Pats' Chris Hogan: From Penn State lacrosse to the Supe

HOUSTON - Chris Hogan's path to the NFL, unlike the large majority of Penn State alumni who played professionally, didn't include playing football at Beaver Stadium.

In fact, Hogan could barely stand to attend games at the 110,000-seat bowl.

"It was hard for me to go to football games because I felt like I could be playing on Saturdays out there," Hogan said. "I always felt in the back of my head that I could have played football at the college level. But it just wasn't in the cards for me at that stage."

Hogan was at Penn State on a lacrosse scholarship. He had friends on the football team and would sometimes consider playing both or switching sports. But he felt obligated to the Lions' burgeoning lacrosse program and tucked that desire away until he graduated in 2010.

Some guy named Shakespeare once wrote that "we are such stuff as dreams are made on," and it's hard not to think of that line when recounting Hogan's improbable run to the NFL, and on Sunday, to Super Bowl LI.

The Patriots wide receiver, thanks to a 2008 ankle injury, used his remaining year of college eligibility to play football at Monmouth. He played more defensive back than receiver, but he was able to score workouts with several NFL teams after he went undrafted the following year. He eventually signed with the 49ers, but he had not yet reached his goal.

Hogan was released before the 2011 season, and was released from the New York Giants practice squad several weeks later, and was released a third time by the Dolphins despite an impressive training camp in 2012.

The 28-year-old Hogan admitted that getting cut by Miami - he was later signed to the practice squad only to be waived days later - was a low point. But through it all, he said that he never gave up his dream.

"I didn't really have a Plan B," Hogan said this week. "My Plan B was work harder and try to make it in the NFL."

The Bills picked up Hogan later in the 2012 season, and while he sat for most of the next year and a half, his time would eventually come. He won the slot receiver job in 2014 and was a steady contributor for Buffalo until the Patriots nabbed him as an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

Hogan was at first just one of quarterback Tom Brady's many receiving options, albeit his deepest threat. But after tight end Rob Gronkowski had season-ending back surgery in early December, Hogan helped fill that void. His efforts culminated with a nine-catch, 180-yard, two-touchdown performance - all career highs - against the Steelers in the AFC championship game.

"Playing against [the Bills], we knew how talented he was," Brady said. "He had a huge game last week. Hopefully he can have another huge game."

Hogan, for all his struggles, doesn't consider himself an underdog. And nor should he. It takes a certain level of athleticism to reach the NFL. And while he has worked his tail off and persevered, it's worth noting that he runs like the wind.

"People talk about the lacrosse because it's a great story. They talk about his underdog mentality," Patriots receivers coach Chad O'Shea said. "But I think that what gets lost is he's a very skilled athlete. It wasn't by accident that he was a tremendous lacrosse player."

Hogan was a two-sport star at Ramapo High School in Franklin Lakes, N.J. He was recruited by Rutgers and Connecticut to play football, but he had already committed to Penn State. When he arrived in State College, he went to a handful of football games and would talk to running back and former lacrosse player Evan Royster about the possibility of trying out, but that's as far as it went.

"It was never a real serious conversation for me," Hogan said, "because I was invested in lacrosse."

A midfielder, Hogan was named first-team all-ECAC after his senior season. Rather than pursue a career in professional lacrosse, he scratched that football itch and enrolled at Monmouth. He caught only 12 passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns in one season because he was needed more at defensive back.

Hogan worked out at both positions for several teams, including the Eagles, but the 49ers were the first to sign him after the NFL lockout ended in 2011. A year later, he was in Miami and became a bit of a minor celebrity when running back Reggie Bush nicknamed him "7-Eleven" - because "he's always open." HBO's Hard Knocks chronicled his failed bid to make the roster.

"It was emotional," Hogan said. "For me it was an eye-opening experience. As good as I played and as good as I thought I played, it wasn't enough. I drove back that day all the way back to New Jersey and was working out the next day just to wait for another opportunity."

Hogan caught 77 passes for 876 yards and six touchdowns for the Bills in 2014 and 2015. The Patriots offered a front-loaded contract that made it difficult for Buffalo to match and he was off to New England.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick, also a former lacrosse player, has a knack for finding players from other sports or castoffs from other teams and making them valuable contributors. He acquired Hogan based on his NFL performance, but there's no doubt he understood how his lacrosse attributes would translate.

"If there's value or there's something that somebody can do, if there's one asset that a person can bring to help us win games," O'Shea said, "Bill's also looking for that."

And Hogan, who caught 38 passes for 680 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season, has been an asset.

"It's been a wild ride, a lot of bumps in the road," Hogan said, "but I never stopped working for it."

jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane