Nov. 4, 2009
By John Denton
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Reading from this script, the one that not only has his son improbably returning home to play for the school he grew up rooting for, but also serving as somewhat of an offensive savior, is downright surreal for Karl Hodges.
His son, of course, is Brett Hodges, the gritty, gutty senior who has willed UCF back into the Conference USA race with his clutch quarterback play. Hodges was one of the heroes of UCF's thrilling 21-20 defeat of conference rival Marshall on Sunday by crafting the best passing day for a Knights quarterback in six seasons.
Hodges, a native of nearby Winter Springs, grew up dreaming of doing just this very thing. On most Saturdays in the fall a few years ago, he was the kid outside of the Citrus Bowl in the black Daunte Culpepper jersey throwing the football around with his dad.
He might have grown up just minutes from UCF's campus, but he took a circuitous route to get here, first stopping for four years at Wake Forest. But he's back now doing what he always dreamed of - playing with the ball in his hands and leading UCF's offense.
And forgive Karl Hodges now if he's somewhat swept up in the beauty of how the feel-good story has come full circle for his son. Even if the stress and pressure of watching it all is slowly killing him one second-half rally at a time.
``It's very cool, but it's also very nerve-wracking for his mother and myself,'' Karl said last Sunday night while waiting for Brett to exit the UCF locker room after the Marshall victory. ``When Brett was growing up and playing AAU basketball and high school football, I wasn't this nervous. But because he's going to UCF, we're so wanting him to do well and that added pressure makes it even tougher for all of us.''
But Brett Hodges
might be the least affected of all by the storyline he's re-writing these days. He is so calm, strangely so at times coach George O'Leary
says, that it seems as if nothing ruffles him. Standing in the pocket in the face of the rush certainly doesn't bother him, so why should the pressure of trying to lead your childhood team back to prominence?
He sometimes winces at the mention of his storybook return back to Orlando, thinking that concept is a little sappy and too dramatic. And he groans at the suggestion that he's been a one-man savior for UCF's offense - even though he's taken it from the bottom of the NCAA rankings last season to respectability eight games into this year.
But Hodges did admit recently to being somewhat in awe of how his college football career has panned out. He is, after all, living out a dream.
``It is pretty cool what's going on,'' he said candidly. ``I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. My four years at Wake (Forest) instilled a lot of things in me, and they are all paying off now. That (game-winning) touchdown (against Marshall) was a great feeling. I'm having a lot of fun out there.''
He's having fun, but sometimes it's hard to tell that. O'Leary likes his quarterbacks to speak up, command the huddle play with great passion. He admitted that he got somewhat of a poor read on Hodges initially because of the quarterback's calm, unflappable persona.
``Sometimes it's hard to tell if he's asleep or awake,'' O'Leary joked earlier in the season. ``But he's a really bright kid and he just doesn't get rattled by much at all.''
Never was that more apparent than this past Sunday when Hodges took one big hit after another from Marshall's stellar defense and he still passed for 342 yards and two touchdowns. It was the best passing day by a UCF quarterback since 2003, and Hodges had to do it while repeatedly waving off O'Leary, who feared his quarterback was too hurt to continue after getting blasted following several throws.
O'Leary is as tough as they come as far as old-school coaches go, but after the performance he raved about his quarterback's grit and fight, saying those are traits that have now spread throughout the team.
``I took some pretty good shots out there, but the offense needed me on the field,'' said Hodges, who limped on a gimpy knee and needed another icepack for his bruised ribs. ``I just had to suck it up and go out there and finish the game off.''
Defensive end Bruce Miller, UCF's defensive MVP all season, concurred that the Knights draw great strength from their quarterback.
``It says a lot about him that he's so willing to stand in the pocket and let plays develop so that he can keep making plays for us,'' Miller said. ``He just keeps delivering for us.''
He delivered in the final seconds against Marshall, first hitting Kamar Aiken for a 19-yard strike that got UCF down to the 1-yard line and then finding Rocky Ross for the game-tying points with 23 seconds to play. Nick Cattoi's extra point gave UCF one of its most exciting come-from-behind victories ever.
Hodges has become somewhat of a master of the comeback this season. He replaced starter Rob Calabrese in the opener against Samford and led the Knights back from four different deficits for a victory. Against Buffalo, UCF wiped out a 10-point halftime deficit with Hodges directing four second-half scoring drives. And he had two touchdown passes in the second half against Memphis for another come-from-behind victory.
Hodges' ability to be calm in the face of adversity is a trait that he's had since he was a basketball and football standout as a youngster, Karl Hodges said. And he credits Brett's patience while playing behind Riley Skinner for three seasons at Wake Forest for his beyond-his-years maturity now.
``Brett always played competitive sports and whether it was the basketball court or football field he learned to deal with tough situations,'' Karl said. ``I really think he grew up at Wake (Forest). He had an opportunity to play, but got hurt and then Riley (Skinner) played awesome. Unless Riley got hurt he knew he wasn't going to play and he just learned to deal with that situation. I give him a lot of credit for handling it the way he did.''
And he couldn't be handling this transition to UCF much better. He picked up new coordinator Charlie Taaffe's offense right away and he's hit on 57.1 percent of his passes this season while throwing for 1,558 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Put it all together - the return home, the savior type of success and the playing for his favorite school - and it's quite a special experience for the Hodges' family, Karl admitted.
``We're not making as big a deal about it as everybody else is, but it is neat with Brett playing back in Orlando and for UCF,'' he said. ``It's pretty cool for all of us.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears several times per week on UCFAthletics.com. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.