In the summer of 2014, Chiefs tight end James O’Shaughnessy — then entering his senior season at Illinois State — needed some motivation.
The Redbirds had come off a 5-6 season, a down year for sure, and training for football is neither easy nor fun.
So he decided to get a tattoo on his upper left arm — a portrait of Muhammad Ali’s iconic first-round knockout of Sonny Liston — with a famous Ali quote underneath.
“Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion,” the black-and-white tattoo reads.
Those words came close to being prophetic: the Redbirds bounced back to go 13-2 and finish as the FCS national runner up. O’Shaughnessy had his best season yet, recording 29 catches for 544 yards and nine touchdowns, and was selected by the Chiefs in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft in May.
“It’s just a constant reminder of, as a football player, what I put myself through,” O’Shaughnessy said of his tattoo. “The next year, we were fortunate enough to go the national title (game). It was just something that reminded me through the dog days to keep grinding.”
It’s obvious O’Shaughnessy intends on carrying that mentality throughout Chiefs’ training camp. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that he didn’t even think was on the NFL’s radar.
“Going into my senior season, I didn’t have much preseason recognition,” O’Shaughnessy said. “And when the season ended, I was listed (by draft analysts) as a tryout guy. But I worked my butt off to finish the year off properly and make sure I did well at my Pro Day.”
At his Pro Day, the 23-year-old O’Shaughnessy — who is listed at 6 feet 4 and 245 pounds — posted a 4.68 40-yard dash and a 35-inch vertical jump, both solid marks for a tight end.
General manager John Dorsey liked O’Shaughnessy’s combination of athleticism and game tape, and saw him as a nice fit for Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s West Coast Offense.
“I think James O’Shaughnessy gives you depth,” Dorsey said after the draft. “I think he fits what we are doing. I think he can catch the football. I think he is going to develop and get bigger physically. He has nice run skills with the ball in his hand.
“The component that you probably don’t see as much as you should is the special teams aspect of his play. He’s a really good special-teams player.”
But throughout the first nine practices of organized team activities, O’Shaughnessy has gotten plenty of work on offense.
Travis Kelce is entrenched as the starter, but with the injury to projected No. 2 tight end Demetrius Harris, who has missed the entirety of OTAs due to additional foot surgery, backups like O’Shaughnessy, Richard Gordon, Ryan Taylor and Adam Schiltz have gotten an opportunity to earn a few more reps than they otherwise would have.
“It stinks that we have a very talented guy who’s hurt who’s going to be a very productive player on our team, but I’ve got to take this opportunity to go against the No. 1 defense and play with the ones to really see their game speed,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It opens your eyes pretty quickly to what a successful offense and defense looks like in the National Football League.”
One of the biggest challenges O’Shaughnessy has faced thus far, other than the speed of the game, is Reid’s vast playbook.
“It’s really interesting to learn,” O’Shaughnessy said. “You think you know football, but to be honest, I didn’t know anything about football. Now, learning all the complexities of this offense, you really get to learn the game, inside and out, from every position, learning every defense and how it changes with the plays they’re running. It’s pretty interesting.”
O’Shaughnessy was touching on the fact that Reid’s offense requires him to have a deeper understanding of football, since his assignment on any given play might change based on the scheme the defense is playing.
“To tell you the truth, that would be the most difficult thing — recognizing defensive fronts and coverages and being able to handle that,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It is extremely interesting to learn. I love going back and telling people who I played college football with and talking ball with them and knowing I now know all this little extra stuff, it’s kind of fun.”
Kelce, who is entering his third year, knows what it’s like to acclimate to Reid’s system as a rookie tight end.
“I’ve been in the position, and to be honest, it’s even more stressful on him because when I came in, everyone was getting used to the offense,” Kelce said. “Well, everyone is already used to the offense right now … it’s a lot at once, but he’s picking it up really well.”
Through it all, O’Shaughnessy has held his own during OTAs. Aside from a handful of drops, he’s generally shown plus athleticism and flashed some receiving upside, and he’s managed to gain confidence each day.
“I’ll be honest — the first two days, I was little nervous to see if I belonged, which sounds awful but it is what it is,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Coming from a small Division I-AA (school), you kind of have that insecurity in the back of your head.
“But within a week, I felt pretty comfortable I could compete at this level, and going out through OTAs in the third week now, I feel like I can compete with the best of them and do some pretty special things on the field.”
But O’Shaughnessy also knows he hasn’t proved anything yet, and that little matters until the pads come on during training camp.
Reid said at the outset of OTAs that he likes what he’s seen in the young tight end, and was asked if O’Shaughnessy has a chance to help them out this year.
“Yeah, I think there’s a chance,” Reid said. “We’ve got to see, he’s got a long way to go ... but up to this point, he has done very well and I’ll be curious to see as we keep giving him things, how he handles it, and once we put pads on, that’ll be another test.”
One that O’Shaughnessy, seems very willing to embrace.
“I think there’s a lot of things I need to work on, but I’ve done some good things out there — caught the ball well, made some plays,” O’Shaughnessy said. “But for every one good play I have, there’s also three little tidbits I could have corrected to make it a perfect play.
“I would say I’ve had more ups than downs, but I’ve still got a ways to go.”