Family man Chad Hansen sought transfer to be closer to ailing aunt

An illness in his family pushed Cal wide receiver Chad Hansen to seek his release from Idaho State, and now, he's the nation's leading pass catcher.

There are two minutes and 29 seconds left. California has clawed its way back from a 21-point deficit, and is trailing Arizona State by just one. The mist is rolling over the top of the Memorial Stadium press box. Winter is knocking at the door, Thanksgiving leftovers are chilling in refrigerators. Bears receiver Chad Hansen has plenty to be thankful for. Two years ago, Hansen had finished his first season at FCS Idaho State. With no offers out of high school, the Moorpark (Calif.) alum was feeling homesick. He wanted to be closer to his family. He wanted to come back to his home state. He has three catches and 74 yards under his belt against the Sun Devils, with his first career touchdown. But Jared Goff needs him just one more time. A 15-yard pass from Goff to Stephen Anderson had gotten Cal to its own 42. Goff darts away from one sack, spins away from another by Tashon Smallwood, and looks down field.

"The energy of the crowd, that's something you remember," Hansen says. "You don't remember the specifics of the game, but you remember the moments."

That moment was Hansen's.

"It was the most amazing play, because he got out of I think three sacks, I believe," Hansen says. "I had run I think a streak, and I turn around, saw him in distress, so I decided to come back towards him, and he saw me at the last second."

Hansen caught the ball at the Cal 48, turned up field and got down to the 41. After a seven-yard run by Tre Watson and a 13-yard pass to Bryce Treggs, and then another 12-yard run by Watson, the Bears were in field goal range, and Matt Anderson obliged, booting a 26-yard game-winning field goal.

"There was never a thought in my mind that we would lose that game," Hansen says. "I had so much confidence in our team's ability to go win that game. We wanted it."

In the 10 months since then, Hansen has become the toast not just of Berkeley, but of the nation, as the country's leading receiver both in yards and in catches. How did he get here, and why? He can thank his aunt.


Laurie Nagel, one of Hansen's twin aunts -- his father's older sister -- began to take ill with a lung disease during Hansen's career at Moorpark. By his senior year, her condition had deteriorated to the point where she had a tough time getting around, and could no longer attend his games for the Lancers.

"She watched some of them, and kept up with how my seasons were going through my parents and my dad," Hansen says. Nagel and the family watched as Hansen earned first-team All-Marmonte League and All-Ventura County honors, as well as team MVP in 2012, as he caught 49 balls for 882 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 18.0 yards per reception. Still, even after that year, nobody came calling, except for the Bengals. So, Hansen packed his bags and headed north, away from his aunt, and his family.

"Her and her husband have always been very supportive," Hansen says.

Nagel and the family, ever more private than Hansen, declined to be interviewed for this piece.

"She's been dealing with it for a while, now," Hansen says. "It started when I was in high school, but it started getting progressively worse later into my high school career, and into my freshman year at college. I knew that her condition was progressively getting tougher on her and her family. That's when I knew it might be best for me to come closer to home."

By the time Hansen was in the thick of his freshman season at Idaho State, Nagel needed a portable oxygen tank.

"They don't actually know exactly what's wrong," Hansen says. "They just know that she has a pretty severe lung disease, stemming from pulmonary hypertension. They don't know exactly what it is, but it's deteriorating her lungs, and she's actually on the wait list for a lung transplant, which is great news. They've stabilized her lungs, as of now, so she's not in any grave danger, which is a huge positive."

Nagel's worsening health during Hansen's year at Idaho Stat ate at him. He'd always been close to her, and cousins Ally and Sarah.

"I just knew that she'd had this sickness, and I knew it was pretty serious," Hansen says. "I knew that I would like to be a little bit closer to home, if anything were to happen."


Hansen has always been a family man. Even during his year with the Bengals, his family made several trips up to watch him play, but it wasn't exactly straight forward. For home games, the family -- centered in Ventura, just 15 minutes from the Hansen home in Fillmore, Calif. -- had to fly out to Salt Lake City and take the two-and-a-half-hour drive north. Hansen's family only were able to make one home game, loading up the family caravan -- parents, sisters, grandmothers and uncles -- for the 14-hour drive to Pocatello, Id., and also an away game at BYU.

As he was running track for Idaho State in the spring of 2013, Hansen and his father began a campaign. After contributing 501 all-purpose yards -- including 45 catches and three touchdown grabs -- Hansen knew he would have an opportunity to play closer to home, and not just once every other year, when he visited UC Davis.

Hansen sent about 15-20 emails out, twice a week, during that spring, to prospective colleges, and even he says that may be an understatement.

"My dad was sending just as much, if not more, on my behalf," Hansen says. The two sent tape out to "most teams" in the Pac-12 that were closer to home than Idaho, and most of the teams in the Mountain West -- mainly schools within driving distance of Southern California, or at least near a major airport. As the weeks wore on, the Hansens expanded their search, including schools that had shown a flicker of interest in him out of high school -- Duke and North Carolina.

"It started out like that, but it turned into more of a national, trying to get a place to go, because it was starting to get into crunch time, and we didn't have a home to go to," Hansen says. "I was just trying to get someone to bite."

Very few schools even responded, and one that did  -- San Diego State -- said that Hansen couldn't play in the Mountain West. He wasn't good enough.

