Michelle Hodge, mother of D’Lo’s KhaDarel Hodge, is proud of all her son’s accomplishments, including persevering to the Super Bowl.

D’Lo, a sleepy, little community just north of Mendenhall in Simpson County, features a water park, a truck stop and the distinction of sending more men per capita to serve in World War II than any other town in America. A river runs through it, the Strong River. That’s where the famous sirens scene in the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” was filmed.

When he’s not playing football, KhaDarel  Hodge is an aspiring model.

Sunday, the 390 or so citizens of D’Lo can take pride in one more distinction: D’Lo will have a player in the Super Bowl. Meet KhaDarel Hodge, 23-year-old rookie wide receiver of the Los Angeles Rams, who also is an aspiring male model.

We’ll eventually get to the modeling part, but know this: Nobody on either the Rams or the New England Patriots can have taken a more circuitous or unusual route to football’s biggest game.

“No doubt, I took the long walk to get here,” Hodge said in a phone conversation earlier in the week. “I took the hard way. Nothing has come easy for me, but I wouldn’t take it back. It makes me appreciate the game – and being here – more.”

Says Michelle Hodge of the son she calls “Big Red”: “He never gave up, no matter what. And now – can you believe it? – that boy is going to play in the Super Bowl.”

Rick Cleveland

Hodge’s story is one of perseverance, of overcoming long odds, of hard work and dedication and belief in one’s self. He was raised, along with a twin sister (Little Red) and two other brothers, by a single mother with the help of her father, a preacher.

Not so long ago, in 2013, Hodge was a left-handed, do-it-all quarterback for the Mendenhall Tigers, who defeated arch-rival Magee in the game known as the Simpson County Super Bowl in all three of his varsity seasons. He also starred in basketball and consistently made the honor roll. He just didn’t do enough to warrant a scholarship at one of the larger Mississippi schools.

“Ole Miss, State and Southern Miss recruited me but wanted me to play defensive back,” Hodge said. “I wanted to play quarterback.”

He signed with Alcorn believing he could be the next Steve McNair. Instead, he red-shirted as a freshman and then left, looking for a better chance to play. He landed at Hinds Community College where his transition to wide receiver began – slowly.

“KhaDarel showed up for fall practice with a broken thumb,” said Dwight Wilson, who was his position coach at Hinds.

Broken thumbs don’t help when you are trying to learn how to play wide receiver, and when Hodge got over that, he pulled a hamstring.

“He was hurt about the whole season,” Wilson said. “He was only healthy for about two games, but he showed out in those. He had the skills. He could go up and get the ball. And he was smart, like an old coach out there on the field. I was really looking forward to coaching him that second year.”

But that second year at Hinds never happened. Prairie View A&M saw enough to offer him a scholarship and convince him they would feature him as a wide receiver. At Prairie View, he became an All-Southwestern Athletic Conference receiver catching 21 touchdowns over three seasons.

He expected to be drafted in the 2018 NFL Draft, and then he wasn’t. And then he wasn’t even offered a contract as an undrafted free agent.

Finally, he heard from the Rams, who didn’t offer him a contract. They offered him a tryout. He tried out – thought he did well – but no contract was offered. He went home to D’Lo, continued to work out diligently, and waited for a call. He never gave up. All he needed, he thought, was a chance.

KhaDajah Hodge, his twin sister, finally told him, “Don’t you know how to pray?”

KhaDarel went to his room and did just that. Believers no doubt will call what happened next Divine Intervention. Doubters will call it coincidence. Hodge went out for a run that afternoon, taking his cell phone with him. The phone rang. It was the Rams. They needed another receiver in training camp.

KhaDarel Hodge had his chance. “That’s all I wanted,” he said.

In four preseason games, he caught eight passes for 100 yards and a touchdown. He also excelled on special teams, which is probably what eventually earned him a job.

“He did everything they asked him to do,” said Tayor Morton, a Rams scout and a former Hinds CC coach. “He was making plays all over the place. Our coaches really liked him. He’s an humble, quiet guy who just takes care of his business.”

Hodge was cut after the last preseason game, then signed to the Rams practice squad the next day. He was promoted to the active roster on Sept. 18 and immediately began to contribute on special teams, especially punt and kickoff coverage.

“What’s crazy is I had never played special teams before except for returning kicks – never, not even in high school,” Hodge says. “But, hey, if that’s what it takes. I’ll do whatever they ask.”

Kick coverage requires speed, toughness and courage. Hodge has all three. He made two tackles in the Rams’ NFC Championship victory over the Saints.

KhaDarel Hodge, left, with his older brother, Jerel, after the Rams defeated the New Orleans Saints to qualify for Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Hodge said just about everybody he knows in Simpson County pulls for the Saints. Michelle Hodge went to a watch party for the NFC Championship. “Everybody had on a Saints jersey or T-shirt but me,” she said.

Oddly, the Rams played three times in New Orleans – in the preseason, the regular season and the playoffs. Michelle Hodge attended the first two. She was planning on attending the Super Bowl in Atlanta until her father, the Rev. James Hodge, was hospitalized with a dangerous kidney issue. She’ll stay home to help care for her father, while her oldest son and a nephew attend the big game.

KhaDarel Hodge said he definitely will have his mother and grandfather – “all my family, actually” – in mind when he takes the field Sunday.

Win or lose, Hodge plans to continue to pursue a promising modeling career. He was doing photo shoots, building a portfolio and considering hiring an agent when the Rams called him in July.

“Since then, it’s been all football,” he said.

His broad shoulders, chiseled good looks, and eight-pack abs won’t hurt when he gets back to posing.

Said Michelle Hodge of D’Lo’s finest, “Big Red always has been a good lookin’ boy.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.