Unconventional paths to the NFL have been taken before. Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez are probably two of the most famous examples with both coming from college basketball backgrounds. Chris Hogan, however, might be the first NFL player who spent most of his college career playing lacrosse. Given a very small window of opportunity, the New Jersey native got just enough exposure to get his foot in the NFL door, and now he's not letting anyone shut him out.
Growing up in Wyckoff, New Jersey, with his father Jim and mother Mary Ellen, from a very early age Chris Hogan was pretty physically gifted. His eye-hand coordination is what stood out most in the beginning.
"At two-years old he was hitting a golf ball," said his father Jim Hogan. "He was a lefty, but he was hitting a righty club and hitting it pretty good with the back end of the club head. His eye-hand coordination was always good, even then."
In his elementary school years baseball was at the forefront. Hogan was an accomplished pitcher, who threw hard.
"Early on when he was a kid I got recruited to coach his team and one year he was 12 or 13 and he tried to make one of those unbelievable throws from the outfield and torqued his shoulder," said the elder Hogan.
"Baseball was my main sport," said Hogan. "But I blew out my shoulder when I was in eighth grade."
Hogan had torn his rotator cuff and coming back from the injury his throwing arm was never the same. Already accustomed to be a three-sport scholastic athlete, Hogan needed something to cure the boredom he was suffering from in the spring.
"My dad played lacrosse in high school on Long Island," said Hogan. "He had an old stick in the garage and I picked it up and he went out there with me and started tossing it around. Just being an athlete I was able to pick it up really quickly and it just kind of went from there."
"It didn't surprise me that catching a ball in baseball with a mitt translated to catching a ball with a stick," said Jim Hogan. "I didn't think it was ever going to take off like it did because he was so involved in football, but every time he stepped on the field he just seemed to do something pretty unique."
Though he only began playing lacrosse competitively in ninth grade, Hogan proved a quick study at Ramapo high school.
"He could shoot the ball in lacrosse 106 miles per hour with his left hand and 100 miles per hour with his right hand," said his high school coach Bob Turco. "To run a 4.4 40 and shoot the ball that hard is very rare. He had a great first step."
By his sophomore year Hogan was on the varsity squad earning second-team All-League honors. Come junior and senior year he was an unstoppable midfielder, capable of beating just about any defender one-on-one and scoring soon thereafter. He would earn first team All-County and All-State honors his last two years of high school including State Player of the Year as a senior.
Ramapo was competitive at lacrosse, but they weren't a perennial powerhouse. Hogan along with a handful of teammates however, were putting together a pretty special season. Come May 12, 2006 they faced one of those perennial powers in Ridgewood. Ramapo had never beaten them.
Clinging to an 11-10 lead with a minute remaining Hogan had the ball in his stick, beat a double team and went airborne to bury a shot after coming from behind the cage to secure the victory (12-10). After the game however, Hogan wasn't right.
"When we were on the bus everybody was cheering and going crazy that we beat Ridgewood and it was a big deal and Chris was just staring forward," said Turco. "So I asked him what was wrong. One of the assistants on our staff was also a doctor and I had him check him out because I thought something was wrong. He had to track Chris down at his house by phone and told him he had to go to the hospital. It turned out that Chris had a lacerated spleen."
The state tournament was in two and a half weeks, but Hogan's doctor said he would be sidelined for a month.
"He was heartbroken and I told him to work on getting better and we'll try to pull through it," Turco said. "Sure enough his teammates managed to keep winning one goal games for him and he inspired us to go all the way to the state finals at which time he was cleared to play with a flak jacket."
There were three lightning delays during the state final. During one of them the players were escorted to a classroom until the dangerous weather moved out. Another team playing an earlier state final had been sent to the same classroom during a weather delay earlier in the day. On the blackboard were the words, 'Will you be remembered?'
A team captain, Hogan decided to change the message for his team.
"He went up and erased the capital 'W' for the word 'Will' put in a lower case 'W' and then wrote in front of it the word 'How.' So the sentence read 'How will you be remembered?' That's the last thing we read before we went out and won in the state final. He had three goals and three assists to win the state tournament. He's a pretty amazing person."
It was Ramapo's first state title.
A player in demand
Hogan wasn't only an elite talent in lacrosse. He was also a pretty decorated receiver in football earning All-State honors as a senior for Ramapo. He was also named to the New Jersey Football Top 100 after posting 1,057 receiving yards on 67 catches and 20 touchdowns.
