By Ryan Chatelain
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To hear the story about the day Chris Hogan arrived on Monmouth’s doorstep, it sounds almost like folklore, as though he were the Paul Bunyan or Roy Hobbs of mid-major college football.
OK, maybe that’s somewhat of an exaggeration. But there’s one thing Hogan’s out-of-nowhere story has that the giant lumberjack’s and The Natural’s don’t: It’s 100 percent true.
It was the spring of 2010. After four years of playing lacrosse at Penn State, Hogan wanted to scratch his football itch with his last year of NCAA eligibility. A few months after enlisting some friends on Monmouth’s team to relay his interest in playing for the Hawks to head coach Kevin Callahan, Hogan found himself practicing as a member of a football team for the first time since his days at Ramapo High School in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey.
And he quickly wowed anyone who was paying attention.
“Once we got on the field that first day and started throwing the ball and he was catching routes, I kind of realized we got a steal with him,” Kyle Frazier, Monmouth’s starting quarterback at the time, told WFAN.com this week. “He is by far the most athletic kid I’ve ever been around in my life.”
Callahan, the only head coach the Monmouth program has known in its 24 seasons, instantly saw, too, that he had lucked into someone special.
“He was big, he was strong, he could run,” Callahan said. “I think playing lacrosse really kept him sharp in terms of his short-area quickness, his change of direction and all of those skills that helped him become a top-flight receiver. And when he got on the practice field out here and started running routes, it was obvious that he was different, that he had a skillset that could be destined for the next level.”
When he burst onto the scene at Monmouth, Hogan showed he could be far more than a wide receiver. Put him on special teams, and the gunner Hogan was lined up against had no chance of getting off the line. And while clowning around with teammates at practice, he demonstrated that he had the talent to be team’s long snapper or punter, if he wanted.
Hogan was instantly successful with the Hawks. In the second quarter of his first game, he scored on a 17-yard pass against Colgate, breaking a tackle along the way.
“After we saw that, we said, ‘Wow, we’ve got something,’” Frazier said.
Hogan’s receiving stats in his one year of college football — 12 catches, 147 yards, three touchdowns — won’t impress anyone. But there’s a good explanation.
Hogan’s athleticism and versatility ended up being needed more than his coaches could have ever anticipated. By the fourth game of the season, the Hawks’ secondary had been decimated by injuries. The coaches scoured the roster looking for someone they could move to the defensive backfield. Hogan’s name jumped off the page.
“I approached him with the idea, and he was in favor of it,” Callahan said. “He said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’”
Hogan practiced for just two days at cornerback before making his first start on defense that Saturday against Duquesne. He ended up intercepting two passes in that game.
From that moment on, he was a two-way player — full-time on defense, part-time on offense.
“There literally seemed to be nothing that he wasn’t capable of doing,” Callahan said.
Before long, pro scouts were beginning to notice Hogan, too, starting at Monmouth’s Pro Day. He then participated in the Pro Day at Fordham, “and it was at that one that he really took off,” Callahan said. Hogan had decent size (6-foot-1, 215 pounds), was fast (4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and performed well in strength and movement tests. The showing wasn’t enough to get him drafted, but he was squarely on the NFL’s radar.
Signed first by San Francisco as an undrafted free agent, Hogan then bounced around NFL training camps and practice squads — from the 49ers to the Giants to the Dolphins — before finally catching on with the Bills, where he spent four years and carved out a role as a solid No. 3 receiver.
Then last March, the Patriots signed Hogan, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet for three years, $12 million. The Bills declined to match the offer, and Hogan was on his way to join Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, arguably the greatest coach and quarterback of all-time.
“I remember saying to a couple of guys on the staff here that that might be a perfect fit for Chris, just because he is such a hard worker, he sets the bar very high for himself, and he has high expectations in terms of his own personal level of performance,” Callahan said. “He’s very motivated and driven to play up to that level. He’s a guy that you look at him and he kind of operates under the radar a little bit. He’s not a very loud guy, but he has a quiet confidence about him. He’s extremely dependable, reliable, and those seem to be the traits that the Patriots value.”
Callahan was right: Hogan thrived in his first season in New England, catching 38 passes for 680 yards and four touchdowns. But the biggest highlight of his career to date came against the Steelers in the AFC championship game, when he hauled in nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
To put into perspective what an unusual path Hogan has had to football stardom: He had more receiving yards in that one playoff game than he had in his college career.
Now, Hogan, the first Monmouth product ever to play in the Super Bowl, is 60 minutes away from touching the Lombardi Trophy.
“I think his story is amazing, and it’s crazy to go four years playing lacrosse, one year of college football and then go undrafted and get on three practice squads, or whatever it was, and now he’s a solidified starter for the Patriots, which is the best organization in the NFL,” Frazier said.
“It’s awesome, and it’s something that’s huge for the (Monmouth) program and huge for the school, but I’m just excited and happy for him, and I’m hoping that they can go out on top and he can win a Super Bowl ring.”
Follow Ryan on Twitter at @ryanchatelain