Cal graduate assistant David Gru, wading through mountains of tape sent in by hopeful walk-ons, clicked on Hansen's highlight tape. 

“When I first saw his film, I just saw how long he was, and his size," Gru said late last season. "I cross-checked that with his high school film, because I was wondering why no one had really looked at this guy, why he was at Idaho State. There was obviously a lot of stuff that needed to get smoothed over, but he had a lot of upside. When we first looked at him, he had so much upside.”

Hansen, it must be noted, was not on any of the three major recruiting sites. Far from being a five-star recruit, he wasn't even on the radar.

"Chad was not a five-star recruit coming out of high school. I don't even know if Chad was a zero-star recruit," says head coach Sonny Dykes. "I don't know that he was. So, I think sometimes you get labeled as that, and that's a hard label to overcome, because people say, 'You can't be very good, because so-and-so didn't recruit you. That's pretty ridiculous, because, clearly, he's a good player."

Cal was the first -- and only -- school to say yes.

"All I needed was one," says Hansen, who, through three games, has 40 catches for 546 yards and five touchdowns -- 190 of those yards coming on 14 catches against the Aztecs.

"I didn't know," Dykes said of Hansen's family situation. "When we first started the conversations, it was really just kind of based on the fact that we got a release and some film. That was the thing. You look at the film, we were like, 'Wow, this guy's got a chance to be a good player.' We met with him, and at that point, felt like he fit our culture ... It was an easy deal. You don't often get a player like that for free."

He isn't free anymore. Hansen was put on scholarship this summer.

"I think he's just smart," said safety Luke Rubenzer, a former quarterback. "I think that's what he really has over everybody. He's really, really a very smart player. Obviously, the coaches teach you to do certain things, but once you get out on the field, you've got to just play. You've got to have instincts, and be smart enough to play on your feet, and I think that's what he does the best. He's got all the fundamentals, he's a good-sized kid, he's really fast, but at the end of the day, it's just working on the fly, and I think that's what he does the best, and that's why he's been so successful. He can improvise and make plays when he needs to, by whatever means, whether it's using his technique, or just being scrappy."

Against the Longhorns last week, Hansen made a leaping, twisting grab where he was able to sneak his outside foot around his inside leg and touch his toes in-bounds at the start of the fourth quarter, hauling in a 27-yard pass to get the Bears across midfield. Seven plays later, Cal scored, and then Hansen took a reverse in for the two-point conversion.


Nagel has been watching Hansen this year -- her little brother Tim made sure of that. She has the Pac-12 Network, and the Bears being on the ESPN family of networks for the first three games has helped.

"[Her illness] actually did play a large role, that, along with being able to be closer to family, in general, keeping their interests in mind, also, because they weren't able to go to as many games as they had wanted to, because I was so far away," Hansen says. "It was pretty expensive to get the whole family together for a game. Just being able to be closer, just in case anything happens, and also being able to see family, and have them be able to come support me almost every game, which has been really a blessing for me." Her nephew -- the soft-spoken, humble, endlessly patient Hansen -- has been an international celebrity, a star on the field and one of the most diligent workers on a team that lost its six most productive wide receivers, and a No. 1 overall draft pick in Goff, and yet, has still kept humming on offense, piling up 1,359 yards through the air and averaging 47 points per game.

Before the season, Dykes said that Hansen was the best pro prospect in the receiving corps. Hansen has only proved him more and more right as the weeks have worn on, winning the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week award for his 12-catch, 196-yard performance against then-No. 11 Texas last week.

"We've had a lot of players, and I've coached a lot of guys, who were supposed to be really good players, who really weren't," Dykes says. "It's good to see him get recognized. He deserves it. He's put the work in, but it's going to help our team over the long term if we can get a little bit more balance. Again, Chad certainly deserves the success he's had. He's worked incredibly hard for it."

He's not a zero-star anymore.

"They would rotate the corners, trying to throw something new at me, just to get me off my game a little bit," says Hansen. "Little changes in the defensive backs is usually something to mess with the wide receiver, but I try not to let it affect me."

This week, Hansen faces the worst passing defense in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision, in Arizona State.

"I'm excited to go against them," Hansen said. "Last year, they were the best corners that I faced. I know that for a fact. They're very physical, strong, and they're very technical in what they do, so we're going to play a really good game to beat them."

"It took him a while to realize how good he could be," Dykes said. "Once he did, having success in that [2015 Arizona State] game was a big part of it, just realizing he was good enough to play and be a good football player in a game like that."

The dream, now, for Hansen, is to have his entire family at his final home game in Berkeley, including his aunt. Whether that's the final home game this season against UCLA (and if he keeps up his production, that's a strong possibility), or next year's finale, having the entire clan in the stands, Hansen says, is the goal.

"It's a pretty lofty goal, because everybody's from all over," says Hansen, who has family in Michigan, as well. "Everyone has their busy schedules and stuff, which is tough to work around, but that would definitely be a great thing to bring the family together around football. That's why it's such a great game.

"We're just a pretty close family, really. The decision to come closer to the West Coast and home was not just for my aunt. It was for my whole family. I'd just thought that they'd want to share the college experience with me, and as an athlete, I just think that everybody would love to have their family be able to support you and be able to go to the games, and be able to share that experience with them, and that's pretty special."

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