Zack Hodges’ last football game for Independence High came on the September day in 2008 when he buried his mother.
Hodges, his coaches and several dozen of his teammates attended the afternoon funeral for Barbara Wright, who died at 48 after a massive stroke. Then Hodges played alongside them that night against West Charlotte, making three and a half tackles in the 49-3 win.
“Me and my mom, we gave up a lot for this,” he said then.
Football had always been a source of strength and escape for Hodges, who had faced previous tragedy.
Hodges’ father, a professional boxer, died when he was 1. His grandfather, who became a positive influence, passed away when Hodges was 14. And for a few stretches when Hodges was a teenager, he and his mother had nowhere to live in Charlotte.
But none of those obstacles hit as hard as his mother’s death, which left him without the person he loved, facing an uncertain future with no immediate family to turn to.
Now, six years later, he’s looking forward to the NFL draft after a successful football career at Harvard. He’s projected as a mid- to late-round prospect and said he’ll think of his mom when he hears his named called. Hodges said getting drafted will be just another step in his journey.
“There is no finish line. That’s what I learned with all the experiences me and my mom went through,” Hodges said. “My mom gave me everything. All the ups and downs that me and my mom went through, there was no finish line.
“It’ll be a great moment. I expect it to be. ... But I don’t want to take away from that moment and make it the summation of it all. Because it’s part of the whole story, the whole journey.”
Figuring it out
Barbara Wright held several jobs to try to make ends meet while Hodges, her only child, attended Independence.
He was born in New York and lived in Queens until he was 8, when they moved to Gaffney, S.C., after his mother remarried. She split up with her second husband after only a year or two.
Wright had two stints at Providence Springs Elementary as the school’s custodian and, later, in the after-school program. She always provided the best she could, her son remembers.
“There were some periods when me and my mom were, you could say, homeless,” Hodges said during a recent phone interview. “My mom always took care of me and made sure I had what I needed.”
Hodges wants to make it clear their struggles were not a reflection of her character.
“My mom was never on any drugs or anything like that,” Hodges said. “We just had some unfortunate circumstances. ... It wouldn’t ever be for too long. My mom would find something within hopefully a few days or a week.”
Hodges used the library to access the Internet and took trash to dumpsters behind restaurants or other businesses because his mother couldn’t afford garbage removal.
“There were always these small things that seemed so hard to get done or achieve,” Hodges said. “But me and my mom always figured something out.”
Watching over her son
Hodges and his mother received occasional meals from neighbors or families from University Park Baptist Church, where they were members. But Hodges felt an obligation to help his mother financially, particularly after his grandfather died.
“I struggled a lot with this feeling or sense that I have to provide, I have to step up, be a man and be serious,” Hodges said. “Handle different things that me and my family were going through.”
Hodges earned extra money through odd jobs around the Morris Farms neighborhood in Mint Hill, where he and his mother rented a home.
Chris Kenny and his wife, Yovonne, who lived down the street from Hodges, were home one weekend when Hodges knocked on the door and asked to mow their lawn. Chris Kenny had just cut it but told Hodges to come back the next week.
Kenny says Hodges didn’t show up at the agreed-upon time but was at his door shortly after sunrise two weeks later to cut the Kennys’ grass for $20.
His mother later came down to inspect her son’s work. “Well, aren’t you going to rake it?” Wright asked him.
The yard work led to a close bond between Hodges and the Kennys, who would host him and his mother for holiday dinners. Other times Hodges would drop by to help Chris install hardwood floors or hang out while Yovonne called businesses for her job with the Yellow Pages.
“I was just smiling and dialing, and he just wanted to watch,” Yovonne said. “He just wanted to be a part of something. Then his mom would always come down and critique everything he’d done.”
The Kennys say behind Wright’s strict exterior was a loving mother who wanted only the best for her son.
‘Dignity you don’t often see’
Early during his junior year at Independence, Hodges, 16, was getting ready for school when his mother collapsed. He called 911 and an ambulance rushed Wright to the hospital, where doctors tried to save her after she’d suffered a stroke.
Barbara Wright died the next day – Sept. 6, 2008, almost 15 years to the day after his father passed away.
Independence created a trust fund for Hodges. “He’s very mature for his age, and he carries himself with a dignity you don’t see very often,” principal Mark Bosco said then. “This is a kid who worked really hard to get where he is, academically, athletically and everything else. And his mother did everything she could do to put him in that position.”
Hodges’ aunt and grandmother arrived in Charlotte from Georgia and made the funeral arrangements. Hodges moved to Atlanta the next week with them.
