Christian Hackenberg has ditched NFL haters to find peace in quiet corner of New Jersey

DARRYL SLATER
nj.com (TNS)
Former NFL quarterback Christian Hackenberg during football practice at Winslow Township Middle School on Wednesday, August 25, 2021 in Atco, N.J. Hackenberg, the New York Jets second round draft pick in 2016, is now a volunteer assistant coach at Winslow High School in Camden County.

Christian Hackenberg stood on the muddy football field behind a middle school.

He stared at his quarterback.

“I still want your eyes on me,” the former Penn State quarterback said.

Nearby, scrawny players in dark green mesh jerseys — no names or numbers — ran through position drills, pounding cleat holes into a field already pockmarked with divots and brown weeds. Rap music blared from a small speaker next to a goal post during Tuesday afternoon’s Winslow Township High School practice, five days before a new season begins.

Knees bent, a tobacco pouch in his lower lip, Hackenberg stayed quiet and watched Hamas Duren, the team’s starter. Hackenberg wore a goatee, camouflage-pattern T-shirt and gray sweatpants — even in 90-degree heat, because the mosquitos attack his legs out here.

Hackenberg, mimicking a defender, was showing Duren how to read a safety before throwing a pass. Before and after reps, Hackenberg calmly gave Duren pointers and praise.

“A little bit higher.”

“One more like that.”

Hackenberg — far removed from his disappointing NFL career — nodded his approval, quietly flashing a thumbs up. He never stopped loving football — not after he failed to become the Jets’ quarterback savior, not even after his career fizzled out in just three years.

And now, he’s back on the field for the first time since spring 2019, as a volunteer quarterbacks coach at this blue-collar high school in Atco.

Former NFL quarterback Christian Hackenberg throws a pass during football practice at Winslow Township Middle School on Wednesday, August 25, 2021 in Atco, N.J. Hackenberg, the New York Jets second round draft pick in 2016, is now a volunteer assistant coach at Winslow High School in Camden County.

Hackenberg has found peace and happiness here in a quiet corner of South Jersey, content to remain mostly unseen, five years after the Jets drafted him in the second round — only for him to never play a regular-season snap. He doesn’t think about — or really care — that fans label him a bust, or how a guy once told his wife that he hated Hackenberg, right to her face.

Instead, he looks ahead — to Sunday’s opener against Woodbridge in Ocean City, to deer bow-hunting season next month, and to starting a family with his wife, Tatum.

He never expected his NFL dream to end so quickly, or to be embracing the rest of his life at 26. Now that he is officially retired from football — and no longer pursuing those small hopes of becoming a pitcher — he has some regrets, sure. What if he had stayed another year at Penn State? Might he have been better mentally prepared to handle adversity with the Jets?

Sometimes, he can’t help but wonder. Those thoughts don’t linger long, though.

“I can still be successful,” he told NJ Advance Media. “It’s not like that’s life or death. At the end of the day, say what you want, but I accomplished more than 99% of people in that sport. To the level that I wanted? Absolutely not. But now, move on. It’s a game.

“I’m thankful for football and my journey, but ultimately more excited about the next 40 years, as opposed to the first 25. You’re not going to make it if you just sob and mope. I don’t see how there’s any other choice than to learn from it, build on it, and then keep it moving. You get one shot at life. Just live it and enjoy it. That’s my whole thing.”

New York Jets rookie quarterback Christian Hackenberg (5) throws a pass during the Jets minicamp practice at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center won June 14, 2016. Hackenberg, the New York Jets second round draft pick in 2016, is now a volunteer assistant coach at Winslow High School in Camden County.

Feeling the hate: “Oh, I hate Christian Hackenberg.”

Shocked, Tatum Hackenberg took a moment to compose herself.

She was at a Morristown bar with friends about three years ago, around when the Jets traded Christian to the Raiders. A conversation with strangers turned to football. She mentioned she was engaged to Hackenberg — and a man in the other group felt compelled to weigh in.

“That’s your opinion,” she said, and walked away.

