a problem for DeAndre, either. At 15, as the other boys in the neighborhood swam in oversize clothes, Hopkins rocked a pair of white skinny chinos, rolled up above his ankles.

By those teenage years, brushes with tragedy had become familiar for Hopkins. Austin, the cousin he idolized, attempted suicide when DeAndre was 7. Three years later, his mother was the victim of a vicious attack, doused by a combination of lye and bleach when she found her boyfriend at another woman’s home. In its own small way, dressing different felt like DeAndre’s chance to break a painful cycle. "I think it was just my way of getting out of my environment and where I was," he says. "I could just be myself. I could kind of take myself away from what I was around and have my own sense of style."

Back then, a new outfit meant rummaging through thrift stores or hitching a ride to the local outlet mall. Now, the price tags are different — his favorite wardrobe item is an Alexander Wang bomber jacket; his favorite store is The Webster, a luxury boutique full of designer labels — but the goal, showing that he transcends his surroundings, remains the same. "People look at you and ask, ‘What are you wearing? What is this?’" he says. "I love that, when people look at me and it’s not that conservative look. When it’s something people haven’t seen before, it gives me a different joy."

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

In Central, Hopkins was known first and foremost as a hooper — and not in the way most football players would like to be. As a freshman, he started for D.W. Daniel High; two years later, he averaged 18.8 points and 3.4 steals en route to being named the Independent-Mail’s South Carolina Class 3A Player of the Year. He was a point guard who loved Allen Iverson and had the slashing, pocket-picking game to prove it.

He came out for the football team as a sophomore only because his friends kept insisting he join. In Daniel’s 2007 season opener, against Greer High, he lined up as a defensive back and reeled in three interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown. "Me not watching football, I didn’t know it was big until the next week when the media was like, ‘He had three interceptions. They beat the no. 1 team in the state,’" Hopkins says. "Then it kind of kicked in." He finished the season with 14 picks — a school record.

Hopkins also played receiver over the subsequent two seasons, but he never rose to the level of a can’t-miss recruit. Rivals.com gave him a four-star rating and ranked him the no. 148 player in his class. Even with all of his highlights happening just miles down the road, Clemson’s coaches weren’t sold on offering him a scholarship. "He was a guy that made a lot of plays," says Clemson receivers coach Jeff Scott, "but the question was whether he was fast enough."

The summer before his senior year, Daniel competed in Clemson’s annual seven-on-seven tournament. The morning of the event, head coach Dabo Swinney told his staff that scouting Hopkins was a priority. If he showed enough, they’d offer him on the spot. Because the Tigers were looking at Hopkins as a receiver, Scott chimed in. A day earlier, he’d gotten word that Hopkins had clocked a 4.9-second 40-yard dash at the combine for a local all-star game. He wanted to voice his concern.

That concern lasted about five plays. "He put on a performance in that first game that I’ve never seen before," Scott says. At halftime, he sent Clemson’s staff a group text. He wanted to apologize.

More than three years later, before the Tigers’ 45–10 beatdown of Maryland in November 2012, Scott met then-Terrapins running backs coach Andre Powell — a former Clemson assistant and the man who’d recruited Hopkins — at midfield. Powell came armed with his zinger: "How’s 4.9 treating ya?"

During his time at Clemson, Hopkins was part of a loaded receiving corps. Sammy Watkins had exploded onto the scene as one of college football’s most dynamic talents, and the attention paid to him created an ideal ecosystem for Hopkins to flourish. Hopkins going against man coverage is the football equivalent of the scene in Jurassic Park where a goat gets put in the T-rex cage. It borders on cruel. As a junior in 2012, Hopkins feasted: 82 receptions for 1,405 yards with an ACC-record 18 touchdowns.

AP Images
AP Images

Even before singeing LSU’s defense (which featured nine future pros among its starters) for 13 catches, 191 yards, and two scores in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Hopkins knew he was ready to declare early for the draft. His production was undeniable, but questions about his speed — the same ones that Scott had years earlier — persisted. "When I was coming out for the combine, that’s when I heard it the most," Hopkins says. "It had me thinking, ‘Should I run the 40, or should I not?’ Because they know I could play football."

