September 17, 2012

Hogan Brings Himself, Lacrosse into NFL Spotlight

Former Penn State midfielder Chris Hogan earned the nickname "7-Eleven" for always being open during training camp as a wideout for the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
Image courtesy Miami Dolphins

by Phil Shore | LaxMagazine.com

The excitement of the start of every new NFL season now starts with the HBO documentary series "Hard Knocks." The five-episode show follows an NFL team through training camp and the preseason, and chronicles the hurdles the team needs to overcome while preparing for the regular season.

The 2012 version took an inside look at the Miami Dolphins. There were plenty of storylines ranging from a new head coach, a four-man competition for the starting quarterback position and focus on star players like Reggie Bush, and Chad Johnson, who was eventually cut.

One player that received an unexpected big role on the show was unheralded wide receiver Chris Hogan.

Hogan saw lots of airtime, during which he acquired a catchy nickname. The attention left a lot of NFL fans asking, "Who is this guy?"

The common cliché about Hogan is that his 2012 preseason with the Dolphins "came out of nowhere." But in reality he did come from somewhere: the sport of lacrosse.

"I think everyone likes an underdog. I kind of turned out to be an underdog in training camp," Hogan said. "Some people maybe didn't expect me to make the team and once they saw me, maybe they hoped."

But not all stories have a happy ending. After training camp, Hogan was signed to the Dolphins' practice squad, but was released a little more than a week later to make room for another signing. That latest move – life in the NFL, even for a fan favorite – changes the narrative of Hogan's larger life story but it doesn't change the path of how he got to where he did.

Long before becoming a "Hard Knocks" star, Hogan was a star lacrosse player in high school in New Jersey and at Penn State.

At Ramapo High in Franklin Lakes, N.J., Hogan excelled at lacrosse and football. He was a two-time All-New Jersey selection in lacrosse, the 2006 New Jersey Midfielder of the Year and a 2006 Under Armour High School All-American. As a football player he was All-State as a wide receiver his senior year and was named to the Jersey Football Top 100 list.

Laxers in the NFL

Much like Chris Hogan and Will Yeatman, as well as the legendary Jim Brown before them, several lacrosse players have taken their athletic abilities to the gridiron. Here are several NFL athletes that were at one time accomplished lacrosse players.

Evan Royster, RB

As a senior at Westfield High School in Virginia, Royster scored 33 goals and was heavily recruited by Johns Hopkins and Virginia. But he went to Penn State to play football instead. He briefly considered playing both sports, but opted to commit fully to football and finished as the program's all-time rushing leader. Royster was listed No. 1 on the Washington Redskins running back depth chart as the start of the season, but has since fell into a reserve role.

Mark Herzlich, LB

The New York Giants linebacker is known around the league for beating Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, while at Boston College. But what many don't know is that he was also a very accomplished high school lacrosse player at Conestoga in Philadelphia. Herzlich was a two-time All-Central League player and was offered a scholarship to Johns Hopkins by coach Dave Pietramala. Herzlich was high school teammates with the Boston Cannons' P.T. Ricci.

Chris Long, DE

Oakland Raider great Howie Long's son, Chris, was the No. 2 pick in the 2008 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams. He was a varsity lacrosse letter-winner at St. Anne's-Belfield (Va.), where his youngest brother Howie Jr. was also a top-ranked recruit for Virginia.

Travis Tripucka, LS

Tried out just last week for the Oakland Raiders long-snapping position. Tripucka played defense on the lacrosse team at UMass while handling long-snapping duties for the Minutemen. He was signed by the St. Louis Rams as an undrafted rookie in May, but was cut at the end of training camp. Travis' brother, Jake, is a senior midfielder for Duke and family has a history in professional sports. Their father Kelly played in the NBA for 10 seasons and their grandfather, Frank, was the Denver Broncos first quarterback and was a 15-year pro. He wore No. 18 and had the number retired, but has allowed Denver's new No. 18, Peyton Manning, to wear the number upon arrival with the Broncos.

Tony Fiammetta, FB

The fullback was placed on the New England Patriots' "exempt/left team" list this season, ending his chances of playing in the league in 2012, but the three-year veteran from Syracuse University plans on returning to the league in 2013. At Walkersville High School in Maryland, Fiammetta was a four-year lacrosse letter-winner as a midfielder.

