Chris Hogan took four seasons off from football but he never really stopped playing the game during his time as a lacrosse player in State College, Pa.
“He certainly played lacrosse like a football player,’’ recalled former Nittany Lions coach Glenn Thiel. “He was very physical and he was such an athlete. Physically, he could just overwhelm lacrosse players.’’
Coming off a stellar career at Ramapo (N.J.) High, where the future Patriots receiver was a first-team All-New Jersey performer as a junior and senior in lacrosse and an all-state first teamer as a senior in football, Hogan had a decision to make.
With offers rolling in to play Division 1 lacrosse (from perennial powerhouse programs Syracuse and Virginia, among others) and Division 1 football (including Rutgers and UConn), it wasn’t an easy decision.
“It was tough,’’ Hogan said last week after wrapping up his OTA duties in Foxborough. “I loved playing both sports. When it came down to it, I felt Penn State was an amazing school. I loved the campus. And it was an opportunity to help build a rising [lacrosse] program. It was tough, but I’ve never regretted my decision at all.’’
No regrets, but Hogan never really lost the football bug. Living in the shadow of Mount Nittany, reminders were everywhere. It was a difficult adjustment to not strap on the helmet and shoulder pads (at least the football kind) when he arrived.
“Actually, I struggled even going to the games because I felt like I should be out there playing,’’ he said. “It was a rough first fall for me.’’
Still, he went about the business of being a lacrosse player — a dominant one according to Thiel, who acknowledged it was a bit of a coup to land an athlete of Hogan’s caliber.
“Obviously he was a great athlete,’’ said Thiel. “But his size set him apart. He was 6-2, 6-3, 215 pounds — we just didn’t see that on the lacrosse field, very seldom. There are some guys playing now that size but he was unique then.’’
Hogan was such a presence on the field that he often intimidated opponents before the opening faceoff.
“Just putting him on the field, the other team had something to worry about,’’ said Thiel, who retired in 2012 after 33 years leading the Nittany Lions. “Then on top of that, he was a good lacrosse player. I mean, big, strong, fast, could get his shot off. He was unique.’’
Hogan started all 13 games as a freshman in 2007 and scored 11 goals. He played just three games as a sophomore because of a high ankle sprain — a turn that would prove fortuitous as Hogan was granted a redshirt season.
Hogan came back with a vengeance in 2009, collecting a team-high 29 goals and 133 shots. Showing his patented physical play, he also led the Nittany Lions with 10 penalties.
For his efforts, he was named first-team All-ECAC and chosen a captain for his senior season. Hogan also proved to be the poster boy for the program.
“Younger kids coming in saw the product that he was — the size, the speed, the strength — and they would try to emulate that,’’ said Thiel. “He was somebody people wanted to mold themselves after.’’
Though Hogan’s numbers dipped his senior season (15 goals, 24 points), there was a good reason.
“We switched him to defensive midfield because we wanted to get more out of transition from defense to offense,’’ said Thiel. “He would get us running so we could create offense instantly . . . So he really did everything for us over the three full seasons.’’
Scratching that itch
It was the first of several transitions for Hogan, who was set to graduate but still had a year of college eligibility because of that ankle injury. It was time to scratch that football itch that had never left.
“It was something that was definitely in the back of my mind always,’’ said Hogan, who believes all the cutting he did in lacrosse has helped him getting in and out of his breaks on pass routes. “I always thought that I could play football at the college level . . . I thought about it constantly.’’
After exploring his options and talking with former high school rivals Kenny Amsel and Nick Romeo, who were enrolled at Monmouth, Hogan met with Hawks coach Kevin Callahan, who had recruited him in high school.
“I sat down with him when he came to campus and just loved everything about him,’’ said Callahan. “We knew he hadn’t played in four years but we weren’t overly concerned about that.’’
Much the way he made an instant impact in State College, Pa., he did the same in West Long Branch, N.J. There was no evidence of rust.
From his first workout with the Hawks, Hogan stood out, according to Callahan. The coach said he normally would hesitate to bring a player in for just one season, but it was clear this was no normal case.
“He’s not a guy you had to watch practice 10 times to figure out he was special,’’ said Callahan. “We saw him run a route and we said, ‘Wow, we really have something here.’ ’’
He quickly picked up the playbook and secured a spot as a receiver, but his role would soon expand. After three games and several injuries, Callahan found himself thin in the secondary. After scanning his roster, Callahan found a solution — the new guy.
“I approached him and he said, ‘I can do that,’ ’’ said Callahan, who thinks the four years away from the pounding of football may have prolonged Hogan’s career. “So we kind of gave him what he needed to know, didn’t overcoach him an awful lot to be honest, just enough so that he’d be playing within the scheme, and he was a starting corner the rest of the season.’’
Again, Hogan paid immediate dividends. In his first game at cornerback he picked off a pair of passes in a win over Duquesne. He also added a 41-yard catch.
For nine games Hogan played full time on defense, about 15-20 plays on offense, and on all the special teams units. He may have played only one season, but he packed plenty into it.
“Chris has great instincts, and most of all he’s a very dependable, reliable athlete,’’ said Callahan. “Meaning, if you tell him part of a play or a play design or pass concept and you tell him he has to be in a certain place at a certain time, he’s going to be there. He’s going to find a way to get there.’’
Hogan finished the season with 28 tackles and three interceptions, 12 catches for 147 yards, three TDs, and dreams of continuing his football career.
“My agent [Arthur Weiss] didn’t sugarcoat it at all, he told me it would be a tough road,’’ he said. “But I didn’t want to regret not trying it.’’
Hogan joined some teammates in NFL Combine training drills with the hopes of catching some eyes. And though he didn’t get invited to the big cattle call in Indianapolis, he turned heads during Fordham’s Pro Day.
Callahan remembers getting a call telling him Hogan was the top performer at that workout.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday,’’ said Hogan. “It was an emotional day. I was able to put up some really good numbers. My 40 [time] was good. My shuttle was good. Bench press was good. Everything I did was enough to impress some people. Enough to be one of those guys they wanted to work out after and do some drills.’’
Hogan signed with the 49ers in July 2011, but it was a quick stay. He was scooped up by the Giants and spent a short stint on their practice squad before being released.
His next stop was Miami, where he gained a bit of fame and the nickname “7-11” from Reggie Bush because he was “always open’’ during the Dolphins’ turn on “Hard Knocks.’’ He was cut from Miami’s practice squad in September 2011.
Hogan signed with Buffalo in 2012 and was there until signing with the Patriots in March.
“I jumped around a lot,’’ said Hogan, who “never gave pro lacrosse a thought’’ after diving back into football. “And every single spot I was at I had a lot to learn and was able to do just that. I got a lot of opportunities and I was able to make the best of them.’’
His latest is in Foxborough. With top targets Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola coming back from injuries, Hogan was asked if he has been able to build a quick rapport with Tom Brady.
“There’s a lot of opportunity out there,’’ Hogan said. “It’s only OTAs, but I’ve been working with all the guys. For me, it’s just about getting the offense down and learning how we play around here, and that’s what I’m focused on.’’
Thiel, his former lacrosse coach, will be focused on Hogan. “I sure hope Brady can throw him the ball a few times.’’