The recruiting letters were coming daily to his parent's house, but more of them were for lacrosse than football.
"It was a back and forth thing," said Jim Hogan. "Rutgers offered him a football scholarship. Connecticut offered him a football scholarship. Kansas offered him. There were some other smaller schools, but Penn State lacrosse coach Glenn Thiel throughout the process really heavily recruited him. They came and visited us."
"I had the D-I offers to go play college football, but college lacrosse you name the school and I was offered a scholarship anywhere from Syracuse to Virginia," said Hogan. "I was New Jersey State Player of the Year in lacrosse. I ultimately went with Penn State and it was a personal decision. I really liked the school and where the program was going."
Hogan made the decision that lacrosse would be his sport for his college career. Initially though, there were thoughts of playing lacrosse and football.
"I really was all in on lacrosse," he said. "At first I thought I was going to try to do something with football and play two sports, but it really became more and more of an afterthought as I got older. The lacrosse coaches really didn't want one of their top recruits going out and playing football. I probably could've pursued it if I really wanted to, but didn't."
A starter as a freshman Hogan was a contributor to a team that almost reached the NCAA tournament. A high-ankle sprain cost him his sophomore season after trying to play on it with no success. Come junior year Hogan led the team in scoring and earned All-Conference honors his last two seasons.
Change of heart
Prior to his senior year at Penn State, Hogan's thoughts began to drift back to football. He sat down with his parents before heading back to Happy Valley in the fall.
"My senior year I had an extra year of eligibility because I had lost one after I got hurt my sophomore year," he said. "I redshirted so I decided probably in the fall of my senior year that I was going to graduate and finish lacrosse and try to play football."
"I remember it vividly," said Jim Hogan. "We were sitting at the kitchen table. He said to me, 'Hey dad I'm thinking about playing football.' I told him, 'If you want to go play football absolutely. Don't have any regrets. Don't look back and say I should have. If you have an opportunity to go do that let's pursue it.'"
With roots in college lacrosse and limited exposure to football, WR Chris Hogan capitalized on his opportunity to play professional football.
After he graduated from Penn State the process of finding a place to play football the following fall as a graduate student got underway.
"That whole year I really tried to get my old film together," said Hogan. "I was sending high school film out to coaches."
Rutgers was the first school that showed interest and was soon followed by Syracuse, who had a coach by the name of Doug Marrone, who had just finished his first season with the Orange.
Former Syracuse and now current Bills receivers coach Rob Moore visited with Hogan in New Jersey to see if he wanted to play at Syracuse. Hogan had planned to enroll at Syracuse, but NCAA rules complicated things with a transfer from one major Division I school to another even though he had completed his undergraduate studies.
Discouraged, his father contacted Chris' high school coach, who in turn got in touch with the coaching staff at nearby Monmouth.
"Chris went down and met with the coaches and he didn't really have to sell Chris too much," said his father. "They had to decide whether or not they wanted a guy who had only one year left. They knew about him and his film spoke volumes about what he could do. They said they had nothing to lose and were happy to bring him in. It was fun to watch him again on the football field."
What Hogan didn't expect was to play both ways. He first lined up at cornerback and was a part-time wide receiver.
"It went okay," he said. "I ended up playing more defense than I did offense. They lined me up at cornerback. It definitely wasn't what I had in mind, but at the same time I thought of it like a high school game playing both ways and I was playing special teams. I was basically making the most out of playing football for one year, which was really fun for me. I got to be more of a situational receiver, third down, red zone kind of guy."
He finished the season with 28 tackles on defense with three interceptions and six pass breakups. On offense he chipped in with 12 catches for 147 yards and three touchdowns.
Hoping for a shot
After his only season of college football was over, Hogan hired an agent and hoped to earn an invite to a college pro day at another local college in the region the following spring. Eventually he earned an invite to the Fordham pro day and performed well.
"We went all in on it and I went and trained and it was during the lockout so it was a tough time," said Hogan. "So I got to go to a pro day at Fordham and put up some pretty good numbers and it went from there. I have to give my agent some credit. That was him making the best of what I had to do at that pro day."
Hogan ran in the low 4.4s and posted a vertical leap of 38 inches. It was enough to get some NFL clubs to take a closer look.
He wasn't expecting to get drafted. Hogan was just hoping to get a phone call and an opportunity to get in front of an NFL head coach.
