Anthony Hitchens had never played middle linebacker when the Dallas Cowboys drafted him in the fourth round as insurance if starter Sean Lee got hurt again.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones loved how Hitchens hit at Iowa and thought the skill would translate perfectly to his defense.
The policy was quickly cashed in when Lee suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament May 27 and was lost for the season. Hitchens, still adjusting to life in the NFL and learning the position, was immediately dropped into the mix to replace Lee as the starting middle linebacker of America’s Team.
“It’s definitely not good when your best player, not even on defense but on the team, gets hurt,” Hitchens, a Clearview High School graduate, told The Chronicle-Telegram by phone from Texas. “It’s definitely a difficult situation for the Cowboys.
“I got thrown into the role earlier than expected. But they’re not going to hold my hand. They expect me to learn it and get on board. It’s the game. Injuries happen.”
The Cowboys open training camp Thursday and Hitchens will be in a battle with DeVonte Holloman, Justin Durant and others for the starting spot in the 4-3 scheme.
Hitchens became one of the big stories in Big D following Lee’s injury, because he’s a rookie set to step into one of the premier spots on defense. He immediately joined the starting unit, but admitted to reporters he wasn’t yet ready to replace Lee.
That was then.
“Oh, yeah, I definitely feel a lot more comfortable than that day,” Hitchens said. “If not, I wouldn’t be doing my job.
“(Reporters) asked me the next day, and there was no way. I wasn’t going to lie to the media and the fans. I wasn’t ready. Right now I feel a lot more comfortable.”
“We drafted Hitchens for a reason, and we feel like he’s a good football player and has some position flex,” coach Jason Garrett told reporters. “We’ll see how he responds to the opportunity he gets.”
Hitchens, who led Iowa with 112 tackles as a 3-4 inside linebacker as a senior, said the only time he’s taken snaps in the middle was during a couple of practices with the Hawkeyes. But he doesn’t consider the prospect of taking over for Lee and starting for the Cowboys daunting.
“No. I don’t really think of it as that,” he said. “Maybe I’m just different. I just take it as an opportunity. He’s a good football player and I was learning from him.
“Stuff happens in football. The more nervous you get, you start playing bad, you start worrying about other stuff, not your assignment.”
The biggest adjustments to moving into the middle are calling the plays in the huddle, getting the other 10 guys lined up and leading a group of veterans with way more experience than him.
“When it comes to playing football, it’s basically the same,” Hitchens said. “Breaking the huddle, being a leader out there, it just took awhile, about two or three days. But I think I’ve got it down pretty good right now.
“Some guys have been playing eight or nine years and I’m a rookie that was drafted a week ago. It’s definitely different, but that’s the role they put me in and wanted to see how I would react. I want to be accountable, so I can gain trust.”
One thing he doesn’t have to learn is how to hit. Hitchens was a tackle machine with the Hawkeyes and made several critical plays last season.
“We saw a guy who could run with size, and we saw one of the few inside linebackers that we thought could come in here and help us if we lost Sean Lee,” Jones told ESPN.com after the draft. “Probably, for me, the most important thing is how much of a hitter he is. He blows them up.”
That’s what middle linebackers do. From Ray Nitschke to Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary, they find the ball carrier and destroy him.
“I definitely do not compare myself to any of those guys,” Hitchens said. “But that’s what I like to do is run around and hit. But you have to be a complete linebacker at this level.
“I feel I fit the Cowboys defense perfectly. I think that’s why they brought me in.”
He refuses to get ahead of himself. While many eyes in Dallas will be on him during training camp, he isn’t focused on winning the starting job for Week 1 vs. the 49ers.
“I’m not looking that far ahead right now,” he said. “It’s not my decision. If I’m playing full special teams all year, I’ll just play full special teams. Wherever the coaches want me.”
Whether Hitchens is anchoring the defense or covering punts, he’ll have a large and loud cheering section for the opener at AT&T Stadium.
