HodgesOne

Heading into the final weekend of the Ivy League season, junior defensive end Zach Hodges leads the conference in sacks, tackles for a loss and forced fumbles. (Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletics)

Arms dangling motionless at his sides, helmet strapped on, eyes fixed downfield, Zach Hodges stood alone at the 50-yard line.

It was a sunny October afternoon in 2013 at Fitton Field in Worcester, Mass. On the stadium’s west end, the visitors from Harvard sprinted, shuffled, and hopped through their final drills before kickoff.

His back turned to his teammates, Hodges gazed at the purple mass at the other end that expanded as more Holy Cross players joined the cluster, jumping and hollering in front of a homecoming crowd.

Unmoving, Hodges would have been easy to overlook amid all the commotion — that is, if he didn’t stand out so much. See, 6-foot-3, 235-pound defensive ends are hard to miss in the Ivy League — especially ones who dance between plays, who wear hot pink skull caps under their helmets, and who could be playing for No. 9 Stanford or in the SEC.

It’s hard to keep your eyes off Hodges, which is why I couldn’t help but watch from the metal bleachers that afternoon as the lone man in the No. 99 Crimson uniform stared down the entire 95-man Holy Cross roster.

I thought back to a promotional video released by Harvard a few weeks before the start of the 2013 season. It featured Hodges.

Guys always like to get a chance to get that first blood. We smell it. We have that taste in our mouths.
– Zach Hodges
“Guys always like to get a chance to get that first blood,” Hodges tells the camera. “We smell it. We have that taste in our mouths.”

As kickoff neared, a referee approached and ushered Hodges to the Harvard sideline. Hodges acquiesced, as if recognizing that any noncompliance would only delay the bloodletting process.

It came soon enough. Over the next three hours, Hodges wreaked havoc on the Holy Cross offense, recording two tackles for a loss, a fumble recovery a sack, and a forced fumble (which Harvard took back to the end zone for six points.)

It was just one game in what his been an extraordinary junior season for the Ivy League’s most dominant defensive player.

Heading into Harvard’s final game of the season, Hodges leads the FCS —Division I college football’s lower tier— in forced fumbles; he sits first in the Ivy League in tackles for a loss and sacks and second in fumble recoveries; he’s also returned a fumble 53 yards for a touchdown and picked off a pass.

On a weekly basis, Hodges alters games in ways that most defensive players dream of doing once in a season.

“Defense is generally a very team-oriented thing,” says Jacob Feldman, who has covered Harvard football for The Harvard Crimson for the past two seasons. “On offense one person can score and do well, and on defense everybody has to do well. But the difference is that Zach Hodges, by himself, can kind of make things happen.”

But it’s not just that Zach Hodges makes things happen. It’s the way he makes things happen.

It’s his swagger. In Week 2 —after recording three tackles for a loss, a sack, and an interception in Harvard’s win over Brown— Hodges went to the press conference and began answering a reporter’s question by saying, “Their O-line seemed soft.”

It’s his intensity. “I want to beat you, and I want you to know I beat you, and I want you to be the best when I beat you.”

It would be easy to think you understand Hodges—to hear the soundbites or read the quotes (“football was always easy”) and write him off as just another talented athlete with an ego to match his intensity.

But that wouldn’t be fair.

The thing is, football really is easy for Hodges — just not for the reasons you might expect.

When you’ve gone days without dinner, when you’ve spent nights without a home, when you’ve buried both your parents before your high school graduation, football must seem pretty easy.

The Philosopher’s Scarf

Thirty minutes into our conversation back in in late October, Hodges is telling me about a course he took at Phillips Exeter Academy on existentialism.

“I’m a bit of a nerd, I guess,” Hodges says, almost sheepishly.

I had heard that there was another side to Hodges — a side beyond all the blood sniffing and quarterback crunching.

One reporter told me about the time Hodges showed up to a photoshoot wearing a scarf. “I look good in it,” he explained at the time. So they took pictures with Hodges wearing the scarf.

