FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Bill Belichick, obviously, loves football. But the New England Patriots head coach also loves lacrosse.
So a football player who was once a top college lacrosse player and has survived – and eventually thrived – in the NFL after going undrafted? Well, he’s pretty much out of Belichick Central Casting.
Behold: Chris Hogan.
On Sunday night, Hogan introduced himself to the NFL-watching world with his nine-reception, 180-yard, two-touchdown performance in the AFC championship, a big part of the reason the Patriots are headed to an NFL-record ninth Super Bowl. His yardage total was a franchise postseason record, the best game of his career in the biggest football game he’s ever been part of.
Signed by the Patriots as a restricted free agent last March after seeing him twice a year for three seasons with the Buffalo Bills, Hogan had 38 catches for 680 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season, his 17.9 yards per catch average tied for best in the league this season.
He had four more catches for 95 yards against the Texans in the divisional round, and then came Sunday.
“Amazing,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said of Hogan’s performance. “He works hard, man. Ever since he got here, I don’t know if it was he’s so eager for the opportunity, but I haven’t seen too many people put in the type of work he does. I mean, you always see him, Jules [Julian Edelman] and Danny [Amendola] together whether they’re catching the ball, running extra routes, working with Tom [Brady], they’re always doing something to get better.
“He’s one of the last guys to leave the locker room, so it’s not by coincidence – what he does on the field on Sundays is not by coincidence. He does it each and every day, consistently … I’m excited for him.”
A few years ago, though, Hogan wasn’t playing football. He was at Penn State, a captain for the lacrosse team, opting to become part of the program the Nittany Lions were building, even though coming out of Ramapo (N.J.) High he had scholarship offers to play either football or lacrosse. He has said it was hard to attend football games in Happy Valley, because he still loved the sport and felt he could play at a high college level.
He gave Penn State four years, but football still tugged at him. Since he’d taken a redshirt year as a sophomore because of an injury, Hogan had one season of NCAA eligibility left. He floated the idea of playing one season of college football to his then-girlfriend (she’s now his wife), and she encouraged him to go for it.
His former high school coach helped Hogan put together a highlight tape, and despite having not played in years, a few colleges were interested. He ended up at Monmouth University, back in his home state of New Jersey, playing as a receiver but also cornerback and special teams. His numbers were underwhelming – Hogan had just 12 catches, for 147 yards and three touchdowns plus three interceptions on defense – and not surprisingly, not enough to earn an invitation to the scouting combine.
Hogan was able to wrangle a spot at Fordham’s pro day, and whether he felt like he belonged or not, Hogan had to convince himself he did.
“No, there was no room for doubt,” he said in front of his stall in the Patriots’ locker room, the once-massive media crowd in front of him thinned out to a more manageable one. “I had to have confidence in myself that I was able to do this. I was a long shot, but I just kept my head down, kept grinding and kept getting opportunities to play.”
His first opportunity came with the San Francisco 49ers, who signed Hogan in July 2011. He spent training camp with the Niners, and was cut just before the regular season. Nine days later he was signed to the New York Giants’ practice squad, but lasted only 11 days. Hogan languished for much of that season, but was picked up by the Dolphins in late December and signed to their practice squad; he was with Miami through the 2012 offseason and training camp, then was among the cuts on the eve of the regular season.
He’d land on the Dolphins’ practice squad, briefly, but by that time he’d earned a bit of recognition: that was the year Miami was featured on “Hard Knocks” and Hogan became known for his nickname, 7-Eleven, so dubbed because he was always open.
The Bills signed Hogan to their practice squad on Nov. 6, 2012, and the next month he was promoted to the 53-man roster, though he would not play in a game that season. In 2013, Hogan won a spot on the roster for the first time in his career, playing in all 16 games.
As a restricted free agent, the Bills had the right to match any contract offer Hogan received from another team. But when the Patriots’ three-year contract came in at $12 million, with $7.5 million guaranteed and $5.5 million in the first season, Buffalo declined to match.
The list of free-agent receivers who have washed out of New England is far longer than the list of those who have succeeded, but it was clear to Hogan’s new teammates from Day 1 that he would fit in just fine.
“It helps that he played high school football in New Jersey like me,” St. Joseph Regional [Montvale, N.J.] grad Devin McCourty said, smiling. “So that’s always a big help. You know, I got to train with him in March and as soon as I started training with him, I knew this guy was going to be a great receiver for us, he was going to really produce, and that’s what he’s done.
“He works hard at everything – running routes in the offseason, lifting hard. It’s been great to be around him and learn from him and his work ethic is unbelievable, so I’m extremely happy for him.”
“He’s been incredible,” said Brady, who targeted Hogan a dozen times on Sunday night, including a 34-yard flea-flicker in the second quarter for his second touchdown. “To lead the league in average yards per catch is spectacular. He’s made big plays for us all season, he made plays in the biggest game of the year for us.”
Hogan didn’t seem to want to talk much about his lacrosse career on Sunday night, though it’s hard to blame him; he was celebrating a trip to Super Bowl LI with his teammates, and he has established himself as a more-than-capable NFL receiver. But he’s going to be asked about his former athletic life a lot in the next two weeks.
“I’m just happy to take advantage of this opportunity, to be part of this team,” Hogan said. “It’s been a long journey, but I’ve worked really hard to get to this point and I just couldn’t be happier that I get to be part of this team.”
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