Friday, September 18, 2015

Perfection Fuels Gerald Hodges' Football Engine

Photo Courtesy of Luke Inman

Football is more than a game, it’s life for Vikings linebacker Gerald Hodges. Find out how one quote inspired Hodges and transformed him into the NFL player he is today.

Updated: September 18th, 2015 12:35pm

By: Daniel House

“You’re not going to be perfect, but try your best to be a perfectionist.”

When Vikings linebacker Gerald Hodges reaches the stadium, he molds into a different player. His comedic personality remains in the locker room and the long walk through the tunnel transforms him into a disciplined, focused, and tenacious athlete. That didn’t just happen overnight.

In fact, football has always been an integral part of Gerald Hodges’ life.

Back in Paulsboro, New Jersey, Gerald Hodges learned the art of football. It didn’t matter whether it was practice or a full-fledged game, he put everything on the field for his teammates. In a town of 6,023, the Paulsboro High School community inspired Gerald Hodges to pursue a blossoming dream.

“I learned the nitty gritty parts of football in that high school,” Hodges explained. “Two of the main sports back home were wrestling and football. If you lived in Paulsboro, then you were going to play those sports.”

Hodges played quarterback and safety in high school and was recruited heavily to play at the collegiate level. His family played a pivotal role in his decision to join Penn State.

“I want to definitely thank my parents for keeping me busy with sports growing up and allowing me to go out and play sports and things like that,” Hodges said. “I had a lot of offers coming out, but I always wanted to give my parents and my family a chance to see me play football in college. Penn State was only about 3 ½ hours from my hometown and it was a big-time college.”

When Hodges arrived at Penn State, he had no previous experience at the linebacker position. That alone was a daunting proposition for a young athlete who was transitioning to a power football conference. However, one man took Hodges under his wing and taught him how to play linebacker. Former Penn State linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden worked with Hodges every step of the way as he made a transition to the new position.

“I didn’t know anything about linebacker going into my freshman year and they moved me there and [Vanderlinden] worked with me every step of the way. I was hard headed and didn’t really know too much about it, but knew I was athletic and could get to the ball. He really taught me the ins-and-outs of how to play the linebacker position and how to be disciplined,” Hodges recalled.

It wasn’t easy for Hodges to handle this transition as he tackled some personal issues, but he had so much support from not only Vanderlinden, but everyone in the Penn State community who rallied around him. However, he was greatly impacted by former Penn State Graduate Assistant Elijiah Robinson.

“As far as being someone to be able to talk to and when I was going through some things personally, I had a big brother on campus who was our graduate assistant -- Elijah Robinson. He was another guy I leaned on when I needed someone to talk to, especially since I was so far away from home,” he stated.

Not only did he have an excellent support system at Penn State, but he was coached by current Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien. O’Brien implemented an NFL schedule to Penn State’s practice plan that prepared his players for the next level. Hodges says O’Brien’s coaching style had a major impact on the player he has become.

“I definitely have to give a lot of credit to Bill O’ Brien for getting me started,” Hodges said.

As a senior in 2012, Hodges notched 109 tackles, a sack, and two interceptions. He was one of the main pieces of the Penn State defense and earned second-team All-Big Ten selections during his final two collegiate seasons.

Hodges is represented by Priority Sports and he is extremely pleased with how they treated him as he prepared to enter the next chapter of his career. His agents Deryk Gilmore and Mike McCartney are always accessible and willing to help Hodges in any way.

“[Priority Sports] takes their time with you. You’re dealing with them and they’re on the phone and they’re taking their time with you. You feel like you’re the only one in that agency. I like the way they take their time with each player to make sure they are alright not just on the football field, but off-the-field and things like that. Just being able to trust those guys is the biggest part,” Hodges reiterated.

With the pedigree Hodges established in college, NFL teams started to take note. All of the hard work Hodges put into transitioning to linebacker was about to pay off. He was selected in the fourth round by the Minnesota Vikings in 2013.

Entering the Vikings defensive system, Hodges was a very raw talent and primarily contributed on special teams. However, his second year opened the door to a new opportunity.

As that door swung open, Mike Zimmer answered.

The Vikings hired Zimmer to re-tool their defense and Hodges’ playing style directly translated to the system. After gaining more experience in the scheme, Hodges’ ended up starting seven games at linebacker. He left an impression with the coaches as he corralled 51 total tackles and an interception as an outside linebacker in 2014. Hodges felt a season in Mike Zimmer’s defensive scheme not only enhanced his game, but made an impact on every player.

“Coach Zimmer has a diverse type of way he calls this thing. He can sit back in zone, he can blitz you, and there are so many things Coach Zimmer can do out of his defense that complements not just myself, but guys on the entire team,” Hodges explained.

This off-season, Hodges continued to improve his game and it showed on the practice fields at training camp. He was flying all over the field and was a vocal leader on the defense. About two weeks into training camp, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer decided to move Hodges to middle linebacker. Zimmer at least wanted to experiment with his talent at a different positon.

“I moved there a couple weeks ago and I’ve been loving it ever since. Coach Zimmer and them know the type of game I like to play. They know I like to come downhill and play football,” Hodges said. “They know I like to hit people. They know I pay attention, they know I’m going to go out there and do my job when I step on the field. I definitely earned their trust these past two years.”

At first it seemed like this was going to be a short-lived switch for Hodges, but that definitely wasn’t the case. He continued to perform well and the coaches simply had to find a way to keep his talent on the field in a deep linebacker group. The only way to do this was by starting him at middle linebacker.

Hodges was named the starter and made his debut at middle linebacker on Monday Night Football against the San Francisco 49ers last week. Not much went right for the Vikings, who dropped the contest 20-3, but Hodges said it still was a surreal moment for him.

“It was a blessing that I can’t even describe. It was just exciting to be out there and I had a blast being out there with the team. I know things didn’t go exactly how we wanted it, but just the experience of getting out there and getting all of those first game jitters out of the way. Now we can finally settle in as a Vikings team and get started,” proclaimed Hodges.

Hodges didn’t feel the team played their best football against San Francisco, but is confident this experience will be humbling for everyone involved with the team.

“[The team] didn’t hit on any cylinders. As a defense, offense, and special teams, you have to play complementary football and you have to build off of each other. You have to help each other as far as field position and things like that,” stated Hodges. “It definitely was a humbling experience not just for myself, but for the entire team, to let everyone know all that great talk about the Vikings, we still have to go out there, and play to prove we are a good team. We can’t just let the paper talk for us.”

As Hodges shook hands with the 49ers on Monday night, he was greeted by a former Penn State teammate. San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman had a special message for him. Bowman embraced Hodges and told him that if he keeps doing things the right way, he is going to be successful in this league.

Before Bowman walked away, he reminded Hodges to remember what Coach Vanderlinden always said. Hodges eyes instantly lit up as he recited the line that might have made the greatest impact on his football career.

“You’re not going to be perfect, but try your best to be a perfectionist,’ Hodges said to Bowman.

They embraced one last time and Hodges walked off the field after his first start. That quote continually raced through his head as he made his way to the locker room.

This wasn’t the first challenge Hodges had endured and it certainly wouldn’t be his last.

However, whether it was transitioning from quarterback to safety or from outside to middle linebacker, Hodges never forgot the single most important phrase of his football career.

That night was a reminder that not only had he made it, but he hadn’t forgotten those who impacted him along the way.

For Gerald Hodges, that's more important than any outcome or score – it's life.