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Clarion's Hoggard piques NFL interest despite his size

| Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010

Alfonso Hoggard juked and cut, shimmied and swerved, leaving yet another swarm of would-be tacklers grabbing for a piece of something, anything. A Clarion University official asked to see it again and the guy operating the video equipment, who happened to be Hoggard, happily complied. He likes to do it all. He loves to watch himself run.

"Where did that come from• How did I do that ,?" he had mused earlier about his style. "When you're out there on the field, you don't think. It's all reaction. It's all a surprise when you watch it yourself."

Here's another surprise: Hoggard, a senior running back and return man for the NCAA Division II Golden Eagles, has piqued some NFL interest. He was the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference-West offensive player of the year in 2009. But playing small-college football makes him a decided long shot.

Or a shot in the dark. Hoggard stands 5-foot-23/8 and weighs about 150 pounds.

Keith Fischer, who scouts for the Philadelphia Eagles and NFL Combine, visited Clarion last spring to check out Hoggard, who also is from Philly, and 6-3 receiver Jacques Robinson. Hoggard always was listed at 5-4, which he knew was inflated, until Fischer's measurement ended the charade. "We had a couple of chuckles over my height," Hoggard said.

Hoggard knows who, and what he is. He said he enjoys watching how folks react when they meet him, as when a 7-footer enters a room and heads turn, conversation stops and someone invariably asks, "Do you play basketball?" The difference is, no one takes Hoggard for a college athlete, much less a star football player who, a year from now, might be trying to make an NFL roster.

"A lot of people look at you wide-eyed," he said. "It's like a shock to the system. It's like, 'I heard he's short, but, wow, he really is short.'"

Fischer watched Hoggard wide-eyed on tape, noting his quickness, vision and cutting ability. It registered that Hoggard, who started out at Clarion as a wide receiver, has good hands. An Eagles' employee said Fischer is not allowed to publicly speak about prospects, but Clarion coach Jay Foster, who was in the room, said Fischer was enthusiastically impressed. And blunt.

"He said, 'I've been doing this for 10 years and this is the best I've seen,'" Foster said. "'The issue is, how little is too little• Out of 32 teams, 16 won't even look at him. He's off their boards.'"

And the other 16• "(Fischer) said it's a matter of where does he fit?," said Foster. "Do they have the right coach, the right packages• Can he be a third-down back?"

Foster, who with Hoggard's help has taken a dormant Clarion program he inherited from 1-10 to 8-3 in three seasons (after going 0-11 two years ago), said he wondered whether a team would be willing to "take a shot at something that might be." He said that Fischer replied, "That's what we don't know."

"All I need is that one chance," Hoggard said.

Uncharted territory

San Diego Chargers running back Darren Sproles, considered the best "little man" in the NFL, goes 5-6, 190, virtually a giant compared with Hoggard. Houston Texans rookie Trindon Holliday is listed at 5-5, 160. But he played at a college power, LSU, and is faster than Hoggard.

At 5-1, Jack "Soapy" Shapiro, who played one game at quarterback in 1929, is considered the shortest NFL player ever. But none has been listed at Hoggard's height since the 1930s. Noland "The Flea" Smith and Howard Stevens, a couple of 5-5 return specialists in the late 1960s and early '70s, might be the closest thing in the so-called modern era. This might be uncharted NFL territory.

Hoggard said Fischer told him he "really liked what he saw." But the conversation always reverted to his size. "It just comes down to my whole life," Hoggard said. "That's what everybody's been saying."

Even the Clarion coaches, trying to turn things around, hesitated. Hoggard, a member of Foster's first recruiting class in 2007, was referred by a former Clarion player, John Smith, his assistant coach at the private Caravel Academy in Delaware and a friend of Clarion offensive coordinator Dave Durish. Hoggard weighed less than he does now. How little is too little? "That's the same thing we asked," Durish said.

"That's why we put him at wide receiver," said Foster. "Because we felt if we could put the kid in space ... let's allow him to do what he's capable of doing until we find out about him."

Hoggard caught 89 passes for nearly 1,000 yards his first two seasons. "But there was a fear (of injury)," Foster said. "There was even a fear last year. Dave Durish was the one who said we've got to put him at running back. I agreed, but with a 'but.' How many times can we give him the football• Can he run between the tackles• It wasn't that he wasn't tough enough. Just the idea of what if somebody falls on him• I mean, one of those goofy things."

