Just Lose It
This article appears in the October/November 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
The basic premise behind Elijah Hodge's football philosophy hasn't changed since his youth coach, Patrick Wells, told him what it should be. That was almost eight years ago, when Hodge was a pint-sized 11-year-old tearing around the field at Fort Lauderdale's Sunland Park.
"That ol' field was in the hood," recalls Hodge, now a 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior linebacker at Dillard who is rated one of the elite defensive recruits in Florida by premier college programs in the ACC, SEC, Big Ten and Big East. "I'll never forget coach Wells telling me, ‘Hey Hodge, on the field, off the field.' That meant it's like a switch. When you step on the field, you've got to be crazy. A maniac. Off the field, you're just a laid-back, nice guy. Switch it on, switch it off. That's always stuck with me."
But the message Hodge takes away from those simple words of advice offered so long ago is richer now. Deeper. To Hodge, it means be yourself. All the time. For him, it means be the calm, respectful guy he is off the field, but when given the chance to express his passion for football on the field, hold nothing back.
The essence of Elijah Hodge is football. And vice versa. He'll make any reasonable sacrifice as a player to make sure he stays on the field.
"You gotta be versatile," says Hodge, 18, who tallied 109 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions as a junior. "I want to be ready for the next level. If they want me to be, say, a strong safety in college, I've got to be ready to play like one. If they want me to be a cornerback and I can play there, I'll do that, too. I just want to be out there."
He just wants a chance to flip the switch. To indulge in his passion and hold nothing back.
"Elijah is a young man who's very, very focused," says Dillard first-year head coach Keith Franklin, 36, who spent six seasons at the helm of McArthur before taking the job with the Panthers. "He's a tremendous football player. A smart player with a lot of wisdom about the game. And he loves to hit.
"He's also an every-down linebacker," adds Franklin, a former quarterback at Northeast High and American Heritage. "He's got the ability to do everything from rush the passer to cover the best receiver on the opposing team."
That's no lie. Some of Dillard's defensive schemes actually call for Hodge to line up man-to-man on an opponent's slot receiver.
Hodge, who was born in the Virgin Islands before coming to Florida as a young child, has wisdom beyond the football field. Wisdom acquired at The University of Life.
He's had to contend with his dad living in another state following his parents' divorce, two of his four brothers living in faraway locales like the Virgin Islands and South Dakota and, three years ago, his father's death from the effects of diabetes.
But helping him through it all has been big brother Abdul Hodge, a junior linebacker at Iowa and an All-Big Ten selection who led the conference with 10.8 tackles per game last season. Having Abdul as a role model has left Elijah with a tremendous sense of responsibility for himself.
"His brother Abdul is his hero," says Franklin. "That sets him apart and gives him an advantage over a lot of kids because he's got that kind of older brother to look up to."
"Having a guy like Abdul around is very important," says Hodge, who rates Miami, Iowa, Florida State, Pittsburgh, North Carolina State and LSU highest among his collegiate suitors. "He's like a guide, showing me the way. But it's on me to follow. Football is all I've got, and I can't forget that. A lot of guys out there have nothing to live for and get involved in stupid things. They do anything, go any place. I remind myself I have a lot to lose — a lot to live for."
Another big hurdle has been, well, losing. Entering this season, Hodge's 30-game varsity career included just nine wins, a circumstance he admits has "worn on me — it's hard not to think about." But when he does think about it, the Panthers' playmaker puts everything in the proper perspective.
"[My dad's death] let me know anything can happen," he says. "You've got to live life when you're here and have fun with it. That's the most important thing."
So, is this guy so grounded that even the playa-haters don't get to him? It's awfully hard to believe none of that noise drifts into his mind.
"You know what? They gotta understand you gotta play a role on the football field," says Hodge, who played his first two varsity seasons at Abdul's alma mater, Boyd Anderson. "There are some plays where it might not be my role to make the tackle. It might be my job to blow up the fullback. I basically ignore all the talk. It doesn't matter what people say. It doesn't matter what they write. It just matters that I know how much work I've put in to get here.
"I'm just having fun this year," he adds. "I've put a lot of hard work in, and it's paid off. Why not enjoy it?"
Switch it on, switch it off.