It's an unbearably hot day in Antioch, California, and Khalil Hodge is losing to his little brother.
The two are sprinting up a steep hill under the watchful eye of their father. Naturally gifted with tremendous speed, Kadeem bounds up the incline like a gazelle while Khalil furiously chases behind. After 10 or 12 ascents, they head to a nearby park for speed ladders and cone drills. The two often dress up in Oakland Raiders halloween costumes during their training to get used to the feeling of running in a helmet. Again, Kadeem sets the pace, and Khalil labors to keep up. From the moment Kadeem was born 452 days after Khalil, this is the way it was. When Khalil set a PR of 14.3 in the 100-Meter Dash in sixth grade, Kadeem ran a 13.4 the next year. "It was like my younger son was the rabbit, and Khalil was always chasing him. Always wanting to outdo his brother," Howard Hodge says. "(Khalil) was a hard worker, but he never had that natural, given speed that came to his brother."
While Khalil lacked the natural speed that made Kadeem a track star by middle school, he was a superb athlete in his own right. Growing up a chunky kid, he played his peewee football with kids two to three years older than himself. A football IQ well beyond his years allowed him to hold his own. "He was a bigger kid, and instead of making him lose weight to play at a lower level, I let him play with the older kids," Howard, who has spent roughly two decades as a football coach at various levels, says. "Because (Khalil) was able to understand the game, he was able to compete with guys 2-3 years older than him."
Khalil was a linebacker from day one. Long before he became a prospect for the 2019 NFL Draft, he knew football could take him far. "My dad always said, 'This is how you can get your school paid for, this is how you can get a degree—through football.' I kinda took those words in, and I've been working for it for a long time," Khalil says.
Workouts devised by Howard were a daily occurrence for about as far back as Khalil can remember. His father would sometimes bring a pre-teen Khalil to the high school practices he coached and let him run drills against kids four of five grades above him.
"He's been working out at a senior-in-high-school level since he was 8 years old," Howard says. "I was trying to teach him to be mentally tough. So when it does get mentally tough, he rises above and gets better. That's been his story his whole life. He's had a lot of adversity in his life, and through adversity, he's always raised above."
During his senior season at St. Mary's High School in Stockton, California, Khalil led the nation with an astonishing 262 tackles.
"I worked so hard I remember going into my senior year of high school, I wasn't really heavily recruited, and I figured if I have the most tackles, how can I not start picking up offers? That was kinda my mindset," Khalil says.
A game against Buhach Colony that year still sticks out in his father's mind. Khalil's football genius seemed to border on psychic. He made the first six tackles of the game and finished with 22 tackles, an interception and two forced fumbles.
Yet as dominant as Khalil was, he inexplicably remained invisible to D1 programs. His production was through the roof. He was a team captain. He was a strong student. Yet he graduated from St. Mary's with zero D1 offers. He had a couple FCS opportunities, and many friends urged him to pursue those. But Khalil chose to bet on himself. He enrolled at City College of San Francisco, a powerhouse junior college program, with a simple plan—ball out, get more exposure, and achieve the dream of going D1.
"I realized it was do or die. In JUCO, you can either get lost in the shuffle or really make waves. It really taught me to grow up and be a man and make things happen," Khalil says. He continued to live at home while attending CCSF, taking a two-hour train ride both ways each day. He quickly won a starting job and became the leader of a defense that helped the Rams finish 12-1.
Over 2,500 miles away, head coach Lance Leipold and his staff at the University at Buffalo were desperately searching for a middle linebacker. Once they saw Hodge's JUCO tape, they knew they'd found their man. "We needed to get a replacement (for a guy who was graduating), and an immediate help guy," says Chris Simpson, linebackers coach at UB. "We went out and sought out a Khalil Hodge-type guy."
Fast forward just a few months, and Hodge was the Bulls' starting middle linebacker. The UB staff was blown away by how quickly he picked up the defense. At about 240 pounds, Hodge was also ox-strong and surprisingly light on his feet. In his first season at Buffalo, he tallied an incredible 123 tackles en rout to second-team All-MAC honors. The gaudy tackling totals he's posted all throughout his football career largely stem from an ability to take a mental snapshot of what the offense is doing, process it, and react to it all in an instant. He also played running back up until his sophomore year of high school, and that experience of being in his target's shoes gives him an edge.