He did nothing to quell those concerns by running a 4.57 40 in Indianapolis. But two weeks later, a funny thing happened. At his pro day on campus, Hopkins turned in a 4.41. Aside from running on his home turf, there was one key difference: At Clemson, he didn’t run the 40 alone; he ran it as a race.

With Hopkins, Watkins, and Martavis Bryant all on the Tigers’ 2012 roster, the receivers’ room was a glut of talent. And there were times, Watkins says, when the coaches would stoke the fire. "Martavis Bryant, he wasn’t better than DeAndre, but they wanted him to be better," Watkins says. "They wanted to start him over [DeAndre]. It’s little stuff like that that we’d kind of recognize." Slights like that are why the praise now heaped on Hopkins largely falls on deaf ears. In his mind, he’s still racing the too-slow 20-year-old he was almost four years ago.

As a kid, Hopkins was never one to back down from a challenge, even if it meant standing on his tiptoes. "He was a little small boy, but he would always size other men up," his mother says. "Somebody could be standing over him, and in his mind, he would think he was as tall as them, or as smart as them. I would just be like, ‘Really? Go sit down somewhere.’"

That quality never left him. In the third game of Hopkins’s sophomore season, with Clemson hosting defending national champion Auburn, he decided to have some fun with future Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis. Coming out of a TV timeout, the Clemson offense’s next play was designed for Hopkins, who was supposed to feign a fade before running a slant. He told Davis exactly what he would do. He even shook on it. "I guess he thought I was bluffing," Hopkins says. He wasn’t. With Davis hanging on him, Hopkins snatched the ball for a 4-yard touchdown; unranked Clemson won, 38–24.

Then there was the incident on HBO’s Hard Knocks last summer. A tussle between Hopkins and DeAngelo Hall started when the Washington defensive back, during a preseason practice, scolded Hopkins and poked him in the chest. Hopkins didn’t respond in kind: On a double move a few plays later, he left Hall a tangle of limbs corkscrewed into the turf.

In the aftermath, the 12-year veteran cracked on Twitter that the play was the highlight of the young receiver’s career. Hopkins was the 27th pick in the 2013 draft, but until last season he had played next to a future Hall of Famer, and might as well have been a candle trying to outshine the sun. A decade before taking Hopkins, the Texans made Andre Johnson the third pick in the 2003 draft. Over the next 10 seasons, only Reggie Wayne had more receiving yards, and only Wayne and Tony Gonzalez had more receptions.

"That was the best thing, I think, that ever could have happened," Hopkins says of landing with Johnson. In every way, Johnson helped his protégé adjust to life as an NFL receiver. "[He taught me] how to carry yourself as a pro. How to take care of your body. How to last long in the league. I didn’t know things like you could go buy a recovery boot, and it’s a tax write-off because it’s for your job."

Hopkins finished his second season with 76 catches, 1,210 yards, and the look of a budding star, but at that point, the Texans’ passing game still belonged to Johnson — only four receivers got more targets in 2014. That changed the following March, when Houston released the best player in organization history on the eve of his 34th birthday. When Hopkins arrived at OTAs that spring, it was the first time in his football life that he was a team’s no. 1 option.

"You’re looking at the guys in the room, and some of them are older than you, but they’re not that guy," he says. "You sit back and take in the scenario, and you’re thinking, ‘What have I done to be in that position, and what can I do to stay here?’"

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

Houston force-fed Hopkins during the first half of last season at a rate the NFL has never seen. He had 101 targets through seven games, comfortably on pace to break the single-season record of 208. He was making the spectacular seem routine. In Week 6 against Jacksonville, the Texans trailed 14–10 and had the ball to start the fourth quarter. Hopkins proceeded to catch five passes — including one he had to pin against his helmet as he scraped his toes inbounds — and score two touchdowns in a seven-minute span. Houston won, 31–20.

