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College football

For Zack Hodges, road to NFL goes through Harvard

Harvard linebacker Zack Hodges has put plenty on his shoulders, including Langston Ward at practice. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Harvard linebacker Zack Hodges has put plenty on his shoulders, including Langston Ward at practice.

The world around Zack Hodges was moving too quickly for him to think about who might have been watching.

He was a junior at Independence High School in Charlotte, when his mother, Barbara Wright, suddenly died of a stroke.

It left an emotional crater in a heart that already had too many. His grandfather, the person he looked to as a model for manhood in his family, passed away when he was 14. His grandfather was that figure for him because his father died when he was 6.

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“I know death real well,” Hodges said. “Death is important. You lose the ones you love, because that’s how you realize how much they matter.”

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Hodges had carved out an identity for himself as a terror on the football field. He was 6 feet 2 inches, 225 pounds, and he seemed to constantly camp out in the other team’s backfield.

He started popping up on the radar of many college programs.

But when his mother passed, everything paused.

The day she was buried, he played his last game for Independence. Then he went to Georgia to live with his grandmother and his aunt.

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“When I got to Atlanta, at that point in my life, everything went out the window,” Hodges said. “I felt like I didn’t have anything.”

But Harvard kept a close eye on him.

While he was still an assistant coach for the Crimson, Tony Reno’s job was to cover the recruiting area in Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

So when Hodges left Charlotte for Tri-Cities High School in East Point, Ga., Harvard followed.

They were drawn to Hodges as an athlete, but also as a person.

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“He was very raw,” said Harvard coach Tim Murphy. “But his athleticism was clear to anybody.

‘I used to believe you’ve got to knock on every door and search for every opportunity. I’ve come to realize, you only need one opportunity.’

“He obviously had a very intriguing story. We’re always looking for kids who’ve had some adversity in their lives. Just feel like those are the types of kids that are going to be the most resilient kids, and you need tough, resilient kids in this line of work.”

In nine games with Tri-Cities, Hodges had 21 sacks, forced 10 fumbles, earned team MVP and defensive player of the year, made Georgia’s 5-AAAA All Region First Team, and got all the attention that came with it.

But when other schools, including Holy Cross and Stanford, came knocking, he kept an open ear to Harvard.

“All of a sudden to find out that there were opportunities that were waiting for me or open to me,” he said. “I was just trying to stay humble, keep my faith and my work ethic in God.”

In four years at Harvard, Hodges has turned himself into a force that’s impossible to ignore — whether it’s before the game, when he goes through a manic routine at the 50-yard line to amp himself up, or during the game when he busts through offensive lines to sniff out the football. His 40 tackles and 6½ sacks last season earned him a split of the Ivy League’s player of the year honors. When the Yale Bulldogs come to Harvard Stadium on Saturday for the 131st playing of The Game, they’ll pay special attention to Hodges, if only because the man who recruited him, Reno, is now their head coach.

But in Harvard, Hodges saw an opportunity and seized it, knowing as much as anyone that nothing in life is guaranteed.

“The way this program is structured, nothing is promised to us,” Hodges said. “That comes from the top. I give coach Murphy a lot of respect for that. . . . You’ve got to go out and work for everything you get — and you still may not get it.”

.   .   .

When he was younger, Hodges used to tell his cousin, Therrick Brown, that he would end up at a top-flight institution.

They were around the same age. Hodges was three months older.

Hodges would tell Brown, “I’m going to a great school. I’m going to go to the top school in the country.”

Brown would humor him.

“He said, ‘All right, cuz,’ ” Hodges remembered. “But really, he was like, ‘What are you talking about? We ain’t going to Harvard?’ ”

In terms of dreams, the distance needed to reach them often feels immeasurable.

For Hodges, it took him from Queens, where he was born, to Charlotte, where he moved with his mother when he was 10, to Georgia.

Nothing ever came easy.

There were times when they had no water. Times when Wright worked three jobs.