“It’s pretty rare that football players come to photo shoots and insist on wearing scarves,” the reporter said.

Hodges’ manners are good — so good that it doesn’t seem like he’s making any effort to be polite.

When we meet in the lounge above Harvard’s locker room, he wears a broad grin and extends the same arm he uses to detach footballs from quarterbacks on Saturdays to shake my hand.

I’m a bit of a nerd, I guess.
– Zach Hodges
As we move toward the sofa, Hodges peppers me with questions.

“So do they let you pick your own stories?” he asks, as we settle onto the couch.

“Sort of,” I say, explaining that I, a former sports editor at The Crimson, had been at the Holy Cross game and come away impressed.

“Thank you,” he says, with a mix of surprise and gratitude.

A few minutes into the interview, Hodges lets a “you know” slip from his mouth, which I wouldn’t have noticed had he not paused mid-answer to say, “I’m sorry I said, ‘You know,’” before continuing.

Later he turns to apologize for giving a long-winded response.

Maybe it’s his politeness, maybe it’s his frankness, maybe it’s his willingness to call himself a nerd — whatever it is, I soon realize it’s hard not to like Zach Hodges.

It’s why I’m not surprised when he’s telling me the story about how he ended up in that existentialism class at Exeter.

Hodges — by way of a public school near Atlanta — had just enrolled for a post-grad year at the elite boarding school where Franklin Pierce and John Irving once enrolled.

It was the first day of classes, and Hodges, already committed to Harvard at the time, got a rude welcome.

“[The teacher] heard that I was committed to Harvard, and he ripped me open because he had this thing against recruited athletes,” Hodges says. “It was rough.”

After Hodges’ advisor caught wind of the situation, Hodges was transferred to another class.

But — unlike many recruited athletes who traverse post-grad years via the path of least resistance — Hodges wasn’t satisfied with that resolution. He went back to meet with the teacher.

“I was like, ‘I know they pulled me out your class, but I feel like I can learn something from you,’” Hodges recalls. Hodges asked if they could meet again.

They started meeting every week — sometimes for 90 minutes at a time — to talk about everything from religion to world news to education.

Hodges went on to take three classes with that teacher, one intro philosophy course and another on existentialism.

The courses resonated with Hodges, who is now a joint philosophy and government major at Harvard—making him the lone philosophy major among Harvard’s upperclassmen. 

Back in the lounge above the Harvard locker room, I mention offhandedly that my older brother had been getting his Ph.D. in philosophy before switching over to law school.

“He liked it a lot,” I say. “It was just a matter of getting…”

“A job,” he interjects. “Yeah, there’s not really, I’m kind of wondering about that now. Harvard really preaches the whole, ‘Study what you want.’ I bought into that.”

Is he thinking of graduate school?

“Yeah, somewhere down the line,” he says.

Film Session

Although only a junior, Hodges is already drawing notice from NFL scouts who like his blend of speed, strength and arms that seem to stretch to his knees. Among his teammates, Hodges’ athleticism has earned him the nickname “Creature.”

Though not exactly an NFL feeder, Harvard has a decent track record sending players to the pros. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was picked in the seventh round back in 2005 and fullback Kyle Juszczyk was picked in the fourth round in 2013. But Harvard hasn’t had a defensive player selected since 2000.

Hodges could change that.

I learned why when I stopped by 14 Plympton Street, Cambridge, Mass., headquarters of The  Crimson, late one Tuesday night.

Zach Hodges needs just 3.5 more sacks to become Harvard's all-time leader. (Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletics)

Zach Hodges needs just 3.5 more sacks to become Harvard’s all-time leader. (Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletics)

In the building’s cluttered basement, everyone had gone home — everyone except for junior Jacob Feldman, who sat at a computer in the design suite. Feldman should have been at home studying for his statistics midterm, but instead he had tape of the Harvard-Holy Cross matchup queued up on the computer.

Feldman took over as The Crimson’s football beat writer in 2012, the same year that Hodges began making a name for himself. Since then, Feldman has watched every snap Hodges has played—first from the press box, and often an additional two or three times on tape.

