Elijah Hood keeps the proof in his wallet just in case he wants to take it out and look at it, or just in case it comes up in conversation and he wants to show people that, yes, he really is an Eagle Scout.
The stories are one thing. Hood, the North Carolina junior running back, can talk about all the merit badges, the boyhood adventures in the woods, or in the water, but his Eagle Scout card is tangible proof. He reaches for his wallet and pulls it out. Tape covers a crack that runs through the middle.
On one side is a picture of a bald eagle. On the other are the words “be prepared.”
“I’m proud of it,” he said, explaining why he keeps it on him.
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This morning, a Friday in mid-July, the 6-foot, 220-pound Hood is wearing a dark suit and dress shoes, ready for another day in the state’s capital. He’s interning there in the legislative services office.
The internship, as Hood puts it, offers a chance to “study the government system,” but it’s really the study of the system behind the system: the organization of information that keeps the government running. Recently Hood visited the legislative library, an experience he describes with glee.
“I had a blast talking to them about library science and knowledge management,” Hood said earnestly, sounding excited. “And how they do their indexing and their library web page. And that was really a fun time.”
Hood’s passion for this sort of thing represents one of the contrasts, but not the only one, that defines him. He appreciates the violence and physical chaos of his sport and, to a certain extent, he likes inflicting pain that he doesn’t often absorb.
He’s been doing incredible stuff for a very long time. Just amazing. Stuff that people actually wouldn’t believe unless you saw it.
“It’ll hurt for like a second, three seconds,” Hood said of his most spectacular collisions. “But I don’t know. Maybe I’m a little crazy.”
And yet he also finds peace and creative energy in the solace of the library, amid its reams of information and data. Hood is the only member of his team who is majoring in information and library sciences. He’s the only Eagle Scout, too, and that’s the identity that guides the others.
Hood knows he’s an anomaly. The pleasure of running through a defender, the relative immunity to pain. The passion for library science. The journey to become an Eagle Scout, one that required community service and more than 20 merit badges in everything from swimming to archery to emergency preparedness.
He knows he’s unusual, but there’s no way for him to know how unusual. How many other Eagle Scouts are out there playing major college football?
“A couple, maybe,” Hood said. “Maybe none. Maybe just me. That’d be really weird if it was just me, though. I’d feel like a weird alien or something. I think there has to be more.”
He laughs at the weird alien line. In some ways it’s fitting. How else to explain how all the puzzle pieces fit together?
Following his father’s journey
Hood has always been different. His father, Vee Hood, remembers one time at the playground, on the swings. Vee kept pushing Elijah higher and higher. Vee turned his head and before he knew it Elijah was flipping through the air before landing on his feet. Vee swears his baby boy was 2.
“He’s been doing incredible stuff for a very long time,” Vee said. “Just amazing. Stuff that people actually wouldn’t believe unless you saw it.”
Other times Vee walked around with Elijah on his shoulders, and Elijah sometimes wriggled free and began doing push-ups on his dad’s back. Vee, his neck in pain, would have to tell Elijah to quit it.
“Normal kids don’t do this,” Vee said. “That’s what I’d tell my wife.”
To understand Elijah’s journey is to understand Vee’s journey, and how in some ways it ended before it began. Vee was in the Boy Scouts once, too, but didn’t make it very far. Vee says he was on a path to play college football once, too, but his time at Western Carolina didn’t last very long.
“Came home and had kids,” Vee said.
Decades ago, he says, people said some of same things about him as they say now about Elijah. Vee once thought that maybe he had a future in football.
“But academics and girls got me,” Vee said with a laugh.
He never let his youngest son forget it. Neither would one of Vee’s brothers, Jezrael. Or their mother, Gladys, who encouraged Elijah to become involved in the Scouts.
We always try to say that you have to get them through to be an Eagle Scout before they hit perfume or car fumes. Because obviously, there are a lot of other things on his mind.
By the time he reached the sixth grade, Elijah knew he wanted to become an Eagle Scout. He promised his grandmother it would happen. He heard stories about his father’s failed scouting pursuits, and his uncle’s, and they motivated Elijah and inspired his rise through Boy Scout Troop No. 172 in Charlotte.
