FOXBOROUGH - Give cornerback Ellis Hobbs a pencil and his imagination will reveal itself on paper. Hobbs fed his creative side by studying art and visual communication at Iowa State. And despite everything a computer has to offer, he prefers the most basic of instruments.
"Man, I love having something in my hand," Hobbs said. "The pencil, pen gives you the opportunity to be as free as you want. With computers, there are still limitations, but with a pencil you can do anything with your imagination. I don't care what you say, computers or whatever, everything starts from the ground level with a pencil or a pen."
If not for football, Hobbs might have been an animator. Instead, Hobbs draws people's attention to the Patriots' kickoff return team, in addition to his work in the secondary.
Returning kickoffs means Hobbs takes his share of hits, but also a little glory when he weaves through a maze of bodies for a touchdown.
"By far, special teams is the most violent part of the game because for one, guys are so fresh," said Hobbs, who is in his fourth year. "It's just a few amount of reps with high intensity. Guys are out there specifically for that, and they're basically trying to take your head off. With the speed of the game going so fast, you have so much room to run fast and then collide into someone. It's very dangerous, but I just look at it as another opportunity and something I can add to my resume."
There has been plenty for Hobbs to include among his achievements. In college, he logged a few kickoff returns but nothing like his professional career. While growing up in DeSoto, Texas, he was recruited as a running back. He played cornerback at Iowa State, but referred to his days on offense to help him return kickoffs.
With each season in New England he has been given more responsibility on special teams and has gained the confidence of his teammates.
"That's the one thing about kickoff returners, not everybody can do it," said Kelley Washington, a key component on special teams. "You got guys that aren't scared or intimidated when they have all 11 guys coming down on them, get hit and hop right back up and do it again.
"He's been doing that all year. He's been consistent. He's the best we've got. That's why he's back there."
Last Sunday against Oakland, Hobbs trumped Justin Miller's 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with one of his own 13 seconds later. The 95-yard TD was Hobbs's first kickoff return for a touchdown this season and the third of his career, which ties a franchise record set by Raymond Clayborn.
The most memorable might have been Hobbs's record touchdown return last season against the Jets. The 108-yard TD was the longest kickoff return in NFL history.
Hobbs is averaging 28.8 yards on kickoff returns, which is third in the NFL and second in the AFC.
Kevin Faulk leads the Patriots in all-time return yards, but he said, "it won't be for long" with the way Hobbs is excelling.
"It's been very exciting watching him because every time he touches the ball, you never can tell, he may go all the way," Faulk said.
Faulk said for anyone to be successful on a kickoff return, it takes solid blocking and vision.
When Hobbs is part of a memorable play, he tends to remember many details. When others want to relive the moment, however, he would rather not boast.
At times, Hobbs said being an artist means he doesn't always view things from the same perspective as the masses.
"Sometimes, I agree with people and sometimes they're like, 'Where are you coming from with this,' " Hobbs said. "That's how I carry out my life. I feel like I try not to be a part of the mold. I want to be my own person. That was kind of rough around here in the beginning stages, but I think I've grown and the organization and my teammates understand me."
After the Patriots suffered a 38-13 home loss against the Dolphins in September, the team was booed. Hobbs called out the fans and media for what he believed was an overreaction.
"It was an example of how I live my life," he said. "I'm not just going to let someone sit there and take shots at me or people I care about and expect me not to do anything. That's what people take advantage of. They mistake kindness for a weakness and humility for a weakness and sometimes that humble dog needs to fight back a little bit.
"It wasn't just lashing out. It was, 'Hey, we're doing a job and you need to be appreciative of that job. We understand we need to do better and things like that, and we're out here trying.' "
Since then, the Patriots have found themselves scrapping for a playoff berth. Hobbs said he is on board to do whatever is needed to contribute.
"This is my chance to go out there and make plays," he said. "If I have the ability to do something, and do it well and it can help the team, then by all means let me do it. I might be that much more tired on defense, I might not have as much, but I'm giving 100 percent of everything I have."
Monique Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.