Lift Off: Chad Hansen’s breakout season has been years in the making

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Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

Central Station Bar and Grill, a bustling local watering hole in the heart of Fillmore, California, sits nestled between Main St. and Central Ave. Surrounding it is a throng of small businesses — an apothecary, a hardware store, a pet grooming salon.

Fillmore, renowned for its agriculture and historic downtown and home to a population a tick over 15,000, seems like the quintessential Anytown, U.S.A. Central Station serves as one of the few restaurants in the area and is a stone’s throw from the neighboring community of Bardsdale, an unincorporated area south of the Santa Clara River that ambles between the two towns.

Every Saturday, families congregate at Central Station for food, drink and to cheer on local favorite, Cal wide receiver Chad Hansen. In small towns, everybody knows everybody.

“We’re getting texts from everyone: ‘Did you see that, did you see that?’ ” laughs Sheri Hansen, Chad’s mother.

By now, it’s hard to miss.

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Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

The Hansens live on a sweeping ranch near the sloping mountains of Bardsdale, expansive orange groves checkered in every direction. It’s no surprise that Chad took to the outdoors early.

As a child, he grew up riding bikes, exploring the slumbering hills and running around with his two younger sisters, Erika and Jules. Adventurous, energetic and always on the move, Hansen was involved in a variety of sports from a young age, playing almost every single one the town offered. His parents, Tim and Sheri, who coached local tee-ball teams, discovered Hansen’s insatiable competitive streak early on.

“Chad did not like that kids were getting on base and scoring. He was like a one-man show,” Sheri says. “It’s funny now but I’m sure the other kids couldn’t stand it.”

His parents found that their young son had a knack for sports and, often, for beating all the other kids at them. He proved to be precocious almost from birth, walking at 8 months and eventually getting kicked out of play group after utilizing his newfound skill to march over and play with others’ toys.

“The other little ones were not happy about that. He was so colicky until he started walking,” Sheri says. “Once he started going, he didn’t stop.”

Chad cycled through each sport, tee-ball, baseball, basketball, track, soccer. Once his friends slowly began to pick up football, however, he immediately knew which activity was at the top of his list. But when he told his parents what he wanted to try next, Sheri expressed her reservations about the sport. She settled on a first step for her 9-year-old: getting professional advice from his pediatrician.

“I told him, ‘Chad, if you can’t gamble on yourself at 18 then when can you?’ ” Tim says.

The pediatrician, father to boys himself, understood Sheri’s hesitance. But he believed that if a child wanted to play a sport, they should be allowed to. The older her son got, the more difficult it would be to keep pace with the kids that had grown up learning how to tackle. The doctor reasoned that it would be better for Chad to start learning technique and how to take hits now instead of being a step behind the rest of his peers.

His parents enrolled him in football the next year.

In some ways, football was inevitable. Even before he started playing the game, Chad found an allure in football that he couldn’t find anywhere else. By the age of three, he had memorized all the NFL teams just by looking at a poster pinned to the wall. Every Sunday, his parents would present him with the matchups of the day, imploring him to pick. And for the most part, their toddler got them right.

“He had a memory like a steel trap. He could read early and everything,” Sheri says. “You’d just point to two teams on his wall and he’d be the best little prognosticator. We should have taken him to Vegas!”

With his childhood affinity for the game, it was only fitting that Chad found his place in football so rapidly. Despite his natural flair for track, he found that his speed worked just as well, if not better, in football, scoring three touchdowns in his inaugural game. His first coaches found him easy to teach, adaptable and uniquely talented.

But by the time he was a freshman on the football team at Moorpark High School, he was pegged to be a late bloomer, at only 5 feet, 3 inches and 150 pounds.

“He was a scrawny freshman,” says his high school coach Tim Lins. “I think when he graduated he still had peach fuzz.”

Chad knew he had to make up for what he lacked in height with versatility, striving to become a stronger, quicker, better athlete as he made the transition to receiver. Eventually, as the athleticism and the maturity came, he found that the skills he had to develop as a freshman paid off tenfold.

But as high school came to a close, Chad found that few colleges wanted to bite.

“Recruiters don’t think about projectors too much,” Lins says. “If you looked at his stats and if you looked at his family, you knew that he was going to be a big, strong guy.”

Toward the tail end of the recruiting process, however, Idaho State called, saying a scholarship had opened up after one of their recruits had decommitted. So he packed his bags and headed to Pocatello.

Chad played in 11 of 12 games for the Bengals as a true freshman, totaling 501 yards and 45 receptions, and was named All-Conference Honorable Mention.

“Recruiters don’t think about projectors too much,” Lins says. “If you looked at his stats and if you looked at his family, you knew that he was going to be a big, strong guy.”

But despite his success in the Big Sky, he couldn’t shake the itch to play in the FBS. When he returned home for the holidays after his freshman season, he confessed to his parents that he was interested in a possible transfer. A bevy of reasons informed this wish, not least of which was the health of his aunt Laurie Nagel, whose lung disease was becoming progressively worse.

