Faith gives Patriots punter a leg up

February 2, 2008 at 3:35 pm Leave a comment

Source: Times Herald

Maybe the most significant moment that kick-started Chris Hanson’s NFL career came at East Coweta High School on the soccer field..

Hanson hopes to be used on the field more as a holder for field goals and extra points during Sunday’s Super Bowl XLII game than booting his New England teammates out of trouble against the New York Giants as the Patriots’ first-year punter.

But before he launched punts for the Indians, Hanson was a hard-shooting left-footed sophomore for then ECHS soccer coach Bill Screws. During a routine spring practice in 1993, Screws sent Hanson and another lefty to practice corner kicks and the pair obliged, working their way to the playing field at Shoemake Stadium.

Along came East Coweta football coach Danny Cronic, who had heard from Screws — also the Indians’ defensive line coach — that were some potential prospects at kicker out on the football field. He approached the pair during this particular practice and asked if the two would kick soccer balls over the football goalposts as both obliged.

The other player, however, was a senior, which pointed Cronic toward Hanson as a prime choice to become East Coweta’s kicker and punter.

There was only one slight problem.

“At first, Chris’ mother didn’t want him to play football” joked Cronic.

A group including Cronic and both head coaches for Sunday’s Super Bowl XLII were glad she eventually said ‘yes.’

“God has a plan for all of us”

That soccer practice became one of a host of life moments that made an impact, whether discreet or clear-cut, for Hanson on his way to a nine-year NFL career as a punter.

There are others including a trip to church, a college scholarship, an NFL tryout, a terrible injury, an unfortunate accident and a simple phone call.

And whether they impeded or inspired his direction, all of the above helped Hanson reach Super Bowl XLII as a member of the unbeaten Patriots. And he believes there’s an explanation for every one of them.

“I think God has a plan for all of us,” said Hanson, who signed a free-agent contract with New England on Aug. 30, two days after being cut by the New Orleans Saints during the preseason. ”

It started as more of a proposal during his high school career. Hanson had been a starting varsity player as a sophomore when Screws and Cronic approached him.

“I was huge into soccer,” said Hanson. “I remember our defensive line coach was our soccer coach and him asking me if I’d be interested in coming out.”

Cronic, who also was a punter, can remember Hanson’s booming kicks during Thursday night practices under the lights.

“We had to change all of our coverage formations because of Chris,” said Cronic.

If anything, high school may have given Hanson the toughness needed to survive at the higher levels of football. Cronic makes his kickers and punters play an extra position on either side of the ball in addition to their special teams duties.

“He was a pretty solid receiver now too for us,” said Cronic. “He punted left footed and kicked right footed. He also played basketball and soccer. (He was) just a tremendous athlete. His movements were so graceful.”

A run to the state quarterfinals in 1994 also helped gain Hanson interest from college scouts, opting for what he called “the sure thing,” in a full-scholarship to Marshall University.

Life, unlike the Patriots’ 18-0 record, isn’t perfect. Rather, Hanson believes that how we respond to the adversities put forth in front of us that decide the path we follow.

“That’s what challenged me to rely on my faith,” said Hanson. “I think that God was testing me. Sometimes it’s not what you do or what you don’t do, it’s how you look to Him for guidance.”

That guidance began as early as 13 during church service. Hanson’s pastor introduced his 12-year-old daughter Kasey to Chris and the two became childhood sweethearts. The two kept their relationship together through college while a seven-hour drive apart with Hanson at Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va., and Kasey attending the University of Georgia.

The time apart may have only made them stronger as a married couple during a six-year stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

‘He’s done what we’ve asked him to do’

Hanson knows a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity now stands before him as a member of the Patriots on Sunday night against the New York Giants. Even if outside of his boyish good looks, Hanson plays a tough position. Kickers at the Super Bowls can be goats or heroes. Punters, though, get a rap from fans not unlike the late Rodney Dangerfield’s comedy act.

Respect, even for a nine-year veteran who made a trip to the 2002 Pro Bowl with the Jaguars, is a constant battle for any NFL punter.

New England punted a season-low 44 times during the regular season, ranked last in the league over its 16-0 start. Two weeks later, Hanson waited anxiously through the bitter cold trying to keep himself warm in his first game against his old Jaguars teammates. He finally got in — with 22 seconds to play in a 31-20 Patriots romp.

Record-breaking seasons by Tom Brady and Randy Moss — a teammate of Hanson’s at Marshall University — have been among the accomplices. Brady threw for more touchdowns in a single season, 50, than any other quarterback in history. And Moss caught 23 of them, to establish his own single-season mark among NFL receivers. With such a potent New England offense, a majority of Hanson’s kicks have come on just the other side of the Patriot logo — prime real estate to keeping field position, but no man’s land for any punter looking to belt one deep out of his zone.

Numbers aren’t everything. But don’t ask Hanson, who could have been among league leaders early in the season if he had only qualified by getting a few extra opportunities. Entering tonight’s game with a respectable 41.0 yard average over 49 kicks, 14 of which went inside the 20-yard-line, he’s been following Patriots orders.

“I think Chris has had a good year He’s done what we’ve asked him to do, and like everybody else, it’s not perfect,” said New England head coach Bill Belichick of Hanson. “But it’s been good. It’s probably a little better than what we’ve had around here recently. He’s done a good job in situational punting, and he’s been consistent over the course of the year.”

“It’s just about finding a rhythm.”

