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Chris Hogan went from Penn State lacrosse player to Super Bowl wide receiver

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A wrestler, a sprinter, and now an All-ECAC midfielder have earned spots on the Patriots’ roster during playoff runs.

AFC Championship - Pittsburgh Steelers v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

In one AFC Championship, Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan totaled more receiving yards in 60 minutes (180) than he did in his entire college career (147). But while his one season playing both ways at FCS Monmouth didn’t indicate he would be a record-setting receiver for a Super Bowl-bound New England team, his pre-football career as a physical midfielder for Penn State lacrosse certainly did.

Hogan, a two-sport standout in high school and college, took the scenic route to wind up as yet another Patriot plucked from obscurity and dropped into the spotlight. After his record performance against the Steelers, New England has now taken a former Division I wrestling champion (Stephen Neal), an Olympic sprinter (Jeff Demps), an Olympic rugby player (Nate Ebner), a quarterback who didn’t start a single game in college (Matt Cassel), and an All-ECAC midfielder (Hogan) deep into the playoffs.

The fourth-year veteran was an all-conference standout at Penn State — it just wasn’t on the gridiron. The 6’1, 210-pound wideout made his mark on the lacrosse field for the Nittany Lions as a midfielder who was dangerous on both sides of the ball. His 29-goal season as a junior in 2009 led him to be named the program’s only first-team All-ECAC selection that spring.

His dual-sport background played a role in his success with a stick. His former head coach Glenn Thiel told reporters last summer the wideout played lacrosse “like a football player.” His size and strength gave him the latitude to get into the crease in front of the net. From there, he had the skill to finish with a goalie-buckling shot or force the double-teaming slides that created open looks for his teammates. His straight-line speed made him a threat to simply run past defenders at the top of the box for uncontested shots. His physical defense gave him a deserved reputation as the team’s stopper at midfield.

An ankle injury stole his sophomore season, but wound up rekindling the embers of the football career he left behind in high school. Hogan turned down offers from FBS programs like UConn and Rutgers to help build up PSU. His ability to play college football was never in doubt — just overshadowed by his decision to pick up the stick.

Hogan graduated from Penn State in 2010, but used his remaining year of NCAA eligibility for a post-graduate season at FCS Monmouth. Like on the lacrosse field, he was pressed into double-duty. His work as a defensive back (28 tackles and three interceptions) and wideout (three touchdowns) added a new dimension to an otherwise talent-lacking team.

That limited resume wasn’t enough to get him an invite to the NFL Combine, but his performance at Fordham’s pro day earned him interest as a free agent that spring. Stops with the 49ers, Giants, and Dolphins proved fruitless. It wasn’t until he landed with the Bills that he had a chance to break through. His hard work and athletic prowess led to a spot on the active roster. In three seasons in Buffalo, he caught 87 passes for 959 yards and six touchdowns.

The Patriots recognized Hogan’s talent, thanks in part to seeing him and his Bills twice a year between 2013 and 2015. He had a pair of solid performances against the New England defense, making five catches for 72 yards and a touchdown in a 2014 defeat, and then breaking out for 95 yards in a loss the following season. When Buffalo offered him $1.6 million as a restricted free agent last summer, New England was able to run them off with a three-year, $12 million contract.

He was due for a breakout after upgrading his quarterback from Tyrod Taylor to Tom Brady, but few could have predicted he would be one of the most dangerous deep threats in Patriot history. His 18.7 yards per catch in 2016 — regular and postseason included — are the second-most for a full season of any target since Brady took over at quarterback. The only guy who has been better is the one he replaced as the team’s preeminent receiving target during those playoffs: Rob Gronkowski.

After the AFC Championship last season, everyone knew Penn State’s most dangerous midfielder of 2009. He wasn’t as productive in 2017 because he missed the last seven games of the regular season with a shoulder injury. He is back for the postseason and will play in Super Bowl 52.

Hogan’s big year in 2016 proved that for the best college lacrosse players to get noticed, they have to play a little football.

Gary Gait. Casey Powell. John Christmas. Jim Brown. All were standouts on the lacrosse field, but odds are only the last name on that list sparks any kind of superluminal recognition. Brown was one of the greatest lacrosse players to ever take the field, but he’d be mostly forgotten if it weren’t for his tenure as a Hall of Fame tailback.

Attendance figures for NCAA lacrosse’s championship weekend have fallen significantly after peaking at over 50,000 fans in the mid-2000s. When North Carolina upset top-seeded Maryland to clinch the 2016 title at Gillette Stadium, the game sold fewer tickets than the average Kansas football game. The sport could certainly use the extra recognition a player like Hogan can provide.

The Patriots wideout stands to raise the profile of a game once tagged as the fastest-growing sport in America. Hogan is making his mark as a lacrosse star-turned-AFC-Championship-hero, but he took the long way to get there. It wasn’t until he ended up in his perfect situation — with a team well-versed in turning unknown prospects into assets — that he was able to shine.

His success across two different fields could be just the thing that sends some scouts out to examine the NCAA’s next dominant midfielder in 2018.