“Quite a few of us are going to the first game,” Amy Anderson said. “It’s going to be exciting.”
When Hitchens was 12, he stopped living with his mother and moved in with Amy, husband Brad and sons Chad and Zach. Hitchens and James Washington — who also moved in — have been part of the Anderson family ever since. It’s not newsworthy to anyone involved, but the story got a lot of play in Dallas following the draft.
“A lot of people like the story, so I tell it,” Hitchens said. “It gets old for me. Since I was drafted I’ve told it about 20 times.”
The Andersons read every word written about Hitchens, so they’ve seen their family get plenty of attention since the draft in May.
“It’s no big deal to us,” Zach said. “I know it’s a unique situation how everything happened. We were friends, then he moved in.
“I look at him as my brother. My son calls him Uncle Anthony. It’s a good situation.”
Amy feels the same way. She said taking in Hitchens and Washington never seemed worthy of a headline.
“To me when they write about that, he’s our son, so I always felt like this was the plan, the big scheme of life,” she said. “I could not imagine my life not having James and Anthony as my children, like I couldn’t imagine life without Zach and Chad.
“It’s a little surreal reading about it and people making a big deal.”
Hitchens refers to Amy as his mom, but still has a relationship with his mother, Norma. His two mothers are getting together to pick out furniture online for Hitchens’ apartment in Texas.
“That’s our jobs as moms,” Amy said. “I would never fight with her, she would never fight with me because we love Anthony too much. Moms don’t hurt their children.”
Norma was at the Andersons’ house when Hitchens got drafted. It was the third day of the draft and no one knew when — or even if — Hitchens would be selected.
“It was very tense, nobody saying much,” Zach said.
Then Jones called.
“You could tell he was talking to somebody important,” Zach said. “Then Anthony gave the thumbs-up. Everybody was jumping around, hugging.
“It was the best experience of my life. It was crazy. It’s crazy to know he’s made it to the highest level, and gets a chance to play for America’s Team.”
“I probably shook for an hour afterwards because I was so happy for him,” Amy said. “It was awesome. To have one of your children’s dreams realized because he worked hard to get there. It’s not like he won the lottery. He worked his butt off.”
Amy was reminded just how cool it is on a mundane trip to the gas station.
“They have fantasy football books out, and it just kind of hit me, ‘Wow, my son’s playing in the NFL,’” she said. “I’m ready for some football. It’s exciting.”
The Andersons have always been a football family. Zach said they congregated around the TV every week to watch “Monday Night Football,” and he can’t wait to see Hitchens on the big stage.
Hitchens wants to manage the excitement level.
“They let me know every day,” he said.
The family’s working on that.
“Anthony was always able to keep the noise down, and we learned, too,” Amy said. “This is about him.”
“When I talk to him, I try not to talk about football,” Zach said. “I’m really excited, but I try not to show it to him.
“He’s all about business. He’s probably the most humble person I’ve ever been around.”
Hitchens is trying to take everything in stride as he embarks on his career. But he acknowledges a few welcome-to-the-NFL moments.
“At first it didn’t really hit me,” he said. “Once I got to practice and could see the tempo of the game, it hit me. When I saw Tony Romo throw to Dez Bryant, then it definitely hit me.”
Hitchens said the best part of his experience so far was getting drafted. Signing his four-year contract rates second.
“It was an eye opener,” said Hitchens, whose first big purchase was a 2014 Impala. “It was definitely a good day when I signed it.”
He had officially become a member of one of the most popular franchises in sports.
“It’s definitely crazy that growing up you know the Cowboys are America’s Team,” said Hitchens, who grew up a Browns fan. “Coach tells us every day it’s a great opportunity to play in that uniform. I’m trying to make the most of the opportunity. You can definitely tell it’s a little different. It’s hard to explain, but you can tell.
“It’s a great feeling to be part of that organization.”