“She was a teacher,” Hodges said. “She worked three jobs just to try to give opportunities. My mom, she broke her back. My mom gave me everything. I can’t even begin to explain. My mom gave me her dying breath. I literally mean that.”

Then Brown and Hodges got older, and they started thinking about things differently.

“When we came around to our senior year, all of a sudden, he started thinking that he wanted to go to med school,” Hodges said. “I was starting to look at Harvard seriously.”

Hodges told his cousin, “We have a chance to do something with our lives. We have a chance to strive for greatness.”

When it came time to make the decision, his aunt Lorraine Wright suggested he make a list of the pros and cons.

Murphy remembers the first time he sat down with Hodges and Wright in her home in Georgia.

“I was in his aunt’s house talking to him,” Murphy said. “You would ask him a question and you’d get a 20-minute dissertation.”

Hodges might have been a work in progress, Murphy said, but there was no doubt that he would find a way to succeed.

He discussed the option of spending a year at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

“Our admissions people felt that a postgraduate year would really help him make the transition to a ‘top academic institution,’ ” Murphy said. “And it helped in a lot of ways.”

When Hodges arrived at Harvard in 2011, he was overwhelmed.

“I’m not some nerd whiz kid,” he said. “When I came to Harvard, I was like . . . how am I going to do this?”

But he dived in head-first. He majored in philosophy and government.

Beyond classes, he threw himself into the Law Society, the Finance Club, and the Leadership Institute. He volunteered at homeless shelters.

“Can’t stop grinding, man,” Hodges said. “I used to believe you’ve got to knock on every door and search for every opportunity. I’ve come to realize, you only need one opportunity. But you don’t know which one that is.”

Hodges stays so busy that his teammate and roommate, senior defensive tackle Obum Obukwelu, hardly sees him.

“If I’m lucky,” Obukwelu said. “It’ll be at like 10 o’clock.”

He made sure to clarify.

“P.M.” he said, “When he’s getting ready to go to the library, go somewhere to go do work.”

Before they were roommates, Obukwelu and Hodges were recruits. They bonded in the weight room.

Obukwelu was going through his routine, when he heard someone yelling across the room.

“We’re working out and he was telling himself, ‘I’ve got to finish. I’ve got to finish,’ ” Obukwelu said. “I’m like, ‘What’s going on over there?’ It’s Zack Hodges.”

In four years, Hodges hasn’t changed.

“He’s definitely a guy that goes above and beyond,” Obukwelu said. “He’s not just going to go get the tackle, he’s going to go get the tackle for a loss of five.

“He’s not just going to settle for mediocrity. Everything he does is not to be mediocre. He always says we’ve got to dominate.”

.   .   .

In about a week, once the Ivy League title is determined and his college career is over, Hodges will have another transition, another decision, another opportunity.

He is aware of the rumblings about his potential as an NFL player.

He’s also aware that the jump from the Ivy League to the NFL is possible. Between Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk to Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant to Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Harvard has a crop of pro players.

“I think he realizes now that playing in the NFL is not like going to another planet,” Murphy said. “It’s something he can accomplish. Not that he will, not that it’s a slam dunk, but he’s seen guys like that who’ve done it. So it’s a little more of a reachable goal.”

It will mean another pros and cons list.

“To hear that I have the potential to play at the peak of competition in this arena, that’s amazing and humbling,” Hodges said. “But for me, I’m just going to try to sit down, figure out what are the goals of my life, what are the priorities to me or my family, and how can I maximize that.

“It’s great to be able to say, ‘Oh, I can go to the NFL.’ But if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it right.”

It will be another step, and with every one he takes, Hodges knows, he’ll carry his mother’s memory with him.

“It’s hard to imagine that I live in a world where no one knows who my mom is,” Hodges said. “It’s very humbling because to have people ask me about her shows me the influence she had on my life.

“She’s the greatest woman I’ve ever known. She gave everything for me. To the moment she died, my mom gave me everything.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.