At the NFL draft combine last February, T.J. Yates was one of three college quarterbacks brought in not to be specifically evaluated but to spend their hours throwing passes to players who were potentially high on the wish list of various franchises.
Yates, who passed for 3,418 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior at North Carolina, was in a throwing group with future Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who was getting the microscope treatment while Yates was doing what amounted to football grunt work.
The two quarterbacks made some small talk, then Newton went on to become the No. 1 pick in the draft while Yates became the 152nd pick, a fifth-round choice of the Houston Texans, home of quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart.
On Sunday in Reliant Stadium, they will start against each other when the Panthers visit the Texans, who locked down the franchise's first playoff berth last Sunday when Yates - the third-team quarterback three weeks ago - tossed a six-yard touchdown pass with two seconds remaining to beat Cincinnati 20-19, sparking a celebration across southeast Texas.
"I didn't think that one was coming," Yates said Wednesday when asked about facing Newton and the Panthers this weekend.
"Back at the combine I was just one of the three throwing quarterbacks that were there to throw to all the defensive guys. I didn't expect to be playing this early in my career but it's been great so far."
Newton has noticed.
"I'm a fan of T.J. as far as what he did this past week. Throwing for 300 yards on a pretty good solid team, that's very impressive," Newton said.
"Seeing him come out of North Carolina, he's been holding it down as far as Matt Schaub going down. He picked the rifle up and just kept going. Very impressive."
Yates' story may not have resonated nationally like Tim Tebow's but it could have a potentially profound impact on the upcoming playoffs. With a strong finish, the Texans are in position to lock down one of the top seeds in the AFC playoffs, and it will be Yates who quarterbacks them.
When Schaub was lost for the season with a foot injury, then Leinart went down with a broken collarbone against Jacksonville on Nov. 27, it became Yates' team to run. The team brought in former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme and, later, Jeff Garcia as back-ups but coach Gary Kubiak left no doubt that Yates was his guy.
"When he came out and told me right away I was going to be the guy and they were going to bring in another guy as a veteran backup, for me to go into that next week of preparation, it gave me a world of confidence knowing I wouldn't have to worry about any outside factors," Yates said.
Yates has responded. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Yates is the first rookie quarterback in 43 years to lead game-winning touchdown drives in the fourth quarter of his first two starts.
On the road at Cincinnati last week, Yates drove the team 80 yards in the final two minutes without a timeout to a victory that brought hundreds of fans to the airport to greet the playoff-bound Texans when they arrived home Sunday evening.
When Kubiak arrived at the team office Monday morning, he said Yates was the first player to show up.
"He's on a good football team. We haven't asked T.J. to carry the whole load," Kubiak said. "He's had the luxury some of these young quarterbacks don't have now. He's got to sit around and watch a little bit. He was in a meeting room with a heckuva player in Matt Schaub. I think T.J. benefitted from being part of that end of the deal for 10 weeks before being put into a game.
"You never know with these (backup) players if they're taking care of their business until they get put on the spot. He got put on the spot and it's obvious he's been studying hard and working hard. He's got a lot of things he's got to improve upon but the key for us is to play well around him."
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said watching Yates on film has shown the Texans have faith in his ability to make plays. Against the Bengals, Rivera said, Yates made a play-action fake and threw deep on the first play from scrimmage then ran a bootleg pass on the second play. So much for playing it safe.
"You can tell he's a very smart football player. He understands exactly what they're doing out there and every week you can see him getting better," Rivera said.
"He's somebody we went out and looked at. He's a young man that we thought had some ability. He has an opportunity to show it.
"I don't want to say they want him to manage the game. They want him to go out and make plays. That just shows they have some confidence in the kid's ability."
For Yates, the past three weeks have been a whirlwind. After watching the Texans deal with a variety of injuries to key players, suddenly it was his turn to respond. Schaub, Yates said, has been a huge help as has Delhomme since his arrival.
After what Yates went through at North Carolina last season when an NCAA investigation tore a hole in the Tar Heels' program, it has been easier for him to adjust to his new world in Houston.
"My senior season at North Carolina was a crazy one as everyone knows," Yates said. "It was kind of like now here, because we've been having a ton of injuries and guys having to step up every week all over the roster. It was the same thing when I was at North Carolina.
"Every single week we were getting guys suspended or getting guys back from suspension so everybody throughout the entire roster had to be ready to step up and play. It prepared me to be in these crazy type situations where anything can happen."