Ultimately, even his magic wasn’t enough. The Texans made the playoffs on the back of their defense, but were shut out by the Chiefs in the wild-card round. Recognizing its weaknesses, the franchise spent the offseason making a series of moves aimed at building around its lone offensive star. That started with taking Notre Dame wideout Will Fuller (who ran a 4.32 40 at the combine) with the no. 21 pick in this spring’s draft, a selection Hopkins approved.

"You don’t want to throw the ball to [Hopkins] every single play," says Texans coach Bill O’Brien. "That’s why we’ve added to our receiver position this year, because that’s tough on him."

The franchise also drafted Ohio State quarterback-turned-receiver Braxton Miller 85th overall, giving Houston a deep threat and a versatile playmaker with two of its first three picks. Adding talent was part of the calculus, but it had to be the right collection of talent. "If you look at the history of our offenses in this league," O’Brien says, "when we’ve been really productive, we’ve always had a very diverse group of receivers." He cites the 2007 Patriots’ duo of Randy Moss and Wes Welker — two players who couldn’t be more different — as the perfect example.

Of course, an improved receiving corps won’t mean much unless the Texans solve their quarterback conundrum. On top of studying opposing defenses last season, Hopkins felt like he had to spend time studying his own QBs. In the days before Brandon Weeden was slated to start Houston’s December 20 game against the Colts, Hopkins watched footage of Weeden’s old games with the Cowboys to understand his reactions to the way Dez Bryant moved.

At no point since Hopkins arrived have the Texans had a long-term answer at quarterback, and to that end, at the behest of no one, in March he called then-free agent Brock Osweiler. "I wasn’t recruiting," Hopkins says, "I was just speaking the truth." He told the QB that their offense was one piece away from taking the final step. A day later, Osweiler signed with the Texans.

From the moment Osweiler arrived, Hopkins could feel a shift at practice. "The way he spoke to everybody, it’s like he’d already been there," Hopkins says. "It was like, ‘All right, I like this guy.’" For the first time in his NFL career, stability at quarterback seems possible, and considering what Hopkins has done without it, that proposition is terrifying.

"It was a challenge that I wanted," he says of last season. "I felt like, if I could do this, when I get a quarterback who’s proven, it’s gonna be trouble for a lot of people."

With the photo shoot over and Hopkins back in his version of casual wear — heather gray henley, Virgil Abloh jeans, and a pair of immaculately white Adidas Superstars — he ducks into the Capital Grille for a late lunch. At the table, he dials up Watkins. "What you got goin’ on, brody?" he asks, before chatting about the start of training camp.

When Watkins got to Clemson in the fall of 2011, he came to campus as a top-15 national recruit and the pièce de résistance of Swinney’s first full recruiting cycle. Right away, he gravitated toward Hopkins, who was crucial in helping him learn about the trappings of newfound fame. "As soon as I came in, he took me right under his wing and taught me everything," Watkins says. "Not just on the field, but the way you handle yourself off the field. The way to keep everybody out of your business."

Hopkins also helped a shy teenager learn how to embrace who he was. "His whole motive was, ‘Be different.’ Don’t be the same as everybody else. That’s what helped me today. I ain’t got to be like everybody else. I can be me. I can be my own guy."

Memories have piled up over their five years of being best friends, but Watkins can pinpoint the specific moment when he understood what Hopkins had done for him. They’d both been invited to a DayGlo concert on campus, one of those borderline raves where everyone wears a white shirt and gets drenched in neon paint. "I never in a million years thought I would do something like that," Watkins says. "And we went just because it was, ‘Whatever, let’s go. Let’s try this.’"

In an open field on the banks of the Savannah River, the painfully reserved Watkins bounced around the party, covered in orange paint and having the time of his life. Early that morning, as they rode home in the back of a pickup truck, an exhausted Watkins looked at his friend and knew. He didn’t have to apologize for living his own way.

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