Bill Belichick, Coach

Belichick may not be a player in the NFL but he is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the history of the sport. He is also becoming known as a lacrosse fan, showing up at Johns Hopkins games and speaking very highly of Paul Rabil. But the Hooded One was once a lacrosse player himself. He was a captain at Wesleyan University in his senior year in 1975. – Phil Shore

He clearly needed to make a decision on what sport he would continue to play in college. He decided to play lacrosse at Penn State.

"It was because I had a lot of influences playing lacrosse," Hogan said. "My high school coach my senior year was a pretty big influence on me. I really didn't have a number of people pushing me to play football. I went and visited a couple of different schools ... I really loved Penn State. I knew I was going to play a lot and I chose lacrosse."

Hogan showed plenty of talent at Penn State. Hogan scored 57 goals and tallied 14 assists for a total of 71 points in four seasons as a Nittany Lion from 2007-10. He also suffered a season-ending injury his sophomore year which would give him an extra year of NCAA athletic eligibility. He earned first team All-ECAC honors as a senior. On his athlete profile page on the Penn State website former head coach Glenn Thiel said of Hogan, "He could be the best middie in Division I, certainly one of the most dangerous with the ball."

Former Penn State teammate Drew Adams, now a two-time Major League Lacrosse Goalie of the Year for the Long Island Lizards, had equally high praise for Hogan.

"As a lacrosse player he was the best athlete on the field. I don't think we ever played a game where he didn't stand out for his athleticism," Adams said. "But he was also a great lacrosse player. Some guys just rely on their athleticism. Not only was he a terrific athlete but he was also a terrific lacrosse player as well."

Adams says that Hogan's best attributes on the lacrosse field were a powerful and fast shot and a very quick first-step.

In 2007, Hogan and Penn State squared off against Notre Dame and attackman Will Yeatman, who coincidentally is currently a backup left tackle for the Dolphins. Notre Dame won the game 11-8. Yeatman tallied two goals and an assist while Hogan scored once.

"I just remember hearing on the scouting report that this young kid was a great athlete and two-way player," Yeatman said of Hogan.

Yeatman played lacrosse and football at both Notre Dame and Maryland, as a tight end and attackman. After being cut by the New England Patriots last season, Yeatman was signed by the Dolphins and has since switched to tackle.

Hogan, meanwhile, took an even more off-beat path to the NFL. That extra year of eligibility he had because of getting injured his sophomore season at Penn State? He started to wonder what he could do with it.

"I had accomplished a lot, other than making the national championship," Hogan said. "Football has always been in the back of my mind."

Hogan decided to play football at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J. The school is not known to be an NFL breeding ground, although Dallas Cowboys wideout Miles Austin is another Monmouth alumnus of note playing in the pros.

What Monmouth did provide, Hogan said, was the easiest transfer through the NCAA regulations. He was allowed to play immediately.

Starting Monmouth left tackle Mike Murphy, a junior when Hogan was there and now a fifth-year senior, remembers a mystique about Hogan and what he could potentially bring to the table.

"We just knew he played football in north Jersey but decided to go to Penn State and play lacrosse," Murphy said. "We didn't know what to expect. We didn't know we'd be getting a Division I athlete to come help us."

Hogan played in all 11 games as both a wide receiver and a cornerback. He caught 12 passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns while making 22 tackles and three interceptions on defense.

"When I went to Monmouth, starting off I didn't have any plan to play in the NFL," Hogan said. "It was like back in high school, just being that guy that could go play offense and defense. It was like that in lacrosse. I was a two-way midfielder."

He didn't have many stats or game tape for scouts to dissect so Hogan wasn't a highly sought after prospect. But he did get an invite to a pro day at Fordham University in New York, where he ran a 4.47 40-yard dash and bench pressed 225 pounds 28 times.

Hogan went undrafted but caught on with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent. He was cut in camp and went home to coach lacrosse at Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell, N.J. The New York Giants signed him but cut him soon after. Then he joined the Dolphins practice squad in the last week of the season.

