On this sunny summer day on a beach just outside Los Angeles, Troy Niklas has finished surfing for the morning.
Training camp is still a couple of weeks away. Before he goes to a workout later in the day, the Cardinals tight end seeks out one of his favorite pastimes, which is unplugging from the world and riding the waves.
"When you are surfing, you can't really force anything," Niklas says. "You have to just wait for the moment to come to you."
It requires patience. In his brief NFL career, Niklas has needed that patience. So too has his team. It has not been easy. Drafted in the second round in 2014, he was – and is – exactly what the Cardinals wanted in a tight end. A chiseled 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, Niklas was a raw tight end prospect but one that loved the physical part of the game. He was a player who had proven durable on the field.
But not even halfway through his second season, though, injuries have made life miserable. He caught his finger in a jersey during 2014 offseason work, breaking it. He hurt his ankle bad enough that his rookie season came to a premature end with surgery. He needed a smaller procedure on his other ankle this offseason, and then, right before training camp, he hurt his hamstring working out.
Niklas is healthier now. Doctors told him his ankle problems from last season won't totally fade until deeper into the season, but it's plenty good to operate on the field. His hamstring is better. He was pushed down the depth chart when the Cardinals signed two-time Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham at the outset of camp, but with starter Darren Fells hurting with a shoulder injury, the Cardinals need more from Niklas.
Niklas needs to be on the field, just to learn his position.
He played mostly offensive and defensive line in high school. He started as a linebacker when he attended Notre Dame. By the time the Cards drafted him, he had spent just two years learning tight end.
The belief is he can be good. He's still waiting to catch that particular wave.
"People say, 'You've got potential,' " Niklas said this week. " If I'm not working toward that potential I'm not getting better. I'm one of those guys who needs to put in the work and I haven't been able to do that. Recently, I've been able to put in good work. I think I'm starting to develop some of that potential."
Niklas comes from a football family. His uncle is Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, his cousin is Falcons offensive tackle Jake Matthews. His belief he could someday reach the NFL has been long-standing.
"Every summer when our families would visit, he was always the guy I hung out with," Jake Matthews said. "He was always a big goofball, jokester-type of guy. But, I was always bigger than him. I just remember one summer going back there, and all the sudden he is like 6-7, and is huge.
"He is always real impressive to look at on the field. I always knew he had a chance to play college ball or in the NFL because he is a great athlete."
Images of Cardinals tight end Troy Niklas, on and off the field
Niklas' time at Servite High School in Anaheim came when the program was at its peak. The school won the California state title when Niklas was a junior and lost in the state championship his senior year. His high school coach, Troy Thomas, remembered a player whoeven then was dedicated to the weight room and his nutrition – going as far as bringing a cooler full of the proper lunch every day to build his growing frame.
"I don't doubt there is something inside him with the drive to be great," Thomas said.
Niklas was a crucial two-way player for powerful Servite, playing mostly defensive line and offensive line. There was some time at tight end – little as a senior -- and he was considered a "big skill" recruit. Thomas thought offensive line would be Niklas' path to the NFL, following another Servite grad – Minnesota Vikings tackle Matt Kalil.
But Niklas didn't take the expected journey. First, to the chagrin of his father, he chose Notre Dame over an offer from much-closer USC. He would be put at linebacker, but tight end was always his goal.
Niklas played every game at linebacker as a freshman and even started once. The idea was that he'd slide into the starting lineup as a sophomore, but Niklas asked to be moved to offense. The man teammates called "Hercules" – fellow Notre Dame product Michael Floyd still calls him that – got his wish.
He came out of college a year early. Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians talked confidently of Niklas' ability to step right in and contribute. His broken finger came soon after, and Niklas has been chasing his potential ever since.
When Cardinals decision-makers talk about Niklas, however, they sound like they still believe they have their guy. And they are willing to wait, at least for now.
"He's got all the talent in the world," Arians said. "He played one year at tight end. He really hasn't had much time because he's missed so much practice time. The more he practices, the better he'll get."
The time home in California this summer for Niklas wasn't just about visiting family and friends and getting in some surfing. He would drive south to Torrey Pines – not exactly around the corner – to join teammates for Carson Palmer-orchestrated football workouts. He pushed himself daily for his own personal workouts (where he hurt his hamstring pre-camp.)
He knows people wonder about when he'll become the player everyone expected. He's still young – only 23 – and looks it. There was a reason, during Niklas' rookie season, former teammate John Carlson quipped Niklas looked like "a 12-year-old boy who swallowed a Grizzly bear."
Niklas doesn't want to be the guy who looks like he can be a player. He desperately wants to become that player.
"Everyone is like, 'Well, you could be good,' " Niklas said. "So does that mean I'm not very good? All right. I guess I have some work to do. It is frustrating but at the same time, as an athlete, you always have to be getting better. I know I'm not as good as I could be. I take it more of a compliment, that if I work really hard I could be really good."
Fells said Niklas is "definitely headed down the right path." Niklas knows he's still new to his position and that he has plenty of room to grow – which is why the Cardinals need him on the practice field. He had his first catch of the season in Pittsburgh last week, and has just four in 13 games with the Cardinals. But he's a blocker first, which fits. Niklas has relished the hitting part of football for as long as he can remember.
He will work. He will stay patient and be prepared. Surfing has taught him the opportunity could come at any time.
Once, Niklas was at the end of a long day of surfing. He was exhausted and was thinking he already should have headed to shore, but decided instead to paddle out for a final time. Suddenly, a huge seven-foot wave came along, and Niklas hopped on for what felt like a minute-long ride. Niklas regards it has his best ride ever.
"Sometimes you aren't in the right spot to catch a wave," Niklas said then. "But it's kind of like life – the waves don't come, sometimes the waves come and you aren't in the right spot, and sometimes the waves are coming and you are in the right spot and it's a blast."