Rory Hanson was raised a quarterback but converted to tight end at Modesto Junior College, where he earned a scholarship to play at Fresno State. (Modesto Junior College)

MJC's longshot to jackpot: Rory Hanson takes difficult road to Fresno State

Ron Agostini

Rory Hanson has found an exciting new address at Fresno State, and how he got there – as a scholarship football player – is a story even he struggles to tell.

He wasn’t a football star at Modesto Junior College. He labored through painful injuries at both Modesto Christian and MJC, waited his turn for playing time and, during a few thankless periods, wondered if it was worth all the trouble.

And, in case that wasn’t enough, there was one more thing: His father died unexpectedly while he was still at MC.

“You start questioning life,” Hanson said this week. “I thought, ‘What’s the point?’ I didn’t realize at the time it (the struggle) was supposed to make me stronger.”

Hanson attacked the adversity with three arrows in his quiver: His physique (6-foot-4 and 242 pounds), good grades and old-fashioned perseverance. Against unfriendly odds, he continues an unlikely football career as a tight end for the Bulldogs.

“After all this stuff, it finally paid off,” he said.

As one might surmise, it wasn’t easy.

Hanson caught only nine passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns, not exactly scholarship-inducing numbers, last fall for MJC. His two-year stay with the Pirates didn’t gain traction until late last season as Modesto reached the Northern California finals.

His entire football career, in fact, has caromed from episode to episode much like the football itself with all those crazy and unpredictable bounces.

Hanson, a transfer from Tracy High, was mentored by his father Matt as a quarterback, his position at Modesto Christian under coach Mike Parsons. To no one’s surprise, Matt’s death at the end of Rory’s junior year shook the young man to his core. Matt played for Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) during the 1980s.

“When I was 7 or 8, I remember throwing the ball in the field with my father,” Rory said. “Football always was my passion.”

Hanson’s senior campaign didn’t go smoothly. He lost the quarterback job after a few games, only to get it back toward the end of the Crusaders’ 7-6 season.

He was also slowed by an injury that lingered through his first season at MJC. After seeing limited playing time as an MJC freshman, he underwent hernia surgery.

“I got my body right. Spring ball went well,” Hanson said. “Two guys ahead of me (at tight end) both became ineligible. It was almost meant to be.”

MJC coach Rusty Stivers liked Hanson’s athleticism. Finding the right fit for him, however, was problematic.

“He had never played a physical position in football,” Stivers said. “Tight end is an extension of the offensive line. It was a whole new territory for him.”

Positive changes kicked in for Hanson as a sophomore. To pick up his physicality, he even joined the linebackers on hitting drills.

“He was manufacturing himself to be a tight end,” Stivers said. “It was all internal motivation.”

Hanson’s breakthrough happened last November at Hughes Stadium against Sacramento City. It figured that the single play that marked his arrival, in the end, didn’t even count.

Reserve quarterback Brett Neves, executing a run-pass option, found Hanson with a pass, and the blossoming tight end turned a routine play into a soap opera. He barreled down the field, shedding tacklers like leaves falling from trees, to complete the 60-yard gain.

It didn’t matter that the gain was erased by an away-from-the-ball penalty. Hanson showed his stuff. Football scouts soon inquired.

“Once I made that play, I got better and better,” he recalled.

Later that afternoon, he and Danny Velasquez connected for a 52-yard gain. Two plays later, Hanson’s 8-yard touchdown catch sealed a 35-10 MJC victory.

Looking back, Hanson has found clarity to his rocky road. For further perspective, he continues to watch over his 16-year-old autistic brother Conor.

“I blossomed late,” Rory said. “I thought about transferring when the offers didn’t come. But there was no way I was going to let other people dictate what I would do. Coach Parsons told me once, ‘When life hits you, keep punching back.’”

Toward that end, Hanson wore No. 85 at MJC in memory of his father. They’ll always be together as a true longshot enjoys the jackpot at Fresno State.

The rest of MJC’s Division 1 honor roll:

-- Ferrin Manuleleua , LB (Missouri St.): Manuleleua, a two-time all-conference star and two-time team defensive MVP, was the leader of the Pirates’ defense.

-- Paul Sogialofa, OL (Missouri St.): Sogialofa, 6-4 and 340, earned all-league and all-state honors.

-- Antonio Pule, DL (Washington St.): Pule, a two-time all-league selection, joined with Manuleleua and Sogialofa to anchor MJC’s 17victories the last two years, one of the best runs in the Pirates’ 99-year football history.

-- Danny Velasquez, QB (Fresno St.): Velasquez, a preferred walkon with the Bulldogs, overcame injuries to orchestrate MJC’s fast-paced offense in 2017 and ’19. The two-time all-league pick owns a special distinction: He twice transferred from MJC to D-1 programs (he spent 2018 with Portland St.).