January 30, 2017
This coming Sunday afternoon, in the bowels of Houston’s NRG Stadium, Chris Hogan will reach up into his locker for a few fluorescent green silicone bracelets. He’ll close his eyes for a second as he splays them out with his fingers over each wrist before he steps out on the field with the New England Patriots to play in Super Bowl LI.
He knows why he does it. Those around him do, too.
He plays for the memory of someone he never met, yet they have so much in common. Millions will be watching the Super Bowl between New England and the Atlanta Falcons. They’ll see Hogan, the Pats’ wide receiver, no doubt make some catches from Tom Brady during the course of the game.
Many won’t, however, notice the lime green wristbands on Hogan’s wrists or know what they signify.
The Colleluori family of Swedesboro, N.J. will. So will the thousands that are familiar with the meaning of the wristbands and their special cause, the HEADstrong Foundation, a charitable non-profit dedicated to research in finding a cure for blood cancer and to help families affected by the disease. In the 10 years since it was founded by the late Nick “Head” Colleluori, who died Nov. 28, 2006, at the age of 21 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the foundation has raised close to $10 million.
To us, Nick’s always alive, but he does continue to live on through the memory of people like Chris Hogan and what he means and represents to us.
The Colleluoris, originally from Holmes, Delaware Co., have pledged their lives to the organization, helping over 14,000 cancer patients. HEADstrong currently owns two homes in the Delaware County area for families whose relatives are getting treated by local hospitals for cancer, in addition to holding hundreds of events each year, mostly lacrosse related, throughout the country, topped off by their annual Lime Light Gala (the 7th annual will be held this year on Friday March 10, 2017 at Hilton Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing).
Hogan, 28, has been wearing the wrist bands in memory of Nick and in support of HEADstrong ever since he began playing in the NFL.
“I wear the HEADstrong wristbands on both wrists because I wanted to be a part of spreading the word of HEADstrong throughout the NFL, and raise awareness to cancer,” Hogan told PhillyVoice. “I want to help them with their cause, and the younger brother of one of my best friends had cancer and battled it a really long time. This was something special to me, because I care so much about trying to help those affected by cancer."
Many already know Hogan’s personal journey. After being a three-sport athlete at Ramapo High School in New Jersey, Hogan was a standout lacrosse player at Penn State who used his last year of athletic collegiate eligibility to play football for Monmouth. There, he caught 12 passes -- three were for touchdowns -- before being cut three times as an undrafted free agent (San Francisco, Miami and the New York Giants). He finally landed with the Buffalo Bills in 2012 — and once given the opportunity, blossomed.
Last summer, Hogan was the consolation prize for the Pats’ intended aim, Mohamed Sanu, who landed with the Falcons during the offseason. Hogan signed with New England for three years and $12 million, $7 million of which was guaranteed. Their numbers are similar: Sanu caught 59 passes for 653 yards, averaging 11.1 yards a catch, and grabbed 4 touchdowns; Hogan caught 38 passes for 680 yards, averaging 17.9 yards a catch, with 4 TDs.
In the AFC championship, wearing his fluorescent green wristbands, Hogan, a guy many thought would never catch an NFL pass, hauled in 9 receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the Pats’ 36-17 victory over Pittsburgh.
There are a lot of similarities between Nicky and Hogan.
Colleluori was a 5-foot-9, 165-pound nose tackle at Ridley High School. He was defiant each time he played because he was so much smaller than everyone he faced. Nick went on to play lacrosse at Hofstra. While there, he found he had cancer and battled to the end, refusing to feel sorry for himself nor letting anyone show him pity.
Hogan was repeatedly told he was dreaming if he thought he could play in the NFL. He defiantly forged forward to first make the Bills, then land in New England with the chance of one day wearing a Super Bowl ring.
“The Colleluoris took me right in; I can relate to Nick," Hogan said. "When I set out on this whole journey to play in the NFL, it was a long shot at first. I thought about may be making a practice squad or being a special team player. Throughout this entire journey, being cut three or four times by separate teams, I mean there were plenty of times I could have said I didn’t want to do this anymore. But that never crossed my mind.
"I had a goal in mind, I put my head down and I worked tirelessly every single day. The times I wasn’t on a team, I was working just for another opportunity. All I wanted was a chance. There was no one that was ever going to tell me that I couldn’t do something.”
Michael Colleluori, Nick’s younger brother and the vice-president of HEADstrong, was the conduit that created the Hogan-HEADstrong connection. Michael was friends with Tom Ottaiano when they were at Hofstra together. Ottaiano when on to play at Monmouth after Hofstra dropped its football program. There, Ottaiano, President and CEO of multi-million dollar firms Today's Business and Today’s Athlete, met and befriended Hogan, whom he now represents.
It’s why I do what I do. ... I play for all those athletes that never got the chance I have. That’s what drives me. It’s why I wear those wristbands.
When Ottaiano broached the subject of a charity for Hogan to support, he mentioned HEADstrong. It seemed a natural fit.
“Tom is a really good friend of mine and he knew my family’s story,” Michael recalled. “He told me about the company he was starting and told me if there was anything he could to help us, he would. Tom always kept HEADstrong in the forefront, and the relationship has a few pieces to the puzzle. Tom is really the unsung hero in this relationship.
“Tom called me about this guy that was about to explode in the NFL. Tom predicted what would happen to Chris before anyone knew him. Tom told me that even before he got serious playing time in Buffalo. Chris wanted to create his own charity, but Tom came up with the thought that Chris would be a perfect fit with HEADstrong. He’s going to make a hefty donation to the charity at the end of the year for each catch he’s made this year.
"To us, Nick’s always alive, but he does continue to live on through the memory of people like Chris Hogan and what he means and represents to us.”
So Hogan will continue to wear his good luck charms, those lime green wristbands that hold a specialness to him and those around him.
It gives him a broader scope that he’s playing for not just the Patriots -- and his family, friends and anyone who’s ever coached him -- but for a 21-year-old who never got a chance to live beyond that.
“There are a lot of people who haven’t got the opportunities, and I was so blessed to get the opportunity to play in the NFL,” Hogan said. “I play for all of those guys who have that dream of one day playing in the NFL. Maybe they’re sitting on a couch after being cut. I’ve been there. I’ve lived that life. I know what it feels like.
“My message is always to keep working toward your goal and never let anything get in the way of that dream. I never met Nick. I wish I did, after hearing so much about him. He didn’t get a chance. It’s why I do what I do. Every single Sunday, I play for my family, my fiancée, my twins that are coming.
"And I play for all those athletes that never got the chance I have. That’s what drives me. It’s why I wear those wristbands.”
For more information on the HEADstrong Foundation, their mission and how you can help, check out headstrong.org.
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