"I feel like I kinda understand where the running back is trying to go, the holes he's trying to see. Because at the end of the day playing linebacker, I'm seeing the exact same thing the running back's seeing," Hodge says. "I feel like a lot of it's (also) pre-snap. A lot of it's everything leading up to before you even put your hands on the ballcarrier."
Hodge became a film study fiend at UB, deconstructing opponents' tendencies by situation, formation, alignment and personnel. Simpson says by the time Hodge graduated, he had the equivalent of a master's degree in the UB defense. All that intel molded a set of instincts that allowed Hodge to read and react to plays as quickly as any defender in the nation. "Once I see something, I'm kinda just gone," Hodge says.
Hodge's junior season produced another bounty of statistics. He had a school FBS-era record with 154 tackles. He was named first-team All-MAC and led the Bulls to a 6-6 record—their first bowl-eligible season since 2013. He was living his dream.
Then, in December of 2017, Khalil got a shocking phone call—Kadeem had been shot and killed in their hometown of Antioch. Khalil's heart was torn open. The next few weeks were a whirlwind of devastation and grief. The Hodge family mourned a life cut senselessly short. Khalil believed the best way to honor his fallen brother would be working twice as hard to achieve his football dream. "A year ago, when he lost his brother, he just dedicated his whole off-season to his brother," Howard says. "He had aspirations to play in the NFL. He (wanted) to be the best linebacker in the country."
Khalil, who'd already served as a captain during his junior season at Buffalo, took his work ethic and focus to maniacal heights. He dialed in his nutrition and banished junk food. He carried a gallon jug everywhere and hydrated relentlessly. He attacked every rep in the weight room like it was his last. As the months on the calendar turned, Hodge's body transformed. "He really did change his body and handled things as a professional in terms of what he was putting in his body and doing to his body," Simpson says.
Simpson also worked with Hodge to become a more viciously efficient tackler. While he rarely had issue getting guys down during his sophomore or junior years, he didn't always make them feel it. "Initially, he was more of a get-them-down-any-way-possible—pull 'em down, drag 'em down, trip 'em up—type tackler. I think he worked on, going into his senior year, he really started to put his body on people and try to get some knock back, and when the play ended it was going to end right then and there," Simpson says.
Hodge achieved such a level of command over the Bulls' defense he could be relied upon to make or correct calls for other positions. His ability to fix teammates' oversights earned him the nickname, "The Eraser." "Many times, he was able to catch adjustments that were typically made by safeties and guys in the secondary," Simpson says. Team periods against Tyree Jackson, Buffalo's 6-foot-7, rocket-armed quarterback who's likely to play in the NFL next year, turned into 22-man chess matches.
In 2018, Hodge helepd lead Buffalo to their first double-digit win season in the program's 124-year history. Prior to the fourth quarter of every game, Hodge would walk out in front of the Bulls' sideline, pound his chest twice, then throw up four fingers. His teammates would respond with a battle cry of "We Will!" The chant symbolized the team's will to win the fourth quarter and win the game.
"I'm not afraid to get up in front and take lead and take charge. I'm someone who's trying to bring the whole team up. At the end of the day, my No. 1 goal is to win. Whatever I have to do, that's what I'm going to do," Hodge says.
He was again named first-team All-MAC last season are recording 143 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.
Since training for the pre-draft process at EXOS in Carlsbad, California, Hodge is now on the precipice of realizing a lifelong dream. And just as he was coming out of high school, he's an underdog. Hodge was not invited to the NFL Combine, and CBS Sports currently has him as their 208th-rated prospect in this class. Remember, we're talking about a guy who had 419 tackles over the past three season—73 more than the next-highest player in college football. But Hodge has made people regret overlooking him before, and he's eager to do it again. He's come too far to stop now.
"When things get hard, and I really have to look back and refocus, I'm looking back on my family. That's who I do it for. My mom, my dad, we've been through a lot," Khalil says. "I know that they have my back so much, I can't stop. They're right behind me every step of the way."
Photo Credit: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images, Icon Sportswire/Getty Images