San Francisco was the first to call.
"A day or two after the draft I got a call from his agent that they called him and were going to offer him a signing and they gave him some money and he was on a plane to San Francisco in a blink of an eye," said Jim Hogan.
"I went out to San Francisco. I went to camp and was doing alright, but got hurt. I got my ankle rolled up on and was in a boot for two and a half weeks. They threw me back in there to get a preseason game worth of action and didn't really do much. Got cut. Got picked up by the Giants. I was there for three weeks. Got released from them and then went down to Miami."
A frequent focus on HBO's 'Hard Knocks' coverage of Dolphins camp in 2012, Hogan earned the nickname '7-11' because in the eyes of RB Reggie Bush, Hogan was always open.
Hogan was almost certain he was going to make Miami's 53-man roster, but he was released during final cuts. He was brought back and signed to the Dolphins' practice squad. A week later the Dolphins released him again.
It was at that point that Hogan's father felt he should check in with his son to see where his head was at in trying to make an NFL career a reality.
"My comment to him one time was, 'Chris what's it like and do you belong?' He said, 'I absolutely belong. I can play with these guys. I know I'm as good if not better than most,'" said Jim Hogan. "He knew that he could play in the NFL. Once he got through the Miami camp he knew he could play."
Not long after the Bills came calling. They brought him in for a workout, but did not sign him at the time. Two months later they signed Hogan to their practice squad Nov. 6 of the 2012 season.
Come the last two weeks of the season Hogan was called up to the active roster with the receiver position beset with injuries, but he didn't post any statistics. Re-signed as a future free agent in January of 2013, Hogan dedicated himself to making the 53-man roster that fall.
"He worked hard," said Turco. "He would come up to our sports facility and work out and then I'd ask him if he'd want to go grab lunch and he'd tell me he brought his lunch and it would be a chicken breast and that would be it. It's all about protein and taking care of his body and doing what he had do."
Proving himself capable on special teams to new coordinator Danny Crossman and making enough plays at receiver on offense Hogan was one of the six receivers kept by the Bills for their 53-man squad. Hogan was ecstatic.
Though he only caught 10 passes last season Hogan was convinced he could carve out a career for himself in the NFL. Another offseason of diligent training combined with a second year in an offensive system led to a faster, quicker and more effective receiver as Hogan impressed in the spring practices.
The only thing new was his receivers coach, but it was a man who had been in his parent's living room trying to get him to play for a year at Syracuse, Rob Moore. Moore hadn't seen Hogan perform in person before, but was taken with his athletic skills.
"He worked extremely hard on his athleticism," said Moore of Hogan. "People don't realize that this guy was a great lacrosse player so he had some skill sets. It was just about maturing in terms of his football knowledge and really getting a better understanding on how to train for this game."
Perhaps it was Moore's eight years as a scholastic lacrosse player himself before committing fully to football, but it was more likely Hogan's unrelenting drive on the practice field to be a playmaker.
"Finding a home, finding somebody that believed in him was big," said his father. "The NFL has a lot of fantastic players, but somebody has to say, 'I like you. You can go do the job for me and you can play in the NFL.'"
Hogan's training camp and preseason performances were so productive that he is vying for regular time in the slot receiver role. His responsibilities on special teams could compromise the amount of time Hogan sees on offense, but it never hurts when you establish trust with the starting quarterback.
"I think he has established that trust, but I think it's something that's continuing to grow," said Moore of Hogan and Manuel's on field chemistry. "He's done a great job of spending a lot of time with EJ and really being available to get extra work in and EJ feels pretty comfortable with him."
For a gifted athlete that bounced from one sport to another, used a small window of opportunity to get a shot at a remote chance at an NFL career, Hogan understands how fortunate he is even though he worked his tail off every step of the way.
"Looking back on it I had a limited amount of time to make big leaps and impress a lot of people," he said. "I still feel I have hurdles to clear and ways for me to become a really good slot receiver or wherever they want to put me."
Ultimately Buffalo felt like a spot where he fit, which is why his situation now has exceeded the final vision he had at his parent's kitchen table four years ago.
"It's better I think," said Hogan of his current reality. "I think my final vision was, let's give it a go and if I'm going to make a roster I'm going to play special teams and maybe play some offense. Obviously I've worked hard for it, but this was not my vision. When I look back on it and see where I am now I've got to be happy."