“Ideally, I watch it three times,” Feldman explained. “You really don’t know what happens the first time. It’s kind of like watching a movie. The first time you watch for the plot, the second time you watch for the camera angles and the lighting. So the first time you watch to see who wins. The second time you watch to see why.”

Feldman brought up the Crusaders’ opening drive. On their first play from scrimmage, the Crusaders send two blockers at Hodges. On their next play, Holy Cross runs a read-option: the quarterback has to make a split-second decision to either hand the ball off to the running back or keep it himself based on Hodges’ movement after the snap.

Next, the Crusaders run a designed rollout: after taking the snap, the quarterback immediately rushes to the left side of the field, away from Hodges.

Three plays, three different strategies designed to neutralize Hodges.

“That speaks to how much [opponents] gameplan for him,” Feldman explained.

But on the opening play of the Crusaders’ second drive, much-lauded quarterback Peter Pujals takes the snap and looks to run. A Crusaders blocker slams into Hodges then, thinking the linebacker has been neutralized, he moves up to the field to block the next Harvard threat. But as soon as Hodges is released from the block, he chases Pujals from behind. With an outstretched arm, Hodges dives and grabs the quarterback by the ankle, bringing him down for a loss of four yards.

“His arms are much longer than anybody else’s at his size,” Feldman said.

With the score, 7-7, and the ball spotted at the Holy Cross 13, Hodges lines up wide in single coverage against 6-foot-5 , 294-pound Crusader tackle Blake Berresford.

The ball is snapped. Hodges gives a quick stutter to get the lineman standing then explodes past Berresford, barely touched as he closes in on Pujals.

The quarterback tries to escape, rushing to his left, but Hodges narrows the gap, and, with his right arm outstretched, chops at the ball. It pops loose, Harvard recovers and returns it to the end zone to take a 14-7 lead.

“The lineman never had a chance,” Feldman said.

But those physical gifts — those long arms, that strength, that speed — are just a part of what makes Hodges one of the nation’s top defensive players.

The Freshman

That a fight broke out at practice wasn’t unusual.

In the long days of training camp leading up to the start of the season, it’s not uncommon for teammates to butt heads with guys they drill against day after day.

But, even though it took place more than two years ago,  former Harvard center Jack Holuba still remembers this particular tussle.

Zach Hodges was a freshman. He had never played a snap of college football. But that didn’t stop him from jawing at an older offensive lineman during a blocking drill.

Teammates quickly stepped in and separated the two, but Hodges made an impression that stuck with the older players.

He would try to beat everyone. Period.
– Adam Riegel, former teammate
“This freshman’s for real,” Holuba, then a junior, remembers thinking that day. “He just scared the shit out of everyone.”

Former defensive lineman Adam Riegel got a similar first impression.

Before Hodges had even been to freshman orientation, he was in Cambridge training with some of the older players who had stuck around for the summer.

Riegel, then a junior, remembers the rookie well. From the very first sprinting drill of the summer, Hodges took on not just his fellow linemen, but also the wiry wide receivers and defensive backs.

“He would try to beat everyone. Period,” Riegel says.

And when he didn’t, the rest of the team heard about it.

“I remember him just getting mad at himself,” Riegel recalls. “Turning around walking back to the next sprint, he’s just talking to himself. Pretty sternly reminding himself to win every rep.”

Back above the Harvard locker room — a few minutes after Hodges has apologized for saying “you know” — I ask a throwaway question about the team’s upcoming game against Princeton, the team that had halted the Crimson’s title run the year prior.

“As a team, it’s a big game. Coming back and beating a team that beat you before is always important,” Hodges answers. “Personally, I just want to go out, I want to play, I want to dominate, I want to do my job. And I want whoever the kid is going against me to hate me.”

Hodges pauses.

“When the game’s over, the game’s over, but while we’re out there I want to beat the crap out of anyone who’s stupid enough to line up in front of me. And, you know, if you’re dumb enough to go out there and stand in front of me, then God bless you.”