Senior safety Nick Sipes said when he first laid eyes on Hoggard, he thought he was too small even for Division II and worried he might get hurt. His concerns quickly vanished.

"What he does is amazing," Sipes said. "He's frustrating (to try to tackle). He'll juke you once and he's gone. ... He has the tremendous ability to stop on a dime and go in either direction."

According to Foster, Hoggard pound-for-pound is the second strongest player on the team. Hoggard also is smart. "I like to avoid contact as much as I can," he said. Still, he can break tackles, mainly because it's so hard to get a real piece of him. Hiding behind his linemen, he needs a GPS to be located. "The defense hates it," he said. "They always say, 'Where did he go?'"

Hoggard avoided significant injury until he suffered a sprained knee ligament returning a punt five minutes into the opener against Fairmont State last year. He sat out the rest of the game and also missed the next game. Then, he returned and wound up rushing for 1,046 yards on 224 carries with 17 touchdowns. He also scored on a punt return.

Fuel to the fire

And yet, how little is too little?

"My entire life I've been the shortest guy on the field," Hoggard said. "I just play with a chip on my shoulder. I feel like I've always got to work twice as hard as the next guy, just because of how short I am. I've got to make up for that size.

"It adds fuel to my fire. If you tell me something I can't do, I'm gonna try to do it to the best of my ability. I'm gonna work as hard as I can."

People tend to remember slights and signs of disrespect, especially when frequently administered. A state wrestling champion, Hoggard said a coach at his high school suggested he quit football and stick to wrestling because of his size. "That kind of upset me," he said. "I took that and made sure I would use every second and try to make it to the next level. I try to prove people wrong."

Opponents, at least early in his career, saw Hoggard as an object of curiosity and derision, a Smurf-like cartoon figure. Now, he is "Mighty Mouse," one of several nicknames. But his list of past indignities remains within easy reach, such as the comment his freshman year from a California (Pa.) linebacker who sneered something like, "Shouldn't you be playing with the little-school team?"

"I was right in his face," Hoggard said. "It made me laugh."

Hoggard relates the slights with delight, perhaps to keep fueling the fire. But now, he said, the comments are more "jokey-jokey." He has become too good to insult.

"He has crazy quickness," said Connor Kimball, a cornerback at Gannon College. "You don't know which way he's gonna go."

Kimball and his teammates had no idea last year when Hoggard gained 134 yards and scored three touchdowns on 18 carries and returned a kickoff 87 yards for another score in a 42-21 win over Gannon.

A great demeanor

There is more than football. Hoggard has a 3.3 grade point average with a double major in finance and economics, and said he is on track to graduate next spring or summer. He also serves in the Student Senate.

"It looks good on my resume and it keeps me in tune with what's going on," said Hoggard, who looks people in the eye, thinks before he speaks and has a personality people gravitate toward.

"He's got a great demeanor about him" said his former high school coach, Mike Aruanno.

Growing up in a north Philly neighborhood where crime and gangs were not uncommon, Hoggard's parents kept him out of harm's way and pushed him to study. "We didn't allow him to bring home anything less than a C," said his mom, Jacqueline Speaks, a Philadelphia police officer.

"My wife and me, we always kept our son close," said Hoggard's dad, Alfonso Hoggard Jr., who works as a machinist for an envelope company. "That's my motto. Keep 'em close. Keep 'em busy."

With both parents working nights, Hoggard and his stepsister were embraced by a large extended family, especially his grandmother. But his parents, who have since divorced, decided he needed something better than what the Philadelphia public school system could offer. Helped by a family friend, Jim Hardy, Hoggard ended up at Caravel, a K-12 institution located in Bear, Del., with a high school enrollment of about 300.

When he first attended Caravel, Hoggard had to get up at 4 a.m. and take a train and a bus to get there. Often, he got home at 9 p.m. That routine soon got old, so he moved in with the family of a teammate and eventually ended up living with Hardy.

"It was a great way to get out of the city," Aruanno said. "I think he grew into the academic environment. He learned that the only way he was gonna excel was to do the work and pay attention and focus. Especially coming from the city, he could have gotten consumed by that very quickly. Some kids do. Instead of placing blame or making excuses he adapted to the environment."

Aruanno confessed he also wondered about Hoggard's size when he showed up for football. Everyone has. How little is too little?

"Fonzo and I have talked about this," Foster said. "He's always gonna be 5-foot-2 and three-eighths. That ain't gonna change. So he has to be good if he's gonna make it. And he is good. Whatever he does he's gonna be good at."

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