He lucked out this offseason when "Hard Knocks" came to the Dolphins training camp.

Hogan was featured in the second episode of the show. He was introduced by way of the coaching staff talking about how he was a former lacrosse player. Footage ran of Hogan participating in wide receiver drills. As Hogan consistently found a lot of open space on the field, Dolphins running back Reggie Bush emphatically nicknamed Hogan "7-Eleven" because, much like the chain store the namesake came from, he was always open.

A star was born.

"[Hard Knocks] was for me a once in a lifetime experience getting the amount of face time and all the interviews and the whole nickname thing," Hogan said. "I'll be able to live with that the rest of my life no matter what happens in my football career. For me it was obviously pretty cool."

Thin at the wide receiver position, it looked like Hogan had a decent chance at making the 53-man roster thanks to his ability to get open, his work ethic and the respect his teammates had given him. The media attention heavily increased and fans got behind him in large numbers.

"I knew [HBO] had done an interview or two with my background," Hogan said, admitting he was unaware of the extent he would be featured. "It was all good stuff because obviously I was being recognized for how well I was doing in camp so I was pretty excited about it."

He also said lacrosse has helped him develop as an NFL player.

"Being in the offense we're running here in Miami its very fast paced and up tempo so playing lacrosse you're always on the move so that obviously has carried over," Hogan said before being released last week. "Eye-hand coordination, making cuts, little things like that have carried over into playing receiver."

Hogan burst onto the scene, but he hasn't experienced anything too out of the ordinary due to his new-found popularity.

"I know a couple of guys were eating before the Dallas game and had a guy asking, 'where is 7-Eleven?'" he said. "A couple people recognize me, but nothing too crazy."

Through it all, Hogan even found time to pick up a lacrosse stick to wind down. It helped to have another former Division I lacrosse player on the same team.

"Chris and I play lacrosse at our complex often and chat a little bit," Yeatman said. "It's awesome. We become good friends. It's great to have another lacrosse player on the team."

Hogan also hasn't forgotten about his lacrosse friends from Penn State.

"After he got cut from San Fran, he coached at Bergen Catholic and a group of us from Penn State lived in Manhattan and he came and visited us," Adams said. "We'd play Madden and he knew all the plays so he whooped us."

"Hard Knocks was for me a once in a lifetime experience ... I'll be able to live with that the rest of my life no matter what happens in my football career."

Chris Hogan, former Penn State midfielder, NFL hopeful

   

While Miami's 53-man roster was Hogan's goal, he was accepting of a spot on the practice squad. Now he'll have to catch on with another NFL team to keep his dream alive.

"Every day you go out there and think, 'This is my chance to keep getting better," he said. "It's great for me because even though I'm not on the 53, I'm able to go up against the No. 1 (defensive backs). I'm going against our best corners and that's the best way for me to get better."

Hogan's new, larger profile is also benefitting the sport of lacrosse.

"Any time our sport gets mentioned on a show like 'Hard Knocks' it shines a nice light on it," Adams said. "Sometimes lacrosse players take a knock for their athleticism. People say lacrosse players couldn't play football or basketball and that's certainly not the case."

Adams also noted that, while Hogan was in NFL circles now, he wouldn't think it would mean he'd cut ties with his lacrosse background.

"Jim Brown has always stayed a part of the game," Adams said, referencing the Pro Football and National Lacrosse Hall of Famer, who is now part owner of Adams' MLL team, the Long Island Lizards. "Even though these guys might not make a career in the sport or play professionally it still has an influence on their lives. The sport of lacrosse is still a good foundation for them to build off of as an athlete or learn the plays and have some structure. It's great for anyone that is interested in lacrosse to see that it can have such a positive influence in your life or what you do in the future."

Hogan became aware of the growing fan base behind him, that watched him on TV and made signs at preseason games. He is thankful for everyone, including those from the lacrosse community, that root him on.

"I appreciate all the people that have been supporting me," Hogan said. "Obviously my teammates at Penn State and even others. I coached a little bit back in Jersey and even families of the kids I coached, they were all huge supporters and they backed me and what I was trying to do. That only helped me. That only helped me accomplish my goal. Their support and having them having my back is huge."


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