Taking It All The Way

In the Crimson’s 2013 season opener at San Diego, Harvard was locked in a scoreless tie late in the first quarter. The Crimson had yet to record a first down on offense, but Hodges soon took the scoring upon himself.

With the ball in San Diego’s hands at the Harvard 34, the Crimson forced a fumble. Instead of making the safe play and jumping on the ball, Hodges instead scooped it up and ran 53 yards the other way for Harvard’s first score of the season.

His mentality is just, ‘I’m going to take this all the way on every play.’
– Jacob Feldman, Crimson writer
“I’m sitting all the way up top in the press box and you can see it: he’s taking this thing to the end zone,” Jacob Feldman recalls. “His mentality is just, ‘I’m going to take this all the way on every play.’”

Why? Why does Hodges push himself so hard?

Eventually I just ask him. Hodges leans back into the corner of the couch and turns to face me.

“I gotta be perfect,” he says.

It reminds me of something Hodges said earlier in the interview: “I haven’t made as many plays as probably I feel like I want to or need to make.” At the time of the interview, Hodges leads the nation in tackles for a loss and forced fumbles.

So where does that drive come from?

A good place to start looking is Christmas a decade ago in Charlotte, N.C.

It’s In The Game

All the coaches who have lost hours of sleep game planning, all the quarterbacks who have been blindsided, all running backs who have been brought down in the backfield can blame a video game.

Zach Hodges didn’t know a thing about football when he showed up in South Carolina.

Hodges was just 8 or 9 when he and his mother moved south to live with his stepfather (Hodges’ father passed away when he was 6) but his peers had already started playing the game. His stepfather wanted him to start playing, too.

Hodges wasn’t interested. And it might have stayed that way, too, had it not been for that Christmas present Hodges got after his family relocated to Charlotte.

Hodges liked video games. It didn’t matter that this one happened to be a football game. It was a video game, so Hodges played it. And then he started to like it. And he especially liked playing with one guy in particular.

“That’s the linebacker,” his stepfather explained.

At age 10, Hodges’ football career began.

Hodges wasn’t a star when he stepped on the field, but, as other things in his life began to change, the game was a constant.

Hodges’ mother eventually left his stepfather. (“He had kind of tried to be abusive,” Hodges explains. “Mentally, not physically, thank the Lord.”)

Hodges and his mother lived on their own, and life wasn’t easy.

I never cared what jeans I had. … I wanted something to eat.
– Zach Hodges
Hodges’ mother worked three jobs. Sometimes there wasn’t clean water for showers or washing dishes.

Some nights, Hodges and his mother would stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning, waiting for the neighbors to fall asleep. Then they would go out to haul their trash into a dumpster.

“We didn’t pay for a garbage man to pick up the trash,” Hodges explains.

There were days when Hodges and his mother were homeless. Hodges can’t recall ever visiting a doctor.

“I never cared what jeans I had,” Hodges says. “I wanted something to eat.”

But Hodges still stuck with football.

When he got to Independence High School in Charlotte, N.C. he tried out and made the junior varsity.

He didn’t play much as a freshman, but, a teammate’s injury gave Hodges a chance to play as a sophomore, and he earned a spot on the varsity as a junior.

He continued to impress, and colleges started to take notice.

That’s when everything changed. In the middle of Hodges’ junior season, his mother died of a stroke. No one had seen it coming.

“That’s the way God lets it be sometimes,” Hodges says.

In the days leading up to his mother’s funeral, Hodges lived with a neighbor. Then, just hours after burying his mother, he put on his football helmet. Independence High had a game that night against West Charlotte, and Hodges wasn’t going to miss it.

He finished with 3.5 tackles, and Independence won, 49-3.

Then he left.

Hodges’ aunt and grandmother had moved to Atlanta the year before, after the death of Hodges’ grandfather. That’s where Hodges felt he belonged.

