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September 19, 2007

Hodge uses football to get past tragedy

While the Ole Miss football team looks to past game tapes for tendencies and hints for what to do in their upcoming game with Florida, one Rebel looks to something else for guidance.

Sophomore wide receiver Shay Hodge looks to the sky for his daughter, who died in March.
But instead of drowning in a pool of agony, grief and pain, Hodge has emerged stronger.

And, he said, he was happy to have her as long as he did.

"It meant a lot," Hodge said. "God gave me my angel for a little while."

Now that she's gone, all Hodge has left are the pictures in his wallet and the precious smile burned onto his memories.

On Sept. 27, 2004, Shay Hodge became a father, but the news wasn't all good.

His daughter, Shavareia, was born premature and things looked bleak.

"She wasn't supposed to live past one," Hodge said.

The one-year lifespan was a massive improvement over the initial three-day prognosis.

The doctors diagnosed Shavareia with holoprosencephaly, a disorder in which the middle part of the brain doesn't develop during pregnancy.

And Hodge wasn't ready to be a dad. He was young, and some people thought his attitude wasn't so great, Morton High School football coach David Parker said.

"When I first got here, he was a typical teenager. He thought he knew more than he knew," Parker said. "Shay had a problem. Anytime Shay messed up, he was harder on himself than anyone else was. Sometimes that got misinterpreted as a bad attitude."

But for whatever problems there were, there was a plan. Hodge's mother, Victoria, took a big role in raising Shavareia, who surprised doctors by surviving.

Victoria Hodge took control of the situation. The doctor visits, the shots and the medication fell on her shoulders.

"It was stressful on him, and I tried to take the stress off him by handling things with the child," she said. "I wanted him to be able to go to school and focus on football."

With help from "momma," Hodge was able to spend enough time on the football field to earn a scholarship to Ole Miss.

After arriving in Oxford, Hodge became a big part of a young receiving corps. He played in all 12 games and started two last season as a true freshman.

But instead of spending his weekend nights enjoying the perks and attention that come with being a football player at a big school, Hodge took a two-and-a-half hour ride back to Morton on Saturday nights.

While home, he was the one who dealt with the late-night crying. But he also got reacquainted with his daughter's smile and curly hair.

The year produced special memories for Hodge - but it was either too hot or too cold for Shaveria to attend the game.

Victoria Hodge said her son struggled with his mind in two different places - on the field and at home with his little girl. Regardless, Shay Hodge was the Rebels' third leading receiver.

Hodge was hopeful things would start to click for the team. He also was ready to compete for a starting job in the spring, but then everything changed.

Shay took a hit bigger than one any defender could put on him. On March 17, Shavareia passed away.

Hodge left the team to be with his family, getting the news from his family's faces.

"They didn't even want to tell me," he said. "They just told me to hurry up and come back. I didn't think nothing of it until I got in there and saw them crying. I knew what it was."

But the baby, who doctors hadn't expected to make it past her first birthday, showed in her final weeks the kind of fighter she was.

"The first week, she was really sick," Hodge said. "The next week, she died and came back. We were all crying because we thought she was gone. Then, it seemed like she was going to fully recover, be all right and get to leave the hospital.

"Then a day or two later, she passed."

And like that, his angel was gone.

"I had a hard time for a long, long time," Hodge said. "I don't know when it hit me that she'd always be gone. But, it did."

Hugh Freeze, the Rebels receiving coach, heard the news and his heart sank.
"I can only imagine how tough it was. I have three daughters of my own, and they're everything to me, Freeze said. "To see him go through that, it had to have been so difficult."

Freeze knew about dealing with loss. While head football coach at Briarcrest Christian High School in Memphis, one of his players was killed.

"I believe coaching is about more than football; it's about hopefully helping them through life and playing a part in them growing up," Freeze said.

But in this case, Freeze wondered if Hodge would recover.

"We never addressed it, and he handled it as well as he could have," Freeze said. "But when he first had to go home, you think in your mind, 'How would I be able to continue on?'

"It entered my mind (that he might not be back), but it never entered his. I admire him for how he handled this."

Hodge rushed backed to the practice field, eager to play his pain away.

"I think it was very important to him at that time," Freeze said. "To have something like football to occupy your time and energy, having something to turn to can help give you some relief, even if it's just for a few hours."

Within the team, Hodge also found comfort in his teammates,

Fellow receiver Mike Wallace didn't know exactly what his teammate was feeling, but he did now about loss.

Prior to the 2006 season, Wallace's brother, Arnold Green, was killed.

When Wallace got the news, he looked to him teammates, particularly Patrick Willis, for help.

Willis also lost a brother last summer.

"All of us are family. It's part of life. Last season, before the year, my brother got killed. I was down, but those guys lifted me up," Wallace said. "I just tried to show what I learned from those times with him."

But things didn't get easier for Shay. In fact, they got worse.

A string of deaths shocked his family, including the passing of an aunt who lived with Shay and his family.

Then, during seven-on-seven drills this summer, Hodge broke his foot.

His distraction was gone, but unlike the bone in his right foot, his spirit couldn't be broken.

Victoria Hodge encouraged her son to use spirituality as a way to cope.

"It all happened back-to-back. I almost had it. I got to thinking that I was doing something wrong, something real bad," Shay Hodge said. "My momma started talking to me, telling me I need to get God in my life more. I'd go to church to sometime. She was like, 'Maybe try going all the time - try more, read the Bible.'

"It's why a changed my number back to 3, and I found new reasons to wear it because Jesus rose on the third day."

Hodge worked through rehab in time to be on the field for the Rebels' opener at Memphis, surprising even Freeze.

"I was worried. How much can he take?" Freeze said. "To his credit, he worked through it and came back as soon as possible - sooner than some believed he could. I'm thrilled with the way his playing."

Hodge's response to the loss of life in his family and to injury left an impression on Rebel head coach Ed Orgeron.

"It's amazing. His grades picked up. His work ethic picked up," Orgeron said. "Then, he gets hurt and he still stays positive. He's probably one of the best players on our team. You talk about a guy who handles adversity, it's him."

Hodge said his mother told him to use the loss of his daughter as motivation.

"She told me to keep my head up. She wanted me to use football to make my daughter proud - to see her dad out there doing good," Hodge said. "I dedicated the whole season - anything I do - to her.

"Right before I go out, I get on my knees or sit at my locker, and I tell my girl I'm going out there to do it for her."

And when the Rebels hosted Missouri, Shay gave his little girl a reason to smile.

With just over a minute left in the first half, Hodge ran a hard slant to the inside, catching a five-yard pass for a touch down.

Before the play, Freeze was hoping things would work out.

"I believe in Shay and think he's a really good receiver," Freeze said. "When he had the opportunity, you can't tell the quarterback where to throw it, but I was crossing my fingers that he'd throw it to Shay."

It even took Hodge a minute to realize what had happened, but after he did, he pointed to the sky.

"It was special. It kind of surprised me because I thought I dropped it," Shay said. " It was way behind me, and I reached back and realized I got it. It clicked in my mind that I just scored."

In the stands, the celebration began without a sense of restraint.

"I think everybody in my section knew it was my son," Victoria Hodge said.

Things were turning around.

"It feels like everything's all good now," Hodge said. "I think all the bad stuff is going to stop happening. It's just time to play football and do whatever comes to me."

And football helped get him through a dark hour. Wallace said he can see just what football means to Hodge.

"He's always joking around at practice and smiling," Wallace said.

Smiling - just like daddy's little girl.


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