Zack Hodges is at the Colts' West 56th Street complex this weekend in Indianapolis for the team's rookie mini-camp, having signed as an undrafted free agent out of Harvard. But it wasn't an easy road to get here for Hodges.
His father died when he was 18 months old. His grandfather passed away when he was 14 years old. His mother died suddenly of a stroke when he was a junior in high school. He went through periods of his life when he was homeless, and he battled depression at one point as well. And yet despite the odds, Hodges graduated from Harvard, was named the Ivy League defensive player of the year, and is now with the Colts pursuing his NFL dream.
"I'm breathing today man," Hodges told the media on Friday, "every day like this is all I got. I've got these few minutes in front of me and I'll keep going until I don't have a couple minutes of life in me. That's all I'm promised. I'm not promised anything, so come in and make the most of the time you got. When that time is over, you move forward."
The 6-3, 235 pound outside linebacker was contacted by several teams before the 2015 NFL Draft concluded, but he wasn't selected. Hodges wound up choosing the Colts, because, "it just seemed like a great opportunity." Hodges added that, "it seems like a great organization of phenomenal people, phenomenal character and a chance to compete."
Hodges is a player who will certainly add to that description of guys with great character, and the Colts coaching staff notices something special about him.
"We love guys that have grit and his story is amazing," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said on Friday. "He's not one to say. He never talked about it until we asked him so he's a humble guy in that regard and when you think about the adversity and the circumstances that he overcame to get to this point it's a tremendous, tremendous story. We talk all the time, again, about horseshoe guys, you know guys with character, love football, they're passionate, they're great teammates, they've got grit. This kid obviously has something special to him."
But for as great of a story as it is and for as much "grit" as Hodges has, that's only going to go so far towards him making the team. Ultimately, it's going to come down to his ability to be successful on the field (though his being a "horseshoe guy" will help). And on the field, Hodges is just as intriguing.
In 39 games at Harvard, Hodges recorded 118 tackles, 41 tackles for loss, 26 sacks, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, an interception, and five pass breakups. In 2012 he was named to the All-Ivy League team at defensive end, in 2013 he was the Ivy League defensive player of the year and was named to the AFCA All-American team, and in 2014 he was named the co-Ivy League defensive player of the year, the New England defensive player of the year, a Butkus award finalist, an FCS All-American, All-Ivy League first team, and was invited to play in both the East-West Shrine game and the Senior Bowl.
Harvard isn't exactly known for their NFL prospects, and Hodges is indeed a raw player who needs to add strength in order to stick around. But with his pass rush ability and hopefully with some work, he could make a push for a spot with the Colts.
"Another big, long, athletic guy," Chuck Pagano said, describing Hodges. "He's got length. I'm assuming he's pretty bright, no pun intended. He's a good football player, and I think Ryan (Grigson) and our scouts did a tremendous job of that whole process once the draft is over and you get on the horn. That started a long time ago, building these relationships with these guys. All these guys had options, but all our guys did such a good job of building those relationships that they were able to get a guy like Hodges in camp. He's got length, he's got speed, he's got burst, he's got power. Again wearing shorts, it's hard to tell right now. We know what the tape said so we've got a bunch of clay right now and we're going to start to mold that clay whether it's him or anybody else to see what kind of football player we can come up with."