AMHERST -- University of Massachusetts wide receiver Nathanael Hasselbeck did his best to make the high-degree-of-difficulty catch, but the ball slipped from his hands and fell to the grass. For the next few moments of practice, the Boston College transfer gave himself a harsh tongue-lashing that continued even as teammates patted him on the back. You wouldn't think this was a happy young man. And in fact, Hasselbeck is such a pointed self-critic that UMass coach Don Brown often doesn't even bother being corrective with him.
"He dropped a punt the other day and he's just beating himself up," said Brown, "and I'm looking at him and saying, `He's got two heads.' "
But looks are deceiving in this case. To hear the junior from Norfolk tell it, he is a virtual walking smiley face these days. The brother of two former BC standout quarterbacks, Hasselbeck wanted to play wide receiver at The Heights but instead was a defensive back and return specialist for two seasons.
He transferred after the 2003 season because he was told he would play his desired position at UMass as well as serve as a return specialist.
After backpedaling in the BC secondary for two seasons, Hasselbeck is relishing the opportunity to move forward, literally and figuratively. The change of scenery from urban to rustic is welcome, too, and he is expected to make an immediate impact for the Minutemen.
As a result of all that, the three words that come out most often from Hasselbeck when he is asked about suiting up for the Minutemen are "I can't complain." His tirades during practice simply reflect his competitiveness. Beyond that, his demeanor speaks volumes about the power of positive thinking.
"It's been great," he said. "I can't complain. I'm playing wide receiver, so I have to learn a lot of stuff and pick up the offense, but it's going well. I just want to get the most out of my two years -- that's why I came here."
In his three years at BC (he redshirted the first season), Hasselbeck saw action in 11 games. Last season, he returned 14 punts for 155 yards, and 4 kickoffs for 98 yards.
But wide receiver is what he wanted to play since he caught 15 passes for 500 yards at Bridgton Academy in Maine in 2000, the year before he enrolled at BC. That followed a career at Xaverian High School, where Hasselbeck played five positions: wide receiver, quarterback, free safety, punter, and punt returner.
He was a Globe All-Scholastic as a senior in 1999 and helped lead Xaverian to the Division 1 Eastern Massachusetts Super Bowl title in 1998. He was most proficient as a receiver and returner, and that's what he wanted to do at BC.
Last year, he was third in the Big East in punt returns (11.1-yard average) but did not play receiver. That made his time at BC more frustrating than any dropped balls. Hasselbeck asked to play receiver at BC, but the coaches, he said, "had their favorite five guys and things just didn't work out that way, I guess."
He felt that his talents were being wasted, and he also was frustrated by the pressure of being another Hasselbeck at Chestnut Hill.
"Walking around, kids will make comments, say something, people will bad-mouth you," he said. "You can look past that, but then after a while, I think the coaches started . . . they wanted me to be like Matthew and Tim. I'm not Matthew and Tim. I don't play quarterback. I'm not 6-2. I'm not 6-5, I'm not them, I'm myself.
"Just playing special teams wasn't enough. If I wanted to do that, I would have gone somewhere else and played." When he sought to transfer, Hasselbeck said, several Division 1-AA programs were interested, including Montana and Richmond. But he wanted to play for Don Brown, who himself had just left Northeastern to take over at UMass.
"He said they were going to throw the ball a lot, and to me that showed a lot of interest," said Hasselbeck. "They're not bad-mouthing you or talking down to you. You learn a lot more out here when they're coaching you and not yelling at you."
(BC head coach Tom O'Brien declined comment about Hasselbeck for this story.) "He's come in and made a nice impact for us," said Brown. "He hasn't come in and said, `I'm a 1-A guy, you guys get out of my way.' He's just come in and he's trying to find his niche. He caught a deep ball in practice one day and it lifted the entire offense. He's been everything we expected. "He has that ability to make people miss. He certainly has the ability and athleticism to get into the mix right away and get into a starting job."