That was probably the worst year of my life. … I didn’t know what was going to happen with going to college or anything.
– Zach Hodges

“When I was 14 my grandfather had passed away, and I realized that he was kind of the only man in my family that I had ever known, only real man that I had ever looked up to,” Hodges explains. “And he was the man of my family. And when he passed I took that deeply upon myself.”

“I decided that I had no place being in Charlotte because I felt like God wanted me in Atlanta, and my family was there,” Hodges continues. “That was my responsibility.”

So midway through his junior year of high school, Hodges dropped everything — his school, his extracurriculars, his friends, his teammates — and moved to Atlanta.

“That was probably the worst year of my life,” Hodges says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen with going to college or anything.”

Crimson Calling 

Zach Hodges was sitting in English class at Tri-Cities High School. He had already started playing football at his new high school (located in East Point, Ga.), but the interest he had been receiving from colleges hadn’t followed him from Charlotte.

That’s when there was a knock at the classroom door. Hodges’ football coach needed Zach. Someone was there to meet him. That’s the moment Hodges met Harvard assistant Tony Reno.

Reno and Harvard head coach Tim Murphy had first learned of Hodges when he’d been playing in Charlotte.

Pass rushers with Hodges’ blend of speed, strength, and grades don’t come along too often. So when Hodges disappeared from the Independence High School roster, Reno wasn’t going to let that be the end of the story. He tracked Hodges to Atlanta, and soon enough he was standing in front of him in Tri-Cities High School.

“He’s like, ‘Hi, I’m from Harvard,’” Hodges recalls. “And I’m just like staring at the ‘H’ on his chest. And I’m like, ‘holy crud.’”

Hodges went home to tell his aunt. At that point, few colleges — let alone Ivy League colleges — had expressed interest. That soon changed.

As Hodges racked up more and more sacks — he recorded 21 as a senior — he also racked up more and more interest.

“I forget how many schools recruited me,” Hodges says.

But even as more schools began showing interest, Reno and Harvard never let up.

“They stuck with me and I stuck with them through the process,” Hodges explains.

“It seemed like, OK, I’ma go to Harvard.”

But there was a catch: before enrolling at Harvard, Reno and Murphy wanted Hodges to spend a year at prep school.

“Whenever we have an outstanding student-athlete who would benefit from a post-graduate year academically we suggest it as an opportunity to grow academically and athletically,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said.

The suggestion stung.

“Kind of where I’m from, it was really insulting,” says Hodges, who was one of the top students in his high school class. “Only thing we know of is a JUCO school, which is where most kids, if they’re not academically qualified, go to.”

But Hodges didn’t have much time to be upset, let alone think about it. He was scheduled to meet with Reno the next day.

That’s when Hodges thought back on a lesson he had learned from his family about humility.

“I don’t want my pride to ever interfere with whatever the best decision is,” Hodges remembers telling himself. “It’s one year of your life. And you can learn a lot.

Harvard Of The West

The football field at Phillips Exeter Academy is tucked away, accessible by footbridge, hidden among trees that stretch taller than goalposts.

Zach Hodges called Exeter's Phelps Stadium home before he enrolled at Harvard. (Martin Kessler/Only A Game)

Zach Hodges called Exeter’s Phelps Stadium home before he enrolled at Harvard. (Martin Kessler/Only A Game)

But if anyone had hoped Hodges would go unnoticed at the small New Hampshire prep school they were wrong.

It didn’t take long for word to spread about the new kid at Exeter, and soon coaches were walking across that footbridge to visit Phelps Stadium.

And it wasn’t just the rest of the Ivy League that came calling, hoping to pry Hodges from his commitment to Harvard. It was elite programs. Like Georgia, which entered the 2013 season ranked No. 5 in the nation.

But it was Stanford that came on strongest. The Cardinal flew Hodges out to Palo Alto, Calif. for an official visit and made him an offer.

I ask Hodges how close he came to picking Stanford—which, at the time of our interview, was ranked in the top 10 in the country.

I’m happy with my college choice. I try not to look back.
– Zach Hodges
“I’m happy with my college choice,” Hodges answers. “I try not to look back.”

