Left Parentless and Homeless, Harvard Star's Amazing Journey May Lead to the NFL

Lars AndersonSenior WriterApril 21, 2015

B/R via Zachary Currier

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — His evening routine last autumn began on the fifth floor of Harvard's law school library, usually around 7 p.m. Tucked away in a corner cubicle, the football player would sit in the silence and read authors ranging from Sun Tzu to Mao Zedong. With every word he devoured, the engine of his mind fired and whined and roared.

Around midnight, Zack Hodges would stuff his books into his backpack, put on his headphones—Bach and Gershwin were his preferred tunes—and stride into the Cambridge night. The defensive end would walk 20 minutes across campus to Harvard Stadium. There Hodges would slip through an iron-wrought gate, pull out a key to unlock a door to one of the coach's rooms and then flip a switch to turn on the stadium's towering lights.

For over an hour, alone in the amber glow, he would run the stadium steps, up and down, up and down, the only sound the footfalls of his shoes slapping the ancient concrete structure. These late-night workouts were a sort of therapy to Hodges, because as his legs churned and burned, he would allow his thoughts to drift back in time, back to his past, back to the source of his energy.

As he ran, the images would unspool on the grainy film of his memory: the horrifying morning his mother collapsed, the desperate nights of being homeless, the trying days of being an outcast in junior high because he couldn't shower for weeks.

Sweat would pour down his forehead as he kept chugging under the stadium lights, a solitary figure in the night, but he wouldn't stop until he traversed every section of the grandstands. Always, his mother taught him, finish what you start. He normally would not step off his final step until 1 a.m. Exhausted, he would retire to his nearby dorm room for a few hours of rest.

This was how the 23-year-old Hodges—one of the most intriguing prospects in the upcoming NFL draft, whose tear-dripping and awe-inspiring biography is a movie waiting to be made—spent so many evenings and early mornings last fall.

"I use my past to motivate me, because I know what real pain is and I know what real desperation is," Hodges said. "I constantly think about my past because it keeps me going, even when I feel like I can't go any further or push any harder. Then when I get on the field, it's still with me.

"When I'm playing, I'm there to complete a task, to forcibly install my will on my opponent. ... There's no emotion to it for me. If I break you in half, that's just part of what comes with the freedom and control I feel when I play the game. And when I do beat you on the field, I want you to remember that I beat you and want everyone to remember that I beat you."

If Hodges—who at 6'2" and 250 pounds is projected by scouts to be a midround selection—sounds like a deep thinker, it's because he is. A government and philosophy major, Hodges answers questions not in sound bites or even paragraphs, but in four-page soliloquies, almost like he should be on a balcony with one arm raised.

Photo by Zachary Currier

On a recent tour across the Harvard campus, the 2014 Ivy League Co-Defensive Player of the Year shared the detailed history of virtually every building while recalling legends such as how only one book survived the 1764 fire that destroyed Harvard's original library. The stories flowed like spring water, nonstop, for two hours.

On the football field, Hodges is equally cerebral. Fascinated by the nuances of the game, he studied game film of his Harvard opponents as if it were an extra class in his course load. He sometimes slept in the locker room after watching hours of tape.

"The janitors would wake me up," Hodges said. "But I want to know all of my opponents' tendencies so I can figure out how to do things like get an offensive lineman off-balance so I can beat him and get to the quarterback."

Harvard coach Tim Murphy can recall the precise moment he realized Hodges had a wild-eyed, fire-breathing intensity about him unlike any player he's ever coached in his 22 years in Cambridge.

Harvard coach Tim Murphy
Harvard coach Tim MurphyAP Photo

"It was Zack's freshman year and we were having a practice where we basically don't tackle and don't bring anyone to the ground," Murphy said. "But then Zack gets on the field and he's causing car wrecks out there because of his intensity. He's bringing five, six people to the ground because he's charging up the field with his low center of gravity and just going full blast. He was a force of nature out there. And right then I said to myself, 'Wow, what do you have here?'"

For the last two years, Hodges has been the Ivy League's most dominating defensive player. An end with a sprinter's first step, Hodges led the conference in sacks (11.5), ranked fifth in the nation in forced fumbles (four) and was named the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. Last season his numbers were slightly down—8.5 sacks and 10.0 tackles for losses—but he finished his career as Harvard's all-time sack leader (27.0) and was a finalist last December for the Butkus Award, given to the top linebacker in college football.

The Crimson led the FCS division in scoring defense (12.3 points per game) in 2014, and a major reason was that Hodges constantly faced double- and triple-teams.

"Every team we played simplified their offense simply because they had to account for Zack on every play," said Jameson McShea, a junior defensive end at Harvard. "The offensive line would always slide in his direction, and often both a running back and tight end would chip him. We were able to blitz off the other side because Zack got so much attention.

"And the thing is, Zack still made plays. He's just got this switch that goes off once he's on the field that is a little frightening. Everything he's overcome seems to kind of come out on the field. He can be one scary dude."

