When New Jersey native Chris Hogan left his home state to play lacrosse at Penn State, it appeared the two-sport star was leaving his football career behind.
An injury in the third game of his sophomore season ironically had a far greater impact on his football career. He redshirted the season, leaving him with a year of eligibility after his four seasons at State College.
Before his final season at Penn State in 2010, Hogan informed longtime head coach Glenn Thiel that he wanted to use his remaining eligibility to play football. Hogan then headed east, back to Monmouth University in the FCS.
“He said, ‘I’m going to play football for a year,’ and he went to Monmouth rather than stay here, which was a good selection, I’m sure,” said Thiel.
Most NFL fans now know where that decision ultimately led him. In the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh on Jan. 22, the midfielder-turned-receiver caught nine passes for 180 yards, setting a Patriots postseason record and scoring two touchdowns to lift New England to Sunday's Super Bowl LI in Houston.
When he first heard of Hogan's interest in playing for Monmouth, Hawks’ head coach Kevin Callahan quickly recalled him from five years earlier when Hogan was wrapping up a stellar football career at New Jersey’s Ramapo High School.
“We knew of Chris as a high school player, but he committed to lacrosse,” said Callahan, who ranks among the winningest active coaches in the FCS. “So he was off everybody’s board. He ended up having a very productive senior football season.”
Hogan made a quick impression at Monmouth. “First of all, everybody could see Chris was extremely talented,” said Callahan. “He’s a high-level athlete with an edge to him. That edge is a positive thing. It’s a competitiveness and drive to be successful.”
Although describing Hogan at two different sports, the sentiments of his coaches are virtual echoes. “He was one of our leaders, and was a captain his senior season,” said Thiel. “He always led sprints and tried to make people keep up with him — he put the pressure on people that way.”
Hogan also made a quick impression on the Hawks’ opponents. “He came in here and he started playing receiver. His first-ever reception was a touchdown against Colgate in 2010,” said Callahan. From there he continued to be productive on offense, adding four receptions and another touchdown in the next two weeks.
Meanwhile, the injury bug was hitting the Hawks’ defensive secondary. “Through those first three games, we really got beaten up in the secondary. We were decimated, to be honest with you,” said Callahan. “As a staff, we looked around and said ‘Who on this team can we put back there who’s got a chance to compete?’ Immediately all eyes went to Chris.”
Callahan approached Hogan with the idea. “To his credit, he was all in. He’s very unselfish and said ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do, coach.’”
Duquesne, the Hawks’ Week Four opponent in 2010, went right after the cornerback sporting a telltale receiver’s number (83).
What they didn’t see was the former lacrosse player who when called upon could play the specialist’s role of a defensive short-stick midfielder for Penn State. The position requires the ability to shut down an opposing player without the six-foot “long-pole” that the sport’s defensemen typically rely on to level the playing field against swifter opponents.
“He was a great, aggressive defensive player — great open-field player. He could move out on a guy, intimidate people and take the ball away,” said Thiel.
The decision to target Hogan proved a poor one for Duquesne. He had two interceptions that afternoon in his first defensive start. The Hawks won, 44-17, to earn their first victory of the year. For the remainder of the season, Hogan played roughly 70 plays a game on defense, and 15-25 plays on offense.
“Obviously, looking back on it, the only mistake that I made was not throwing him the ball more and seeing if we could ramp his play count up to maybe 150 a game and really get him some action,” said Callahan.
Hogan’s path to flanking Tom Brady in the NFL was much like that of his route to a starting job in college football — circuitous.
Out of Monmouth he went undrafted but was picked up by the San Francisco 49ers in late July 2011, only to be released in early September. The Giants signed him nine days later and released him just 11 days after that.
Hogan then had two separate, short-lived stays with the Dolphins in 2011-2012, all before the regular season. It was during training camp in 2012 that Reggie Bush gave Hogan the nickname “7-Eleven” because he was always open.
Hogan's career finally began to take shape with the Buffalo Bills in late 2012 when he was signed to the team’s practice squad. His first touchdown reception came two years later. After 115 receptions and six touchdowns over three seasons in Buffalo, he signed a three-year deal with the Patriots in March 2016.
In recent weeks the 29-year-old Hogan has proven a critical part of a complex offense that requires precision of its stars and role players alike.
“I think what he's shown to the Patriots is he's dependable in that they know Chris is going to be where he needs to be,” said Callahan of his success in New England. “He’s also got that short area quickness and can separate. He can get himself open enough to be a viable target.”
Thiel expands on the same view from a lacrosse perspective. “Running a pass pattern is like a middie running up field on a clear — setting a guy up and then getting by him.”
The Monmouth coach offers the final word on his former standout, whose recent success has taken many of the NFL’s less astute followers by surprise.
“I’m not surprised by what he’s doing. I’m not going to say I would predict that would have a game like he had on that stage [the AFC Championship], but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Callahan.
The former midfielder steps onto his sport’s largest stage this Sunday in Houston.
Tom Flynn is a freelance writer based in Frederick, Md. Follow him on Twitter at @tomflynn51.