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Alumni: Tackling Machine, Hager Wraps Up Impressive Career

Justin Hager would never tell you about the time he made 20 tackles against top-ranked Mount Union in the Division 3 football playoffs. He won't offer up the fact that the linebacker - Liberty League's Defensive Player of the Year - holds the single season tackling record for the Statesmen (134), four years after he set the record for Salamanca High School (164).

No, Hager, who just finished his senior season on Hobart's gridiron by punishing opposing offenses with 288 career tackles - good for second all-time at the school - won't tell you about his ECAC All Star, All Liberty League, or All-East First Team or Second Team All-American selections as he heads into his final lacrosse season.

"He never even called and told us about his Defensive Player of the Year," said his proud mother, Karen Hager, leaning over a small pile of accolades set on the dining room table. It was just a small part from an entire room full of well deserved trophies and remembrances. "Another lacrosse parent had to call and tell us about his lacrosse captaincy."

Either that, or Hager will call fashionably late, after the news of his latest accomplishment is made public, as if it's no big deal.

That's just typical of the 2009 recipient of the Mike Roberti Memorial award for Character and Sportsmanship. Don't try to pry that information from the man who is the only Hobart athlete ever to record more than 20 stops in a game - twice.

He would never tell you himself, but you could hardly blame him. You see, nothing was ever a certainty for Hager, whose birthday comes exactly one day after the football enrollment cutoff date in Salamanca - effectively putting him one full year behind all his teammates from his pee wee days.

Add to that his struggle with grades as he enrolled at Hobart College in Geneva, New York, originally recruited for lacrosse. Hager pushed himself through summer school after his senior year at Salamanca, while the rest of his friends and teammates went on summer vacations and to graduation parties.

"Looking back, I'm glad I did it," admitted Hager while on the way to a job interview to secure the next step in his legacy. Speaking to Hager, it's easy to get the impression that he knows everything happens for a specific reason, as part of an overall design.

Perhaps then, as part of that "design", he suffered through being put on academic probation the first semester at Hobart, only to emerge with multiple Dean's List and Scholar-Athlete recognitions.

Even when things were going right, there were obstacles. There was a blown hamstring his junior year of high school before he eventually came back to share the Male Athlete of the Year award. Then, the lacrosse camp at Hobart was booked before Hager and teammate Ezra Redeye could enroll, which may have put a serious damper on his collegiate success. Luckily, Salamanca coach Jamie Pierce made some calls to open up a couple of spots, and the Seneca Nation footed the bill, according to his parents.

That many hurdles would have pushed aside many others, but not Hager.

"It's commitment," explained his mother.

It's a simple answer to a complex question: why go through it all? Even when he made the Statesmen team under coach Mike Cragg, nothing was certain. Hager had to wait until an injury opened up a spot in the starting rotation.

"Maybe if I was smarter he would have played a bit more as a freshman and sophomore," said a reflective Cragg. Instead, Hager persevered on special teams while others may have quit, and "never really looked back. He just grabbed a spot (on special teams) and took off."

As a junior, he led the league in overall tackles before completely dominating his senior campaign. The former Big 30 Defensive Player of the Year took Hobart to one of its best defensive, and overall, seasons ever. The team went 9-2 before bowing to Mount Union, tying the wins mark for a season. Meanwhile, Hager had more than 12 tackles per game, good for eighth in the nation.

"Without a doubt," continued Cragg, "to be a first (second) team All-American (he's) one of the best." Fewer than 10 Statesmen can claim that distinction.

Looking back on his football career, Hager said it was in fact difficult to stick it out those first two years, languishing on special teams. However, "when football is done," he said of all the accolades and pats on the back, "it's not on my mind. I don't like to brag."

As if what Hager overcame to get to this lofty height wasn't enough, he imposed yet another hurdle on himself. As a dual-sport athlete, he struggled to keep his weight where he needed it to be an effective linebacker while at the same time playing longstick defense on the lacrosse field.

Even so, he refused to pare down to one sport, said his father, Jud Hager. His son never was one to shed a challenge in favor of an easy route, and Cragg noticed that from the beginning.

After a firsthand view of Hager's tackling prowess, Cragg said, "at first I was 'are you kidding me, he had 21 tackles?' Then I said 'if you had 21 that day, I now expect this of you.' He just kind of laughed and said: you got it!"

Certainly nationally-ranked Rensselaer wasn't laughing when Hager blocked two kicks to help his Statesmen knock the team from the ranks of the unbeaten during the 2008 season. The win helped propel his team to a third consecutive Liberty League championship.

"You see the big time players perform great in big games," said Cragg. Hager's got just one more season of big games to go on the college level, though.

To be sure, the opponents on the lacrosse field won't be laughing when he heads the defense, ranked number 15 in the nation in 2007, coming off a 7.71 goals against performance.

Although, Hager's not thinking about shutting down offenses just yet. In a rare move for him, Hager opened up to his parents, as well as over the phone about his opportunity to coach lacrosse overseas from August to May.

On his way to the interview, he acknowledged he has a chance to promote his hometown beyond the borders of the Southern Tier. He trailed off as his cell phone lost reception in the hills of Pennsylvania as he spoke about his upcoming interview, as well as what chances exist for him to move from the Allegany Arrows' senior "B" squad to play for Major League Lacrosse.

Fittingly, he was cut off in the middle of some uncharacteristic self-promotion.

Don't expect to hear from Hager when he's got his Political Science degree in hand, perhaps coaching lacrosse in England or realizing the admitted long shot of playing for the Buffalo Bandits, two of the aspirations to which the tight-lipped Statesman will admit. His style is more reserved, content to let the rest of us tell his tale.

No, it would be more likely for him to place a late-night phone call to his mother, on his way to the airport of course, to tell her the news.

That's just his style.

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