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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Sidelined by fate

MOUNT HOPE -- The arm used to do so many things on the football field.

It hauled in touchdown passes. It wrapped around ballcarriers. It received handoffs from quarterbacks. It warded off oncoming tacklers. It signaled for timeouts. It exchanged handshakes with opponents.

Zac Hodge loved that right arm. Of course, he didn't realize it then.

He does now.

Confined to a wheelchair on the home sideline at Mount Hope's high school football game against Fayetteville last week, Hodge wished that right arm still existed.

Instead, he lost it last month during a motorcycle accident in which he also broke both bones in his right leg.

"It's difficult to be on the sidelines instead of on the field," said Hodge, who often rubs the nub where his lower arm, hand and fingers once were connected, longing for them to be again. "It's rough."

As always has been the case with him, Hodge has accepted his new role with a whatever-is-best-for-the-team attitude.

Cheering with the same intensity he exuded when he played, Hodge refused to let a double-digit deficit keep him from supporting his teammates last Friday during their lopsided loss to a Fayette County rival.

Wearing a black Mount Hope sweatshirt over his blue jersey with a gold 48 across the chest and a gold Mustang on each of the sleeves, Hodge offered words of encouragement as teammate Mike Cottle pushed him up and down the sideline.

"Come on, Hope," he screamed.

"Hit him," he yelled.

"Fight for it," he shouted.

"Don't give up," he hollered.

It was the second consecutive game attended by Hodge, whom doctors released just in time for him to attend the Mustangs' homecoming contest and ceremony two weeks ago.
The first game back was special because Mount Hope Coach Eddie Souk Jr. allowed Hodge to do the pregame coin toss.

"It's helpful to be on the sidelines," said Hodge, a junior utility player who misses the contact of the game. "I still feel like I'm part of the team that way.

"I get to see all of my buddies out there playing. I wish I were out there playing with them. If I can't play with them, I can cheer for them. Hopefully, I can pump them up and help them out."

A date that forever will be infamous to Americans will be doubly so for Hodge. He doesn't remember much from the horrific wreck that changed his life Sept. 11.

Riding a friend's Yamaha R1 1000 -- a motorcycle the company advertises as its fastest and lightest, one that will reach a top speed of 200 mph -- Hodge was traveling on West Virginia 16 from Price Hill toward Mount Hope.

"I had ridden it before," said Hodge, a tall and lanky 16-year-old who wears glasses and braces like other boys his age. "I had been on it about 10 times.

"I felt comfortable on it."

Too comfortable, in fact.

A typical teenager who considered himself invincible, Hodge decided to test his mettle on the motorcycle.

He pushed himself and the bike too far.

Police estimate Hodge left the road at 130 mph.

"I was going faster than my guardian angel could fly," Hodge said.

He slammed the bike into a ditch and rolled it over a bank.

All that was left was a mangled mess of maroon metal.

The impact tossed him from the bike and through a patch of trees.
It broke his right tibia and fibula. Both were sticking through his skin.

It also left the lower half of his right arm hanging by a piece of skin. Doctors later amputated the limb. They told him that injury -- albeit a difficult one to accept -- saved his life.

"They said when I was rolling, it rolled my arm so tight that it cut the circulation off to the main vein, which kept me from bleeding to death," said Hodge, who thanks God for protecting him during the wreck. "They said it served as a tourniquet."

Emergency responders transported Hodge to Raleigh General Hospital, where he received initial treatment before he was airlifted to Charleston Area Medical Center for emergency surgeries.

He remained on life support for five days and stayed in the hospital for three weeks.

"Everything is a blur," said Hodge, who didn't open his eyes for two days and couldn't talk for five days. "I don't remember any of that."

Likewise, Hodge can't recall what he said or how he felt when he realized his arm was gone.

"It was," Hodge said, pausing to think of the appropriate word, "crazy."

His parents remember his first words after the accident.

"He asked if he was in trouble," said his mother, Selena Hall, a nurse whose profession allows her to better care for her son as he recovers. "We told him he wasn't, and we were just happy that he was alive."

However, he probably would have been in trouble if his injuries weren't as severe as they are.

His mother specifically warned him about riding motorcycles two days before the accident. In fact, she forbade him from doing it during that conversation.

"He told me he wouldn't do it, but he did," Hall said. "I try not to say I told you so, but that is the reason I never wanted him to get on one of those things. Things like this can happen; kids don't think it will happen to them, but, as he has learned, it does.

"I hope his friends will learn a lesson from this. Your parents tell you these things for a reason. We don't do it to be mean to you or hard on you. We do it because we love you and we want to protect you."

The accident definitely has had an impact on his friends.
"We realize it could have been any one of us on that bike," senior quarterback Matt Craddock said. "We know how lucky we are."

To his credit, Hodge accepts responsibility for his actions.

"I don't have anybody to blame but myself," said Hodge, who can't return to school until his leg heals. "It will be tough, but I will be all right.

"I'm right-handed. So, I will have to learn how to do everything left-handed now. But I'm not worried about it. I don't think it will be too hard to get used to. I will be OK. I will overcome it."

A prosthetic arm will help. It could allow him to pursue his passions -- playing football and hunting deer.

"Once he gets a prosthesis, there is no limit to what he can do," Hall said. "The doctors have told him it will be up to him."

That knowledge excites Hodge, who wants to return to the football field in 2006 for his senior season.

He already has begun therapy to strengthen the muscles that will control his prosthetic arm.

"He is working very hard," Hall said. "He wants to be as functional as possible. A lot of people in his situation -- both adults and teenagers -- would have a pity party for themselves, but not him. He refuses to do that. I'm proud of him."

Souk doesn't doubt Hodge, a Midland Trail transfer whose versatility and unselfishness allowed Mount Hope coaches to stick him wherever they needed him.

He played at least four positions this season and was set to move to another one before the accident occurred.

"He was an average player who gave it his all on every play," Souk said. "Those are the kind of kids you win with. We miss him on the field. If he wants to play again, I know he can do it because he has heart."

Although Mount Hope (3-4) suffered a 32-0 setback to Fayetteville (5-3), Hodge plans to be on the home sideline again tonight when the Mustangs host Pocahontas County (6-2).

"I will be there for my boys," said Hodge, who has served as the team captain the past two games. "I'm not going to let them down."

His coaches and teammates appreciate his efforts.

"We are glad to have him back," senior fullback David Haywood said. "We were upset when it happened because we didn't think he was going to make it. Having him there on the sideline with us encourages us. He inspires us to play better."

"I'm glad he still wants to be a part of the team," Souk said. "When he comes into the locker room, he brightens up the place. He is good for our morale."

And they are good for his.

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