“It was tough being away from home,” Chad says. “I wanted to be closer to her and closer to family so they could see my games.”

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

He also knew that transferring would mean his parents would have to adjust to having their oldest leave a scholarship behind. But his parents quickly assuaged these doubts, encouraging their son to follow his instincts.

“I told him, ‘Chad, if you can’t gamble on yourself at 18 then when can you?’ ” Tim says. “If you’re ever going to gamble in life, gamble on yourself because you can control your own actions.”

Chad had always known he wanted to play on the West Coast, especially in the Pac-12. He and his parents sent out five to 10 emails a day for weeks on end, calling schools and sending out highlight tapes, month after month, hoping a team would respond. All he needed was a shot.

“I always wanted to be able to play at this level. I think at Idaho State I realized I probably could,” Chad says. “I knew that if I wanted to, I’d have to risk some things.”

The opportunity came in the form of Cal assistant coach David Gru. Gru and his brother-in-law Andrew Brady, a coach at Moorpark High, first got in contact about Chad, who had piqued Gru’s interest. Brady led Gru to Lins, who raved about his former star receiver, knowing that he belonged in the FBS.

Unbeknown to Chad, Gru had been under the impression that he was still a high school recruit, rather than a college freshman looking to transfer. Nevertheless, Chad and Sheri were invited up to Berkeley and met with former Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin.

Though Chad had found an opportunity with the Bears — the only team to give him one — the early part of his time with Cal proved nebulous. The Bears didn’t have a spot open for him on the roster during fall camp but invited him to join as soon as classes began.

But almost immediately after fall camp started, Chad got a call that the team needed a receiver. With that, he quit his job and began the trek up to the Bay.

“He basically had the clothes on his back, more or less,” Tim says.

“I always wanted to be able to play at this level. I think at Idaho State I realized I probably could,” Chad says.

This first month in Berkeley turned out to be nearly as chaotic as the last few had been. With housing still up in the air, Chad slept on a friend’s floor for the first several weeks, all the while trying to figure out classes, playbooks and his new surroundings. He redshirted his first season, per NCAA rules, using his time on the scout team to get in shape and acclimate to the program.

“I was told when I first got here to steal good things that you see from every receiver,” Chad says. “That’s what I try to do, sitting behind all these good receivers. Getting a little bit from each of their games has helped me progress as a player and a receiver.”

With a slew of veteran receivers on the roster, Chad struggled to find time on the field but earned his first official snaps as a redshirt sophomore, tallying 14 receptions, 201 yards and a touchdown in the final four games of the 2015 season.

But when 2016 rolled around, Chad was in line to be the next prolific Cal wideout. And with the top six receivers from last season gone, he was poised to be at the top of the depth chart by the time spring ball began.

“Last year, we had a lot of older receivers and he just kept developing and working and watched the guys in front of him,” says Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “I felt like by the end of the year he was probably as good a receiver as we had on our team.”

With one minute left in the first half, the Bears are facing 2nd and 9 from the Texas 23. The Longhorns are clinging to their five-point lead on the road, a shootout imminent. Cal quarterback Davis Webb takes the snap and hurls the ball downfield. Webb’s favorite receiver, number six, hauls in the pass, handing Cal a 35-33 lead on its way to a thrilling victory.

With a smile, Chad promptly spins and throws up the “Hook ‘em Horns” to the dejected Texas crowd, then turns it down.

Chad’s playful gesture became one of several viral moments for him this season. The redshirt junior leads the nation in catches per game and total receptions and is second in receiving yards. For those closest to him, this breakout year is anything but a surprise.

“He had a high ceiling and it was going to go well beyond our school. In hindsight, we probably should have given the ball to him more,” Lins laughs.

For Hansen’s parents, Chad’s foray into the national spotlight has been a long time coming. After all, this is their son, the boy who asks his parents to run agility drills and throw the football to him each time he comes home. From listening to him recite professional teams, to watching him outrun everyone in youth football, they have waited for others to experience the potential they always saw, with perspective and tragedy hand in hand.

“Tim and I lost our first son, and I knew after I had Chad, I’m not kidding you, I said, ‘You are going to do something special,” Sheri says. “It was just inevitable.”

A chip on an athlete’s shoulder is nothing new. Chad takes the motivation in stride, going from being barely recruited out of high school and struggling to find an interested program just two seasons ago, to being teased by teammates about Heisman buzz and earning a spot on the Biletnikoff Watch List.

“I’ve heard somewhere that football is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical because at this level, everybody’s a great athlete,” Chad says. “What’s gonna separate one from another is their ability to have a strong mind.”

With a third of the season in the books, he has become one of the most talked about players in college football. Regardless of the noise, he tries to pay as little attention to the numbers, the vines and the commotion as possible. His focus remains on the field, on improvement, on mastering his craft.

“It’s stressful watching him out there, but that’s what he loves, that’s his passion,” Sheri says. “If it’s something he’s passionate about, he needs to go for it. It’s worth it to us for him to be happy wherever he is.”

Michelle Lee covers footballl. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @michelle_e_lee.