LOS ANGELES — As the stampede into the college football transfer portal continues, there is a popular conception of how it works: Players enter their names and are immediately deluged with calls from coaches; recruiting visits are lined up; and within days every player has a new home, where the grass is greener, the playing time is abundant and the endorsement deals go cha-ching.
Johnny Hodges had a different experience.
He was unhappy at the United States Naval Academy, where he was a lacrosse player before he was a football linebacker. He left the team before the end of the 2021 season and entered the portal to … crickets.
Hodges sent emails to coaches. He sent emails to recruiting coordinators. Nothing.
His father, commandeering Hodges’s email account while he studied for final exams, sent even more emails — to big schools, like Michigan, and smaller ones, like William & Mary, about 50 in all. Silence.
Days turned into weeks. Eventually, Northwestern, which won one game this season, was polite enough to say he wasn’t good enough. Towson, which plays in the Football Championship Subdivision, offered him a scholarship, but that wasn’t appealing. He told his father his football days were done.
“At the end of the day I’m a realist,” Hodges said. “So when I wasn’t hearing anything back and I was reaching out to every school, twice, and reaching out to F.C.S. schools and I wasn’t hearing back, I was like, you know what? Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Texas Christian’s transformation from an unranked, underestimated afterthought to lining up against the reigning champion Georgia in the College Football Playoff title game on Monday night has been fueled by a cast of unlikely heroes. And it is hard to find a more improbable one than Hodges — the player nobody else wanted who leads the Horned Frogs’ defense in tackles.
Hodges, who grew up in Darnestown, Md., hadn’t even been to Texas last January when he accepted a scholarship offer from the defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie, packed his sport utility vehicle to the roof and drove 20 hours with his father through a winter storm to Fort Worth to launch a whirlwind journey.
“Sometimes it doesn’t feel like real life, coming from where I came from,” Hodges said.
Hodges during a news conference last week.Credit…LM Otero/Associated Press
It’s not as if this experience has been without some reminders of what he left behind.
Three months before Hodges left Annapolis, he signed a contract that service academies require of all students at the start of their junior year. It binds them to a five-year military commitment after graduation, but if they leave they must reimburse the government for the cost of the education, training and stipends they have received, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Academy students can leave in their first two years without recriminations.)
Hodges said he has hired an attorney, as has his family, and that discussions were ongoing with the Navy, though he declined to discuss his case in detail. He said it may take many years to be resolved.
“If I stayed, it would have ruined my life for the long run,” said Hodges, who said he was so miserable that he suffered from depression. “Money doesn’t matter. I’m not worried about it. Everything happens for a reason. I have a really good lawyer and I’m comfortable with that.”
Taking on the Navy is consistent with Hodges’s athletic path, which has seemed to sail into the headwinds of convention at every turn.
At a time when the youth sports complex encourages early specialization, Hodges and his older brother, Joe, who works as a civil engineer in the Kansas City area, dabbled in a variety of sports. At one point, Hodges was more intent on becoming the next Michael Phelps than the next Ray Lewis. In high school, while his football contemporaries were off at college camps running the 40-yard dash, he was competing in other sports. When he committed to the Naval Academy at the start of his junior year, it was to play lacrosse.
And yet, there he was in the fall, an accomplished high school football player hiding in plain sight. Hodges helped Quince Orchard High win the Maryland 4A state championship in 2018. He was chosen to the Washington Post’s all-Metro area first team, which included would-be college standouts like Alabama safety DeMarcco Hellams, Clemson defensive tackle Bryan Bresee and Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams, this season’s Heisman Trophy winner.
“Growing up was difficult for him,” said his father, Brian Hodges, who recalled a lacrosse coach being upset that Johnny, then 12, missed the start of a tournament to attend a swim meet. “Everybody wants you to play one sport. We fought that all the way through.”
Now, it is possible to see in Hodges, who has filled out to 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, the fluid hips and the hand-eye coordination of a lacrosse and basketball player, and the broad shoulders and sturdy back of a swimmer. The enthusiasm of an athlete whose attachment to the sport hasn’t become a burden is also apparent.
“That’s the biggest thing with college athletes — they’re so burned out by the time they get here that they don’t want to play any more,” Hodges said. “I didn’t have to go through the anxiety of camps because I never went to them.”
Hodges would sit in the stands as a plebe in his first season at Annapolis, watching the football team and not missing the sport. But when the coronavirus pandemic shut down his lacrosse season in the spring of 2020, he gave football a second thought. He didn’t get much encouragement from the coaches, but he joined the team and got his first start in the season finale against Army.
One year later, Hodges was out the door.
“It’s meant to break you down and build you up,” Hodges said of the academy. “I’ve seen a lot of that since I’ve come over here. I wish I was a little more mature when I was there to see it from that kind of perspective. I had a tough time with my coaches.”
Said his father: “Let me put it this way. When T.C.U. preaches family, they’re preaching family you want to be in. When Johnny and I spoke to Coach Gillespie for the first time, on FaceTime, he said, ‘I’ll be Johnny’s dad away from home.’ Then he tells my wife, ‘Here’s my wife’s cell number. We’re available 24-7.’ That was music to my ears.”
At T.C.U., there are signs of what might have made a good Navy officer.
Hodges diligently studies film. He is among the first to arrive at the football facility in the morning. He answers questions from reporters with “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir.” He shaved his head about a month ago. He is often in bed by 8 p.m. He assiduously folds his laundry as if he is awaiting inspection.
“Normal Navy stuff,” said Griffin Kell, the kicker who lives with Hodges and punter Jordy Sandy.
That Hodges ended up on this stage is at its core a story of serendipity.
Just as Hodges had given up hope of continuing to play football, he got a call from a number he did not recognize. It was Gillespie, who was hired a month earlier by the new head coach, Sonny Dykes.
Gillespie called again the next day, telling Hodges he must be a modest young man because he did not post his offers on social media. “Eh, yes, sir,” Hodges said, trying to keep a straight face. “Yes, sir.”
Then Gillespie made an offer.
Hodges asked if it was a scholarship or walk-on.
“A full ride,” Gillespie said.
As it turned out, Gillespie, who also coaches linebackers, had remembered Hodges from when he coached at Tulsa, which is in the American Athletic Conference with Navy. Dykes had recalled Hodges from his days at Southern Methodist, which is also in the American.
Hodges, who started eight games in his two seasons at Navy, happened to have his two best performances against S.M.U. and Tulsa with a combined 21 tackles, including four for losses, an interception, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.
Gillespie said if he had not seen Hodges, “I probably would have pulled up his stuff and said, ‘You know, maybe. We’ll keep our eye on him,’ and he probably would have gone somewhere else or not been playing football. I don’t know.
“I got to watch enough of him to sit there and say, I want a guy like that in our room.”