By Conor Orr | Published April 23, 2015
He sat alone in his room, walled inside a brick bunker of a freshman dorm called Canaday Hall, just trying to make sense of what his world had become.
It was during a slow rot of a first year at Harvard, and Zack Hodges, a punishing pass rusher who could wind up being the highest-drafted player in school history, was fending off the sweet release that comes with giving up.
Who would blame him? His father, Tony, wasn't there. He'd passed away of a brain tumor when Zack was 18 months old, living on only in the advice he'd left behind, relayed to the child by family members. Zack remembers bits and pieces about using a straight razor on his face while he shaved (to protect his skin), and why he should live on the low floor of a building in case of a fire.
His mother, Barbara, wasn't there, either. She'd passed away after suffering a massive stroke during Zack's junior year of high school in North Carolina. Zack played football the night of her funeral, dropped everything and transferred after the season. She always let him think for himself, and he loved that about her. But what would she think of this?
That freshman year, Hodges says, a university adviser told him to start taking prescription medication to combat what school reps believed was a burgeoning case of depression. Hodges declined. (Harvard did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.) Hodges was pulling three all-night library sessions per week to stop a slow bleed on his grade point average. He was in danger of failing three classes and had never felt so academically helpless. He was also in recovery from his first serious medical procedure, a shoulder surgery, which he worried would cloud the future he was carefully laying out for himself.
And his coaches had just told him that if he didn't plan on staying the summer, he wasn't going to be a good football player. No escape. Three more months until a summer break that was never coming -- and it wouldn't stop snowing.
"I just wanted to go home," Hodges said.
One of Hodges' former high school coaches, Kenneth Miller, said he knew from the moment he met Hodges that he would be president of the United States. Ask other mentors, friends and assistants around the Harvard football program, and the theme continues. He'd be a lawyer, a mediator, a reformer of some kind in social work. Some career where Hodges is face to face with people. Interacting and changing lives. Being the gentleman his mother, his aunt Lorraine and his grandmother Lurline raised him to be.
He could have done anything he wanted. He knew where he came from, and he knew exactly where he wanted to get to. Obum Obukwelu
Eventually, the sun came out in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Hodges dug himself out the hard way. He still didn't sleep, but he spent more time in the gym. He gained 20 pounds one offseason -- and was just as quick on the field as he was before. He got his first "A" his second year. He built a foundation, and he could have had the business and political world laid out for him. Instead, he chose a path that would enable him to reward and thank his network of family supporters by virtue of a relatively lucrative salary -- the size of which is dependent on how much scouts, coaches and executives value him when draft cards start flying at the end of the month.
No one is saying Hodges will be a Day 1 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Some believe he has elite explosion and talent that, if molded properly, could make him one of the more dangerous pass rushers in the league, worthy of a third-round pick -- which would indeed top the current standard-bearer for Harvard football draftees: Isaiah Kacyvenski, a linebacker who was taken in the fourth round of the 2000 NFL Draft. But there are some, including a few experts at NFL Media, who say Hodges won't be drafted at all.
At Harvard, he used to spend reunion weekends as a 6-foot-3 bellhop for alumni functions and drove some of the wealthiest, most powerful men and women in the country to and from the airport. He made connections and impressions. They always left knowing who Zack Hodges was.
So why on earth is he still insisting on wearing a helmet to work every day?
Lurline, Zack's maternal grandmother, earned a living working in a chicken processing plant in New York, and his maternal grandfather, Millard, manned a station at a steel mill. Lorraine, his aunt, was the first member of Hodges' family to go to graduate school and became a social worker. His mother, Barbara, had been the first to attend college.
He beams with pride when he talks about his roots. He still speaks with his aunt and grandmother almost every day. In the walk-up to the draft, he's trying to spend as much time with them as possible, in case he gets selected by a team stationed far away from the Atlanta area where they live.
An outgrowth of that pride is a sense of protectiveness. Hodges tries to keep Lorraine and Lurline out of the media spotlight; they are his refuge in a life that is about to change again. Because they see Zack as an extension of themselves, they're more than happy to let him be the family spokesman and don't speak with reporters.
"Who you met is an honest representation of himself and our family," Lorraine said in an email. "He perseveres because of his faith, love of family and a commitment to be his best. The adversity he experiences only strengthens these values, which he first learned from his mother and were reinforced by us (his grandparents and myself). So, you should know, when you meet Zachary, you meet us."
Their path helps explain a certain endearing stubbornness about Hodges, who never understood the rolled eyes that met his ambitions. Having a conversation with him is often like playing a board game -- one in which he's several moves ahead.
On his first day at Tri-Cities High School in East Point, Georgia -- the school he transferred to after the death of his mother, based on its location near his aunt's home -- he told Miller, who's still the team's head coach, that he only wanted to play for two schools.
"Yale," he said. "Or Clemson."
One of the best academic schools in the country. Or one of the premier football programs in the South. He wanted to do that and be the president of the United States. Why can't he have everything?
"When he was going through the process, he was getting interest from Alabama, and he had an offer from Stanford," said Obum Obukwelu, Hodges' roommate at Harvard. "He could have done anything he wanted. He knew where he came from, and he knew exactly where he wanted to get to."
Hodges said he eventually chose Harvard because it was the only place that never once told him no. Maybe he wanted to study abroad or work on the student Law Society. Maybe he wanted to be in Finance Club. He ended up doing most of that while he was in school.
Who I am and what I do, those are two different things, and I think that speaks to anyone and what they do. Zack Hodges
Hodges also wanted to carve out time to work at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. Having endured some brief stints of his own in homeless services with his mother over the years, he felt comfortable there. He knew how to act in a way that provided comfort, not embarrassment. At Harvard, no one was going to tell him he couldn't stay there all night before an exam. So he went.
"He spent nights there. Not just a few hours. Nights," Obukwelu said. "He would be seating people, getting to know them, getting to know their stories. I, myself, I couldn't be doing that before an exam or a practice.
"He did it for a full semester."