HOUSTON – If the doubters could only see Chris Hogan now.
The ones who didn’t think he was good enough to be drafted into the NFL. The ones who saw him as an afterthought at wide receiver. The ones who could have never envisioned him rising to the occasion, rising higher than some of the biggest stars at his position, when it mattered the most.
Yet there he was Monday, in his New England Patriots gear, at Super Bowl LI Opening Night, answering questions from an army of reporters from around the world at Minute Maid Park.
They wanted to know about his unlikely path to the NFL, a journey that began with a four-year collegiate career in lacrosse. They wanted to know about what he thinks allowed him to have this kind of success. They wanted to know what he would be saying 30 years from now about catching passes from Tom Brady.
“I’ll be telling my kids and their kids about it,” Hogan said with a wide smile. “I’ll say that he’s the greatest that ever played the game.”
Eight days after the fact, and Hogan’s nine-catch, 180-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Pats’ AFC title win against the Pittsburgh Steelers was still reverberating.
The media still wanted a piece of him. His representatives have fielded calls for possible commercial endorsements and other money-making opportunities. As always, though, Hogan is his low-keyed, ultra-focused self.
“Any time you can have a performance like that on the big stage, it can bring a lot of attention, but guys that know me and guys that have been following me, I’m the type of guy that just wants to go out there and do whatever I can every single game,” he said. “And I happened to get a lot of good opportunities in that game, and I made the most of them and was able to make some big plays for our team to get a win against a tough opponent, and now we’re moving onto the next game and we’re excited about it.”
A year ago, Hogan didn’t know where he would be going, but he had a pretty good idea about where he wouldn’t be staying.
The Buffalo Bills were about to become the fourth NFL team to doubt his talent as a player. After catching 87 passes in three seasons, he was a restricted free agent. The Bills then chose to give him the lowest possible tender ($1.6 million), which made their opinion clear: You’re decent enough for us to want you as a third receiver, but we don’t need you.
In March, the Patriots made it equally clear they not only wanted Hogan, but also needed him, by giving an offer sheet for a contract worth $12 million over three years. With most of the money loaded in front end of the deal, the Bills were easily discouraged from matching, meaning they essentially gave away a receiver they had for three years to an AFC East rival.
“That’s the business side of things,” Hogan said. “It wasn’t personal at all. That organization gave me my first shot at playing in the NFL and gave me a chance to prove myself as a football player. And without them giving me that opportunity, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Hogan showed his gratitude by having a career year with 38 receptions for 680 yards and four touchdowns. His 17.9 yards per reception tied Washington’s DeSean Jackson for best in the NFL. More than anything, Hogan showed he deserved to be more than just the afterthought he was for the Bills. In his final season in Buffalo, he played 56.9 percent of the snaps. In his first year with the Pats, he played 74.2 percent.
Hogan needed only one season to gain enough trust from his iconic quarterback to become the go-to guy at the most critical time of year: the postseason. He caught four passes on four targets for 95 yards in a 34-16 divisional-round win over the Houston Texans. Then, with Hogan dealing with a thigh injury he suffered against the Texans, Brady threw his way 12 times and the Patriots reaped the benefits.
“He’s been incredible,” Tom Brady told reporters. “He’s made big plays for us all season and he made big plays in the biggest game of the year for us.”
Doubt has always been like jet fuel for Hogan.
It drove him through his unlikely path to football: three seasons as a scholarship lacrosse player at Penn State before transferring to Monmouth (N.J.) University for one year to play receiver and defensive back.
It drove him after the NFL teams that sent representatives to his pre-draft workout at Fordham didn’t see fit to even invest a seventh-round draft pick in him.
It drove him after the San Francisco 49ers signed him as an undrafted free agent and then cut him loose, after the New York Giants would only give him a spot on their practice squad, after the Miami wouldn’t hang onto him even after he developed something of a cult following with the nickname “Seven-Eleven” (because he’s always open) that highlighted HBO’s “Hard Knocks” coverage of Dolphins training camp.
And it drove him after the Bills’ tepid effort to retain his services for another season.
“On the surface, you would say that Chris is very quiet, somewhat laid-back,” Kevin Callahan, Hogan’s coach at Monmouth, told Newsday. “He doesn’t say a lot, operates under the radar. But under the surface, he’s extremely confident, he’s extremely competitive, and he’s highly motivated and driven to succeed.
“He’s a guy that sets a high standard for himself. If he ever senses that there’s something or someone saying he can’t be successful or saying, ‘Hey, we don’t think you can do this,’ he’s going to even work that much harder to prove those people wrong.”
Hogan smiled when someone shared Callahan’s observation with him.
“Yeah, exactly,” he said. “If you don’t think that I can do something, I’m going to work twice as hard just to prove you wrong that I can do it. And for a guy that played four years of lacrosse to go try to play in the NFL, I’m sure there were some doubters out there, I can imagine.
“But I had a lot of people supporting me as well and the biggest believer in myself was me, and that’s all I needed. Once I got a taste of the NFL, the type of athletes that I was around, I knew I could compete. It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, getting the right opportunity and taking advantage of those opportunities.”
What the Patriots figured out immediately about the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Hogan was what Glenn Thiel, Hogan’s lacrosse coach at Penn State, understood long ago. The guy has all kinds of moves. He has an extraordinary ability to weave his way around and through defenders, finding open spaces to where Brady can deliver him the ball.
Belichick, who played lacrosse in high school and college and has a tremendous passion for the game, understood that more than anyone.
“(Hogan is) big and strong and he’s got good footwork,” Thiel told Newsday. “I mean, when you run a lacrosse ball up and down the field, you’ve got the footwork like a tailback or like a wide receiver, making moves around people and whatnot to protect your stick. That’s kind of how he runs patterns, I think.”
Still, Hogan never saw his athletic journey leading him here.
“Nah, not in my wildest dreams,” he said. “I mean, maybe as a kid growing up, this is something you watch on TV and say, ‘Ah, man, maybe I could play in the Super Bowl one day.’ But when I was playing lacrosse at Penn State, that never crossed my mind and it’s a dream come true just being able to be a part of this.”
Hogan will share those Tom Brady stories with his kids and grandkids. But that isn’t all he’ll share.
“I’m sure I’ll have a bunch of other stories that will teach them about being an athlete, being a competitor and trying to be the best that you can be,” he said.
Especially in the face of doubts.