Jets fans wouldn’t feel so angry about Hackenberg if general manager Mike Maccagnan drafted him in the fourth round, instead of 51st overall in 2016 — higher than most analysts expected. Maccagnan did not return a message seeking comment for this story, while his replacement, Joe Douglas, hitches his hopes to another high-profile rookie quarterback, Zach Wilson.

But because Hackenberg didn’t play during three seasons with the Jets, Raiders, Eagles and Bengals, he occupies a unique place in recent NFL history. From 2000-20, 1,303 players were drafted in the first two rounds. Eight of them finished their career without playing in the regular season — and Hackenberg was the only one not sidelined by injury, according to ESPN.

Chan Gailey, Hackenberg’s offensive coordinator during his rookie year, initially loved his potential — a 6-foot-4 kid who “was extremely smart” in the film room. But Hackenberg’s practices were filled with errant throws.

“The accuracy was an issue,” Gailey told NJ Advance Media. “He never got a chance to work through it, because you don’t get time in the NFL. You either do it immediately or they’re on to somebody else.”

Hackenberg left Penn State a year early. He had just turned 21 when the Jets drafted him. He said his NFL career “was pretty rough on me mentally,” and he thinks he knows why. If he could change anything now about how he handled it, “I probably would’ve stayed another year in college,” he said. “I don’t necessarily know if I was ready.”

Hackenberg — who declined to fully rehash details of what went wrong with the Jets — also had a hitch in his throwing motion. But Gailey, who said he only can speculate now, doesn’t buy that as the primary cause of his inaccuracy.

“Maybe it was when he had a bad [throw], then the next one was bad — and he couldn’t get out of the funk,” Gailey said. “That extra year [in college] may have helped him get over that. There’s a thousand reasons it could have been. If you can figure that out, you will make millions, my friend.”

Finding his calm: Hackenberg was shirtless, swiveling his hips in khaki shorts, pumping his arms.

Tatum smiled as she danced with him, both barefoot in their backyard, partying with family at their 30-person, pandemic wedding last July. They got married on their front porch. Tatum’s 86-year-old grandmother served as flower girl.

A year later, at their larger reception, Hackenberg slow-danced with his mom to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man”:

"Oh, take your time, don’t live too fast

"Troubles will come, and they will pass

"And be a simple kind of man

"Oh, be something you love and understand"

Hackenberg has found calm in the two-plus years since his football career ended. He enjoyed little of it after the Jets traded him in May 2018. He bounced from the Raiders to Eagles to Bengals, and finally to the AAF’s Memphis Express in early 2019. He got benched there, and the league folded. He considered taking a shot at the CFL, but wanted to come home to Tatum.

“You start thinking about: ‘Are you really happy, and is it really as fulfilling as it was?’” he said. “It just got to the point where it wasn’t, and all the other BS that came with it wasn’t worth it.”

So he finished his Penn State degree in communications and public relations and got his real estate license — all from his house, tucked in the woods on 2½ acres in Tabernacle, near Tatum’s family. The area feels like his rural hometown, Palmyra, Va.

But he never tried to hide from football. He spent the pandemic finishing his basement by himself, even carving a bar top from a big hunk of wood. He hung dual Penn State jerseys on the wall — Tatum’s for lacrosse, his for football. And he hung up his Jets No. 5, too.

He dabbled in baseball last summer, pitching twice weekly with a local instructor. Yet he never found enough time to devote himself while finishing college.

“If I threw 97 [mph], great,” he said. “But I was like 93, 94. That’s a dime a dozen now.”

Hackenberg made about $2.7 million in the NFL, mostly from the Jets. Though he invested wisely, he isn’t set for life — especially since “if it was up to him, we would have four kids yesterday,” Tatum said.

So he recently got a work-from-home account executive job at a cybersecurity services company. He is also a part-time real estate agent, selling Jersey Shore vacation homes for Keller Williams. His boss, Penn State alum Jack Zaborowski, loves that “he’s up-front, with no BS.”