The troop is affiliated with Our Lady of Consolation, which is Charlotte’s only African-American Catholic church. Elijah spent a lot of time there, too.
“Anybody you talk to,” Harry Scott, Elijah’s scoutmaster, said, “you get the same thing about him.”
These days Scott is no longer a scoutmaster. For seven years, though, he guided Hood’s rise from Boy Scout to Eagle Scout, which in some ways mirrors the transformation from boy to man.
It’s a transition that can be difficult in real life, and the success ratio is much worse in the scouts. Scott says about 2 percent of Boy Scouts eventually become Eagle Scouts.
“We always try to say that you have to get them through to be an Eagle Scout before they hit perfume or car fumes,” Scott said, laughing. “Because obviously, there are a lot of other things on his mind.”
In addition to the normal stuff, Hood had football. His rise through the Scouts coincided with his development into a coveted football prospect. He likes to think they both influenced each other, that the skills he learned in scouts translated to the field, and vice versa.
The Scouts, though, set the foundation. Every Boy Scout takes an oath:
“On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”
Balancing football, Scouts
The longer one remains in the Scouts, the farther he advances, and the words behind that oath take more of a hold. Every Eagle Scout relies on that oath – and the Boy Scout Motto (“Be Prepared”) and slogan (“Do a Good Turn Daily”) – and those words can define the way a scout approaches the rest of his life.
“It’s like, in my brain,” Hood said. “It’s just a general work ethic and dedication kind of thing. The honesty, trustworthiness. The wake-up-every-day-and-kind-of-put-your-best-foot-forward kind of attitude. Try to be the best citizen you can be – the best person you can be.
“Contribute to the community.”
That’s especially important. Before earning the rank of Eagle Scout, Hood had to complete a community service project. He built a new parking lot for his church, transforming a small grassy field into a gravel-covered lot with parking spaces.
It was a “hectic” time, Hood says, with exams and preparation for his early enrollment at UNC. Various high school All-American games were coming up.
“But I had to finish building a gravel church parking lot,” Hood said.
The satisfaction of running over someone is very interesting.
He did and months later he drove back to Charlotte, from Chapel Hill, for his Eagle Scout ceremony. That day he received the card he still keeps on him, one that in some ways guides him.
The principles of an Eagle Scout command Hood to be, as he describes it, “the best citizen you can be.” He’s beholden to the ideals of service and helping people. And yet there’s another contrast because on a football field he embraces the violence, the collisions, the feeling of running through, and not around, an opponent.
“The satisfaction of running over someone is very interesting,” Hood said, pondering the thought.
He tries to describe the feeling.
“You can’t describe it,” he said. “It’s just dominance, at the base of it.”
Soon Hood, who rushed for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns in 14 games last season, will go to work. Earlier in the morning he had a casual meeting at UNC to learn more about the process of picking an agent – something he’ll eventually have to do, either after this season or next. He told his bosses at the legislative services office that he’s going to be late.
His internship lasts another two weeks, then practice begins and then the season. If Hood is at his best, as the first line of the Boy Scout Oath demands, the Tar Heels will be the benefactors.
Yet if Hood is at his best that means others will suffer, particularly those who stand in his way. He thinks about that conflict – the desire to serve people in one setting and physically punish them in another.
“Honestly, I actually think it’s love,” Hood said. “I love playing football. I love my team. I love my community, I love my city, love my state. So what’s the greatest way to show you love something than to sacrifice for it?”
Previewing the season
College football is here. From now until Aug. 31, we’ll have previews both online and in print. Here’s the schedule:
Aug. 25: Shaw
Aug. 26: St. Augustine’s
Aug. 27: Campbell
Aug. 30: North Carolina
Aug. 31: N.C. State
Sept. 3 vs. Georgia, at Atlanta, 5:30 p.m., ESPN
Sept. 10 at Illinois, 7:30 PM, Big Ten Network
Sept. 17 James Madison, 3:30 PM, RSN
Sept. 24 Pittsburgh
Oct. 1 at Florida State
Oct. 8 Virginia Tech
Oct. 15 at Miami
Oct. 22 at Virginia
Nov. 5 Georgia Tech
Nov. 10 at Duke
Nov. 19 The Citadel
Nov. 25 N.C. State