How does this scary dude, who ran a 4.68 40 at the NFL combine in February and who has 3.0 GPA, project to the NFL? A defensive player from Harvard hasn't been selected in the draft since the Seahawks took linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski in the fourth round in 2000; in fact, only two defensive players from Harvard have ever been drafted (Kacyvenski and linebacker Joe Azelby in 1984). But according to multiple scouts, Hodges could go as high as the fourth round.

Zack Hodges works out at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
Zack Hodges works out at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.AP Photo

"Zack will have to transition from defensive end to outside linebacker—ideally in a 3-4 defense—and he's pretty raw, but he has serious ability to get after the quarterback," said one longtime NFC scout. "He's got flexible hips, and he's got a great first step off the line. The physical tools are there, the high character is there, and certainly the energy and intensity are there, but it's just a question of whether or not he can adjust to NFL competition after being in the Ivy League. That's always the question for Ivy kids."

Hodges passed his first major test at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, in January. A few days before he was scheduled to arrive in Mobile, Hodges called Phil Savage, the director of the event, to thank him for the invitation to play.

"He was the only player to do that," Savage said. "That was my first indication that there was something different about this kid."

Hodges had a slight sprain in his right knee during the week of practice in Mobile, but he quickly emerged as one of the most lethal pass-rushers.

"Zack looked like he belonged with all the top guys out there," Savage said. "He flashed and showed real promise as an edge pass-rusher. I think early in his NFL career he could be a situational pass-rusher as he moves to linebacker, but he has the potential to be a big-time player. He certainly has the drive. This is a young man who has been through more hardship and pain than most of us will endure in a lifetime."

Growing up in Queens, New York, Zack Hodges had a curious, fertile mind that was nurtured by his mother, Barbara. Zack's father, Tony Hodges, a professional boxer, died from a brain tumor when Zack was a toddler, so it was Barbara who exposed her only child to the culture of New York City.

They went to Broadway shows and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They saw classical orchestras at Lincoln Center. "I was raised to be aware of the world," said Hodges, noting that his mother worked for a nonprofit AIDS service organization called GMHC.

When Zack was nine, his mother remarried, and they moved to Gaffney, South Carolina. During his first Christmas in the South, he received a gift that would change his life: a PlayStation football game.

When his stepfather asked what position he wanted to play, Zack said, "I want to be the guy who does all the hitting." Zack became a linebacker. The following fall he signed up to play Pop Warner football. He was a linebacker.

But then his home life turned hard. According to Hodges, his stepfather became verbally abusive. One night when Hodges was 11, he and his mother slipped out of the house and never looked back. They moved into an apartment in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Barbara had stints working several different jobs—she toiled in food catering and in janitorial services—but there were times when she couldn't pay her bills. First the lights went out in their rented apartment. Then the heat was turned off. Eventually, mother and son were evicted.

They lived in a car for a stretch. "I would go months without having clean clothes," Hodges said. "I couldn't shower. I didn't smell so bad in the winter when it was cold because I was dry and the dirt was matted in. But the warmer months were a different story. I would smell horrible. I was not popular. I felt so isolated. Just hopeless because I had nothing."

But he did have one thing: his mother. Even in their darkest hours while living in their car, she expressed optimism about their future, telling her boy that a new dawn was coming for them. And she constantly told Zack what kind of man she hoped he would become, a man who would always show up early for work and stay late, one who treated education as if it was as important as the food he ate.

Young Zack absorbed it all.

Barbara then landed a few odd jobs and found a place to rent in Charlotte. Zack did his best to chip in; he went door-to-door in their neighborhood asking if he could mow lawns. One Saturday morning in the summer of 2005—at the time Hodges was 13—he pounded on the door of Chris Kenny. "Come back next week and you can mow my yard," Kenny told him.

Hodges returned two weeks later at 6:30 a.m. Kenny, then 28, let him cut his grass. Afterward, Kenny and his wife invited Zack inside to watch television, which marked the beginning of a unique friendship.

Kenny, a headhunter in Charlotte, and Hodges would talk for hours about politics, economics and popular culture. Kenny was fixing up his house at the time, and he showed Hodges how to paint walls, lay flooring, pour cement and install a deck. Hodges would pepper Kenny with questions about how everything worked; Kenny—a patient man—would then painstakingly detail, say, the mechanics of putting up a fence. Zack hungered for information.

"Zack and Barbara became like family to us," Kenny said. "We spent holidays together and shared meals together."

Hodges with the Kenny family in Charlotte.
Hodges with the Kenny family in Charlotte.Photo courtesy of the Kenny family

When Hodges ran for class president as a sophomore at Independence High, he brought his campaign posters to Kenny's house. Kenny critiqued them—"Zack, you realize you misspelled Independence," he said—and weeks later Zack lost the election.

"You win some and you lose some," Kenny told Hodges while encouraging him to learn from his defeat. Kenny was becoming the father figure he so desperately needed.

Hodges' life improved. He grew popular at school and made the varsity football team as a rail-thin sophomore. After school he loved to jog. He felt a sense of freedom when he was running—it was as if his worries melted away into pavement—and he experienced a clarity in his thinking while he was on the move. He became addicted to the runner's high.