When I met with former Exeter head coach Bill Glennon in mid-October, he filled in the rest of the story.

The affable coach gestured to the corner of his office, where two plush chairs used to rest. That’s where the Stanford coach sat, Glennon said, when he made the trip to meet with Hodges shortly after the Cardinal topped Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

The coach, sporting his Orange Bowl sweat suit, pitched the school hard: If Hodges picked Stanford, he would play at a big-time program. He would get to be on TV every week. Plus, the coach said, “We are the Harvard of the West.”

When the coach left, Glennon wasn’t sure what Hodges would decide.

Glennon recalls Hodges asking two questions when they met later that day:

“Why did the coach from Stanford say we’re the Harvard of the West? Why didn’t he say Harvard is the Stanford of the East?”

Hodges finished up the year at Exeter, then drove south to begin his Harvard career.

It’s a career that — in all likelihood — will be remembered. With Saturday’s game against Yale and his senior season still ahead of him, Hodges needs just 3.5 sacks to become Harvard’s all-time leader.

I ask about the NFL, but he doesn’t seem interested in talking about it.

“Life is short,” he answers. “All I have is today. I’ve learned that. Some days, tomorrow’s a good day. Some days, tomorrow’s not a good day. All I have is right now. I’m just trying to make the most of what I have right now.”

Hodges seems to be doing a pretty good job of that — assuming you don’t value sleep much.

In addition to studying and playing football, Hodges does an overnight shift on Thursdays at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. He’s a drug and alcohol peer advisor (“I had some friends who were involved in drugs and stuff, and then some extraneous family things that made me interested,” Hodges explains.) He’s also a member of the Harvard Leadership Institute.

“I kind of really tend to overload myself,” says Hodges, who is looking ahead to writing a thesis on the influence of ethics and tactics on the U.S., France, or Russia’s dealings with Middle Eastern countries.

Normies

At Harvard, a “normie” is someone who doesn’t play a varsity sport.

The message was you do anything you want to do in the world. You work to be the best at it.
– Zach Hodges
Normies and football players don’t typically mix. In the dining halls, normies sit at one table with other normies, and football players sit at another table with other football players and their bowls of hard-boiled eggs.

So when Hodges rattles off a list of extracurriculars that would make any Ivy-gunning high school student jealous, I can’t help but wonder why.

Why — when he could spend his free time with his teammates — does he devote his time to all these normie-filled clubs?

“Umm,” Hodges pauses. “Growing up, my family wanted me to be well-rounded.”

He goes on:

The message was: you do anything you want to do in the world. You work to be the best at it. And if you want to do it, you keep on. If you don’t, you can stop. But whatever you do, try to be the best at it.”

Just A Game

Zach Hodges knows how he wants to be remembered: as the team’s hardest working player.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t have fun while he’s on the field. That’s why you’ll sometimes catch Hodges dancing between plays or wearing that pink skullcap.

“I work really hard to be as perfect as possible,” he says. “But being perfect isn’t all about being regimented.”

“Things can be really serious,” he continues. “And anything I can do to just like chill. It helps me relax,” he says. “It’s just a game, you know? It’s just a game.”

Things can be really serious. And anything I can do to just like chill. It helps me relax.
– Zach Hodges

It’s getting late. The sun has already set, and the conversation has stretched on.

Before the next morning, Hodges has both a midterm to study for and a meeting to prepare for — oh, and Harvard is playing Princeton that weekend with first place in the Ivy League on the line.

“Good luck with the story,” he says, as he gets up to leave. Before he makes it out the door, though, he turns back: “Have a blessed one.”

Three days later, I’m sitting in the stands at Harvard Stadium (no metal bleachers here). The score is knotted, 42-42, in a tight game that Harvard will eventually lose.

But now the second overtime is about to begin, and the Crimson’s defense is readying to return to the field.

Hodges gets down on one knee, crosses himself, then leans back, and looks toward the sky. He rises, and then makes his way onto the field, dancing the whole time.