Belicheck, whose philosophy on punting is “50-percent situational,” went through a pair of punters in preseason before signing Hanson. A two-year contract, which the Boston Globe reported pays a base salary of $595,000 this year and $730,000 for 2008 came without a signing bonus and no guarantee that the New England coach won’t make the same decision next preseason.

But Hanson’s work ethic seems to have Belicheck convinced. New England media representatives admitted that the Patriots punter is always one of the last players off the practice field.

“I work extremely hard during the week so that I can just go out on Sunday and relax a little more and have fun,” said Hanson. “I try to get every aspect of my game down perfectly during practice until it’s automatic.”

Think PGA golfers have it easy chasing Tiger Woods. Punters could be the rare equivalent in the NFL, at least from one perspective according to Hanson, whose left-leg has taken the shape of both an-iron and a wedge during his career.

“Coach Belichick is preaching all the time that punting is a situational part of the game. It’s a lot like golf with club selection,” he said. “There are times when you need a 2 iron to get enough distance and make it stop dead. Other times, you just need to punch it in with a pitching wedge.”

Belichick and New England special teams coach Brad Seely also had faith in Hanson as a holder, inserting him with second-year kicker Stephen Gostkowski after the second game of the 2007 season. So far, the duo have been perfect, never missing an exchange as Gostkowski is 74 of 74 on extra points and 21 of 24 among field-goal attempts.

“Stephen’s a good kicker and it’s been fun to work with him this year,” said Hanson, who also called Patriots long snapper Lonie Paxton “a pleasure to work with. It’s just about finding a rhythm. We work every day at practice.”

“… Got to go out and prove yourself every day”

Had Hanson relied on gut instinct, his career never would have gotten as far as this August. It was during his sophomore year at Marshall during the Thundering Herd’s success in the late 1990s, that the confidence in making an NFL roster as a punter. It was also at Marshall, with Moss and two future NFL quarterbacks in Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, where Hanson began his career as a holder.

But at 22, fresh from graduation at Marshall, the Senoia native was cut by three different teams — Cleveland, Green Bay and Miami — in 1999. The latter eventually signed Hanson to a “future” contract, which allowed the Dolphins to allocate Hanson as one of its NFL Europe obligations.

He made the most of a summer in Barcelona, punting 50 times for a 42.8 yard average. But just as NFL teams were beginning to take notice again, a torn ACL suffered in the NFL Europe season finale once again detoured Hanson his dreams of making an NFL roster for another year.

Retreating back to Newnan during the year off to work on his rehabilitation, Hanson tried to keep himself busy, working both at the Newnan Dwarf House and part-time as a substitute teacher. Not once, however, did he think about not trying again. Again, he relied on faith.

“I think God was giving me a challenge,” he said. “That taught me a lot about wanting to work hard to become a complete NFL punter. I think having two or three years that I has been bouncing around helped keep my name out there.”

Upon his recovery, Miami released him just two weeks before the start of the 2001 NFL season. But Jacksonville scooped up Hanson two days later off waivers when its fifth-round draft pick, David Leaverton out of Tennessee, struggled.

Sunday’s other Super Bowl coach — Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants — equally had a profound impact on Chris making the team.

“Having that experience going into a tryout with the Jaguars helped, considering I signed before the last preseason game,” said Hanson. “Coach Coughlin saw something in me.”

Just making the team wasn’t enough. After resigning in 2002, Hanson was selected to the NFL Pro Bowl following a season where he led his conference in gross punting (44.2 yard average) and net punting (37.6), while his 18 downed punts were a league high.

“You still got to go out there and prove yourself every day,” he said.

“We work well together”

Though may have been Hanson’s greatest individual achievement, the trip to Hawaii following the 2002 season — with Chris’ parents, David and Connie Hanson of Senoia going along for the ride — was sandwiched between a pair of heartbreaking setbacks.

The first came two months before the 2002 season when both Chris and Kasey were burned in a freak accident while preparing a fondue dinner with then Jacksonville kicker Jaret Holmes. The pot overturned on the floor of the Hanson’s home and in the process, Kasey slipped on the tile floor suffering second and third degree burns to her body.

Chris burned his hands in the process trying to pull Kasey to her feet and rushing her into a cold shower to prevent further injury before being lifeflighted to Gainesville, where she had to undergo skin grafts. Both went through the painful process of “debriding” where dead and contaminated skin is removed by surgical or chemical means.

The other setback came five games into the 2003 season after Coughlin had been fired and replaced with current Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio. The former Jacksonville linebacker and first-time NFL head coach tried to motivate the team with a rallying cry of “Keep Chopping Wood,” placing a tree stump and an ax inside the locker room and encouraging players to take a swing at the stump.

After completing a workout with kicker Seth Marler, Hanson took a whack at the stump, but lost control and hacked a deep gash into his right, non-kicking leg. He was immediately taken to the hospital for emergency surgery and placed on injured reserve.

Both are instances that Hanson rarely gives comment on today, choosing rather to look forward.

Hanson made the most of his second opportunity after returning, playing every game over the next two years while finishing with nearly identical 42.8 and 42.9 yard averages in 2004 and 2005.

It was during that time that the couple welcomed their first of two sons, Christian. Their youngest son Kadyn just turned one.

“They’re both just such a blessing and we’re living our lives through them,” he said. “I could be having the worst day and come home and see their faces and it lights me up.”

As for Kasey, “she’s my biggest supporter and she’s my biggest critic,” said Hanson. “When I have a good game, she keeps me in line and when I have a bad one, she picks me up. We work well together.”

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