Walking off the practice field, with helmet in hand and dirt and sweat smeared across his face, East Ridge center J.C. Hassenauer fits the mold of a high school football lineman.
He’s prototypically big — 6-3, 300 pounds — and carries himself with respect. He answers questions with the humility of someone whose football gratification is derived from pounding physical contact, play after play, all in the name of helping flashier athletes achieve yardage and stardom.
Less obvious is the vision that Hassenauer always has carried, one he’s had ever since he can remember: to play college football at national powerhouse Alabama.
What sets Hassenauer apart from many with a similar dream is that he’s turned his into a reality. In August, Hassenauer verbally accepted a scholarship offer to play center for Alabama.
When he officially signs with the two-time defending BCS champions in February, Hassenauer will be on a path to become only the second Minnesotan — and first since 1925 — to letter in football for the Crimson Tide.
Not bad for someone who, as a freshman, was two inches shy of six feet and weighed under 200 pounds. He worked on his dreams since then, and it paid off when he earned MVP honors at several spring football camps and later stood out at an Alabama camp.
“That’s always been one of the places I wanted to go,” Hassenauer said of the storied football program at Tuscaloosa. “Might as well give it a shot.”
Bigger, stronger, faster
After his freshman year, with dreams much bigger than his then 5-10, 180-pound frame, Hassenauer approached East Ridge coach Mike Pendino, wondering how he could take his game to another level.
“I knew I needed to get bigger, stronger and faster if I wanted to play college football,” Hassenauer said.
Pendino recommended he work with Ray Hitchcock, a former Gophers center who later played for the Washington Redskins. Hitchcock is currently the offensive line coach at Cretin-Derham Hall.
“He’s been my position coach, and he’s helped so much,” Hassenauer said, “it’s unbelievable.”
Hassenauer added speed and strength training at the ETS Gym in Oakdale, furthering his development. He would not have gotten a sniff from Alabama, Hassenauer said, without his training programs.
“They’ve helped me tremendously,” he said. “No way I would have gotten this far without them.”
Getting Alabama’s attention
After his sophomore season, Hassenauer decided it was time to make a mark in the football-rich Deep South. He enrolled at an Alabama football camp and immediately stood out.
“They thought I performed well and wanted to see me again after I got a little bigger,” he said. “That was one of my big motivation factors.”
After earning offensive line MVP honors at spring combines in Detroit, Memphis and Chicago, Hassenauer returned to the Alabama camp last summer.
“I got an offer on the spot,” he said.
That came as a surprise to most observers. He was considered a three-star recruit (on a scale of one to five) at the time, so the relative unknown from the Upper Midwest had Alabama followers scrambling to know more. Most decided they liked what they saw.
“He was one of the most pleasant surprises of the camp,” wrote Greg Powers, a recruiting analyst for Scout.com. “He is very quick off the ball and has the power to fend off the strongest defensive tackles.”
Linemen with experience
After securing his long-sought college offer, the senior trained his focus on his final high school season. Hassenauer, guard Matt Kelly and tackle Keith Gordon have been starters on the East Ridge offensive line since 10th grade. A fourth, guard Jake Pittman, joined them shortly thereafter.
With the addition of Cody Junk this year, the Raptors’ offensive line has a cohesiveness few others can match, leading the way for an offense loaded with skill players — quarterback Seth Green, running back Nick Leach, tight end George Behr.
“We know we’re the heart and soul of the team,” Hassenauer said. “And the team is what it’s all about.”
So far, so good. The Raptors offense is performing at an elite level, averaging more than 46 points. Leach has rushed for 641 yards in three games. East Ridge is 3-0 this season.
“Those guys make it easy,” Leach said. “They make huge holes and I just have to run through them.”
As the focal point of the line, Hassenauer makes the line calls and decides the blocking assignments. When his linemates see him come off the ball and dominate opposing defenders, they follow suit.
“He’s the leader, no question,” Kelly said. “He never lets up. He works hard on every play. We all do.”
Hassenauer’s intensity and single-mindedness sets him apart. He pushes as far as he can, never willing to give an inch.
“He’s tough, nasty, physical,” Pendino said. “He gets after it and has a passion like nobody else to get it done.”
Hassenauer’s gusto can occasionally go too far. In a recent game against Roseville, he was penalized while playing defense for knocking down two Roseville lineman before the snap. Last Friday, he was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and ejected from the Raptors’ victory over Woodbury, a heated rival.
“He plays with an edge and some people might take that the wrong way,” Pendino said. “But he’s not a dirty player. He plays football the right way and the way it’s supposed to be played.”