Hackenberg craves simplicity. He got married on July 11, so he and Tatum celebrate their anniversary with free Slurpees at 7-Eleven. Monday nights mean big dinners with neighbors, as they rotate who hosts. A night out is cheap beer for happy hour at the Village Pub, just down the road, around the corner from the Methodist church. He enjoys that not as many people recognize him now when he’s out, because “I hate all that stuff.”

Hackenberg drives a 1994 black Ford Bronco — it looks like O.J. Simpson’s — that he bought from some kid on Facebook. In autumn, Hackenberg puts deer meat from bow hunting in the back. In summer, he hauls Winslow’s video equipment to football practice.

And now, when he and Tatum — who works in pharmaceutical sales — get home in the evening, they talk about their days.

“I feel like before, we really never did,” she said.

Getting into coaching: Hackenberg had seen enough. He dropped his head and threw his play sheet onto the field.

“Hamas, I explained it to you three times pre-practice.”

Hackenberg didn’t yell, and this was the only time he raised his voice during Tuesday’s practice — after Duren botched his footwork while rolling out.

Duren, a senior, isn’t a high-level college prospect, but Hackenberg is invested in him. At 10 o’clock some nights, Hackenberg — at home watching film — texts Duren a clip, with advice about how to correctly read that defense.

“He really cares,” Duren said. “Coach Hack just keeps me level.”

Hackenberg grew up on the sideline, watching his dad and grandpa coach football. He immediately loved coaching at Winslow. After his first practice, he returned home to Tabernacle “smiling from ear to ear” when he walked in the door, Tatum said.

“He just could not wait to tell me about his day,” she said. “He was like a little kid.”

She used to notice how frustrated he looked after Jets practices. Seeing him this happy now nearly made her cry.

Though Gailey hasn’t kept in touch with Hackenberg, he was thrilled to hear about his peaceful post-football life, and how he is now coaching.

“I’m excited for him,” Gailey said. “I’m exciting for the kids he’s coaching, because we need good guys in coaching. We’ve got enough of those guys that are jerks in the coaching profession. All the good guys we can get in there, we need them.”

Hackenberg wound up at Winslow because his college teammate and friend Bill Belton is the offensive coordinator. Belton, who doubles as a trainer for local athletes, reconnected with Hackenberg last summer, when he stopped by to work out a few of Belton’s quarterbacks, including Duren. Hackenberg’s economical, even-keeled coaching style impressed Belton.

“Man, I’ve got to get this guy before somebody else does,” Belton thought.

Now, Hackenberg is “my voice of reason” at Winslow, Belton said. Belton coaches practice with relentless, profane fury. During a ragged part of Tuesday’s practice, Belton unloaded on Duren: “Every time it’s [expletive] two-minute [drill], you want to throw the ball halfway down the field!”

A few minutes later, Hackenberg spoke quietly to Belton on the sideline: “Instead of giving him the whole pie, give him a piece, so he can do what you want him to do. You’re just going to create more headaches for yourself.” Belton listened and nodded.

Hackenberg “brings that perfect balance to what we need,” Winslow head coach Kenny Scott said. He offered to pay Hackenberg a stipend for the season. Hackenberg refused.

When Tuesday’s practice ended, Hackenberg pulled Duren aside to work on that botched footwork. It was 7 p.m., nearly four hours after Hackenberg had arrived, and the mosquitos were swarming. But he kept watching Duren.

“Throw it with some conviction, man,” he told Duren.

He did. And then did it again.

“Good,” Hackenberg said, giving Duren a quick high five.

Duren smiled as he removed his helmet and walked off the field.

“Wednesday and Thursday are money days,” Hackenberg told him. “Sharpen it up.”

Duren nodded, the simple message received.

A few minutes later, Hackenberg walked back to his Bronco. He isn’t sure if he wants to pursue a career in coaching. He is leaving every possibility open for the rest of his life, with another new season about to begin. Behind him, the sun dipped into the woods. Shadows covered the field. Hackenberg looked ahead and drove home.