At the start of his junior year in 2008, several schools began admiring 16-year-old Zack from afar, including Stanford and Harvard. Recruiting bird dogs around the nation just needed more game film.

One morning that September, Hodges was about to leave for school when his mother told her only child she loved him. Hodges said the same—they were constantly expressing their love to each other—and then he began to walk to the door. He heard a noise. Looking back, he saw his mother sprawled on the floor. Blood leaked out of an ear.

Gripped with terror, he shook her. No response. In a panic, he called 911. He rode in the ambulance with her, praying she would open her eyes. In the hospital, a doctor told Hodges his mother had suffered a stroke and wanted his permission to perform an emergency procedure.

"Do whatever you need to do," Hodges told the doctor.

Forty minutes later, a doctor returned and told Zack, still by himself in the hospital, that there was nothing to be done, that his mother was brain dead and wasn't going to survive. The doctor apologized and left the room, leaving Hodges alone with his mother and the ventilator. He sobbed like he never sobbed before.

He phoned Kenny, informing him he was at the hospital with his mom. His voice shaking, Zack asked his closest friend and mentor if he could let his dog out. Kenny pressed for details, and Hodges then told him of the waking nightmare that was unfolding. Kenny rushed to the hospital. A decade later, he can't stop crying as he recalls this moment for a reporter.

"Zack saw things that a child should never have to see," Kenny said. "He was just destroyed in that hospital room. He lost everything. It was the most heartbreaking thing I've ever experienced."

The next morning, Hodges told the doctors to remove his mother's breathing tube. She passed, peacefully. It was Sept. 5, 2008—15 years to the day that his father took his last breath. Hours after burying his mother, Hodges played for Independence High in a football game. More than ever, the game became his release, his escape.

Photo by Zachary Currier

Hodges moved to Georgia to live with his aunt. He only played in four football games at Tri-Cities High in East Point, Georgia, in his junior year, but he had eight sacks. He flashed enough potential—both on the field and in the classroom (he carried a 3.7 GPA)—that several schools wrote letters expressing interest, including Stanford, Marshall and Harvard.

Kenny checked on Hodges frequently, calling him to make sure he was honoring his mother by working hard at school and staying late at football practice. He was.

"Zack was so strong," Kenny said. "He realized that, even though he was only 16, it was time for him to become a man. And he did."

One afternoon late in his junior year, Hodges was sitting in English class when he was summoned to the hallway. There he met Harvard assistant coach Tony Reno. As Reno spoke, Zack simply stared at the H insignia on his shirt. He had joked to family members for years that he would one day go to Harvard, but he never truly believed he would have the chance. Now he suddenly felt as if he were in a dream, with everything happening in slow motion.

"We'd love to have you, Zack," he remembers Reno saying.

Playing in nine games for Tri-Cities as a senior, Hodges had 21 sacks and 10 forced fumbles and was named his league's defensive player of the year. He was also voted team captain and class president. He committed to Harvard.

Before enrolling in Cambridge, though, Hodges spent a year at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he learned how to study like an Ivy Leaguer. At Exeter, he began reading The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He took an existentialism class, unleashing his passion for philosophy. (Hodges would become the only philosophy major on the Harvard football team.) And on the football field at Exeter, he played with an animalistic ferocity.

"I hurt some people at Exeter playing football," he said. "But being there gave me time to reflect on everything that brought a kid from inner-city Atlanta to Harvard. My life experience is a little different than most Harvard kids."

Stanford made one last pitch to Hodges. A few days after the Cardinal defeated Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl in January 2011, a Stanford defensive coach flew to Exeter to meet with Hodges, telling him that he would be on national television virtually every week and that "Stanford was the Harvard of the West."

Yet Hodges remained firm in his commitment to Harvard. He told Exeter coach Bill Glennon, "Why did the coach from Stanford say 'we're Harvard of the West'? Why didn't he say 'Harvard is the Stanford of the East'"?

No, the subtleties of language are never lost on Zack Hodges.

Photo by Zachary Currier

The NFL draft is six weeks away, and it's a cold March day in Cambridge. Snowflakes fall as Hodges runs the steps at Harvard Stadium. Outfitted in sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt, he is in his own world as he climbs up, up and up the grandstands.

"My past is always with me, always pushing me," he said as he took a breather. "I want to make it in the NFL because it will give me a chance to influence people. Maybe my story will connect with a kid out there, maybe give him hope. If my story can uplift someone, then it will give everything I've been through more meaning. Who knows? Maybe then it will make everything I've been through all worth it."

Hodges then took off into the snowy afternoon. But after a few steps he stopped and turned suddenly to an acquaintance, as if he'd just been tapped on the shoulder by a hand from the sky as a reminder of something he needed to get off his chest.

Eyes gleaming with intensity, he said in an excited voice, "Did you know that Harvard Stadium is the oldest stadium in the nation? Did you know that in the early 1900s President Roosevelt wanted to make the game safer, but they couldn't widen the field because Harvard Stadium had already been built?

"Did you know..."

The dissertation was just beginning.