Harvard Prospect In NFL Draft, Zach Hodges, Overcomes His Painful Past With Faith In God to Achieve Success

Harvard’s Zach Hodges, a co-defensive player of the year in the Ivy League, was measured by scouts last month at an N.F.L. pro day in Cambridge, Mass. Credit Charles Krupa/Associated Press
Harvard’s Zach Hodges, a co-defensive player of the year in the Ivy League, was measured by scouts last month at an N.F.L. pro day in Cambridge, Mass. Credit Charles Krupa/Associated Press

When almost unimaginable adversity struck Zach Hodges while he was still in high school, his response was always the same: He pressed on.

When his father, grandfather and mother all died before he completed his junior year, his desire to continue his education and play football as a defensive end in college took him on a most uncommon path. He attended four schools in four years: Independence High School in Charlotte, N.C.; Tri-Cities High School in East Point, Ga.; Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H.; and Harvard University.

When he dealt with homelessness and hunger after his mother left a stepfather he described as mentally abusive toward his mother, it only increased his determination to make certain he would never have to do without basic needs again.

“People look at my life and say, ‘How could someone be so strong?’ ” Hodges, Harvard’s career leader with 27 sacks, said during a recent interview in the Murr Lounge, next to Harvard Stadium. “In actuality, I don’t really feel there is a choice in strength. Sometimes you don’t have an option but to keep moving and not stop.”

Hodges, one of the top small-college prospects in this week’s N.F.L. draft, was born in Queens. His father, Tony Hodges, died of a brain tumor when Zach was a year old. Hodges grew close to his grandfather Millard Wright, only to lose him when he was about to enter high school.

Hodges’s mother, Barbara Wright, remarried when he was 8. Although his stepfather played an instrumental role in introducing Hodges to football and persuaded him to start playing when he was 10, he has such disdain for him that he would not provide his name.

“He’s not going to be in this story,” Hodges said.

With the loss of his father and grandfather and the introduction of a stepfather he grew to detest, Hodges drew closer to his mother. Her relationship with his stepfather ended after three years. According to Hodges, his mother held multiple jobs, from catering to janitorial work, but there were times when opportunities dried up and she could not provide, leaving them without food and shelter.

“Homelessness usually wouldn’t last long,” Hodges said. “My mom would try to figure something out.”

Hodges was dressing for school on Sept. 5, 2008, when his mother collapsed. She had a massive stroke and died exactly 15 years after his father. Hodges’s attempts to describe the horrifying events of what began as just another day were punctuated by long, painful pauses. Finally, he said simply, “It was a long day.”

Hodges left Charlotte to live with relatives in Atlanta. He said he often felt alone and would turn to his faith in God. “He was the only one who understood my pain and hurt,” he said.

His relatives found that there was little they could say to console him.

“I remember one visit and he stepped outside and you could hear wailing,” said Eric Delamar, a cousin who lives in Atlanta. Delamar went outside to check on Hodges, saw how distraught he was and returned to the house. “Sometimes you don’t need to say anything,” Delmar said. “You just let them get it out.”

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SOURCE: N.Y. Times – Tom Pedulla

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