Former Independence coach Tom Knotts said he never realized the extent of Hodges’ situation until he visited the house after Wright died and found there was no hot water.
Hodges was private when it came to his family’s struggles. At school he was an outgoing student who ran for class offices, competed on the debate team and was a high-intensity player who made up for his slight frame with all-out effort.
Knotts, who now coaches in South Carolina, said the 6-2, 190-pound Hodges struggled to do one rep of 135 pounds on the incline bench at Independence. When Knotts saw Hodges at the NFL scouting combine in February, he was shocked to find a muscular, 250-pound defensive end.
“I’m amazed at how much thicker he’s gotten,” Knotts said.
After losing his mother and leaving Independence and Charlotte , Hodges said he had a “miserable” first year at Tri-Cities High in south Atlanta.
“Sixteen was probably the longest year of my life,” he said.
But things improved during his senior football season, when he had 21 sacks and 10 forced fumbles, despite missing three games with swine flu.
Hodges drew interest from Stanford, Air Force and Marshall, among others. But the opportunity to experience a “range and depth of opportunities” led Hodges to Cambridge.
Harvard’s coaches recommended Hodges spend a year a Phillips Exeter Academy, the New Hampshire prep school whose alumni list includes names like du Pont, Eisenhower and Rockefeller.
Hodges didn’t know Exeter’s history. For a student who’d received As and Bs in high school, it seemed like a slap in the face.
“The closest thing I could compare Exeter to coming from the South was a JUCO (junior college) school,” Hodges said. “I was like, I tutor other kids, why would I need to do this? I didn’t realize that Exeter is one of the top five high schools in the world.”
Hodges says now the year at Exeter helped him appreciate the distinctions among different socioeconomic groups.
“I thought being asked to go there was a reflection on me rather than an opportunity at life. But since going there, I have friends from around the world,” Hodges said. “I entered into this kind of duality of being able to claim two very different backgrounds, from inner-city kid from Charlotte and Atlanta (to) the other that went to a high-nose, boarding school.”
Hodges embraced what Harvard offered. In addition to his coursework in government and philosophy, Hodges joined the law society and finance club, served as a drug and alcohol peer adviser and volunteered at homeless shelters.
Harvard defensive line coach Mike Horan said the coaching staff was concerned the overnight shifts at the shelter would disrupt Hodges’ sleep cycle, “but he managed to get it done and have a good balance of life in all areas.”
Hodges took this semester off to prepare for the draft, but plans to finish his degree next spring.
He became the first player in Ivy League history to win Defensive Player of the Year honors twice. Hodges, who is projected as an NFL outside linebacker, had a league-leading 8.5 sacks in 10 games last season and 10 tackles for loss.
He finished as Harvard’s all-time sacks leader with 27.
‘A better life’
When Hodges takes the field prior to games or before a new series, he crosses himself and points to the sky in honor of his mother – just like he did on the day of her funeral when he played at Independence.
Those who know Hodges best say Barbara Wright would be proud of the man her son has become.
“She loved that boy more than anything,” said Chris Kenny, who manages a corporate recruiting office for Charlotte banks. “The only thing she wanted was a better life for him.”
Knotts, the former Independence coach, told a couple of the NFL scouts who called him what Hodges has overcome.
“Just to open eyes to what Zack went through to get to Harvard and then a potential shot at the NFL,” Knotts said. “It’s just incredible to me.”
Hodges, ranked by Sports Illustrated as the 100th-best draft prospect, knows his story will be retold as his NFL career unfolds. He doesn’t want it to read as a “sob story” but rather one of perseverance.
“If my life in any way touches somebody or can be helpful to someone who is going through something similar,” he said, “I’ll be open to that. I think that’s the most important thing.”
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How draft experts rate Zack Hodges
“Lines up all over the defensive line for Harvard, inside and outside, and also stands up to drop and play on his feet. Hodges has an excellent first step with instant acceleration and nonstop momentum towards the ball, taking sharp angles with perceptive vision. ... Motor is much more of a positive than a negative, using his relentless mentality and active playing style to only be blocked for so long. ... Lean-limbed frame, lacking ideal bulk. Hodges tends to be overaggressive and needs to control his energy to consistently break down and not wear himself out,” – Dane Brugler, nfldraftscout.com
“Gets upfield with good burst after snap. Good speed to the ball when in backside pursuit. Has sudden change of direction. ... Spotty level of competition. Had sacks where he was barely contested around the corner. ... Showed hip tightness and stiffness when asked to go through linebacker drills at Senior Bowl and Combine,” – Lance Zierlein, NFL.com