While postgame elation and celebratory pandemonium radiated throughout the Ole Miss lockeroom in Gainesville, Shay Hodge needed a break. He needed to be alone.
The junior wideout was less than an hour removed from an 86-yard touchdown reception that provided the winning points in the Rebels' 31-30 victory over No. 4 Florida, and the happiness his teammates felt was definitely shared by the Morton native. However, his emotions were on overdrive for a different reason. Or at least an added one.
As Hodge isolated himself in his locker, the current date kept repeating in his mind. September 27, September 27, September 27. A date that was special before this past weekend, and the reason Hodge's mind was focused on more than the final score.
Four years ago, on Sept. 27, 2004, Hodge became a father. His daughter, Shavareia, was born premature, and her health was an issue from the start.
At first, the young girl wasn't supposed to live past three days, then one year became the prognosis, as the doctors diagnosed Shavareia with holoprosencephaly, a disorder in which the middle part of the brain doesn't develop during pregnancy.
Shaveriea was a fighter and passed the one-year mark, and then the two-year point as well.
But on March 17, 2007, Hodge's daughter died from the birth defect.
"It took so long to realize she was gone for good," said Hodge, who wears No. 3 because Jesus rose on the third day. "But I am just thankful to have my angel for as long as I did. God helped me work through it and cope. But this Saturday, man that was special."
On the four-year anniversary of his daughter's birth, Hodge caught that pass, the longest in Ole Miss history, and took down both the Gators and the overbearing burden that has hampered the Rebels the past several years.
"I was surprised when Florida busted coverage that badly," Hodge said. "I knew the safety wasn't moving over most of the game, but I didn't realize it was that much. After that, just make sure you catch it and get going."
Considering the bittersweet circumstances, Hodge became overwhelmed following the win.
"I can't describe the emotions," Hodge said. "With the win, and it was my daughter's birthday also. The happiness to win on her birthday. Kind of indescribable."
While the game in Gainesville was the biggest career moment for Hodge, his on-field performance has been exceptional all season. He leads the team with 323 receiving yards and four touchdowns, the scoring number is half of the entire receiving corps' total. Hodge's 65 yards per game average is also fourth in the Southeastern Conference.
"I'm doing well, but I've got to get better, get more involved in the offense and catch more balls," Hodge said. "It's about getting better everyday, in some form or fashion. It doesn't matter how. Just wake up each morning and know it is a day of improvement."
A mantra Hodge lives by and one that has been expounded on by Houston Nutt. The first-year Rebel head coach has preached improvement since the first day on campus. The goal for a bowl-worthy season was set early on, and the team has responded.
Nutt said a week prior to Florida that the players were close to the same page as the coaches. After the win, both sides appear to be aligned.
"I see the buying in here, not coming," Hodge said. "We have all bought in to what Coach Nutt is saying, we believe we are good, and are so close to being better. Lost two games in the last seconds, but you can't dwell on that. The goal is still out front."
Numerous players have said that Ole Miss just needed that first one to fall, to get over the hump and have evidence that it could be pulled off. Saturday was that day, a day that couldn't have been any better for Hodge.
"It was so much fun because instead of going the other way, it went right," Hodge said. "I kept telling everyone on the sidelines to believe and to keep at it.
"To finally do it and get the big win, and to come on that date when my daughter was born, God works in mysterious ways."
Shay Hodge -
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