Stories like this touch my heart and fuel me with a drive to be the best I can be. Zach Hodskins certainly is doing his part. This post is from SouthCarolina accident attorney Nathan Hughey. It originally appeared in the AJC.
“Make him go left.”
Stephanie Hodskins was a little offended the first time she heard a basketball coach yell those instructions on how to defend her son, Zach. It was the reaction of a mother, protective of her teenage son who was born without a left hand. It was also a turning point in Zach’s basketball career.
A cat-like crossover step followed by a silky-smooth step-back jumper quickly countered that defensive strategy and put his mom’s worries to rest. Zach could handle it. Bring on the next challenge — the SEC.
Now a senior guard at Milton High, Zach Hodskins accepted an offer from Florida coach Billy Donovan to join the Gators next season as a preferred walk-on. He visited Florida last weekend, told Donovan he wanted to commit on the spot and then returned home to face a media frenzy that included appearances on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” NBC’s “Today” and many more national outlets. His story is everywhere, and he’s embracing it.
Zach is as engaging of an interview as you’ll find in a 17-year-old. He’s well-spoken and confident with a good sense of humor. But it’s not the fame that comes with the media spots that make him smile the most. Instead, it’s knowing that the more his story is told, the more people with disabilities or life obstacles he has a chance to inspire.
In September, a teenager missing multiple fingers reached out and told him how he was hesitant to try out for his school’s team until he saw Zach’s story. All 3-foot-9 of Jake Reilly contacted Zach on Twitter this summer and told him how he had been inspired to try out and make the team at a Division III school.
“Zach has a big heart and really wants to reach out to all kinds of kids,” said Bob Hodskins, Zach’s father. “He wants to let them know that life can be hard from diseases to disabilities. He wants to let them know that they can overcome their problems and to keep fighting, keep moving forward, just like he did.”
It’s easy to be inspired by the story of an athlete with a disability like Zach. It’s also easy to dismiss him as only an inspirational story and not one who can compete at the highest levels. That is not Zach’s story.
At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, he can play. Donovan told him that he wouldn’t have a spot on the Gators’ squad otherwise. Florida is ranked eighth in the preseason coaches poll.
But to get to this point, Zach had to learn how to go left.
Mario Moore, a former standout at Vanderbilt and now an assistant coach at Shorter, began working with Zach when he was entering middle school. Moore was coaching a high-level AAU team in Tennessee at the time and remembers the moment when he realized Zach wasn’t just a gritty one-armed kid battling through a disability.
“At first, I wasn’t sure if Zach was going to be able to keep up the kids on that team. They were exceptionally good,” Moore said. “But one time, he rattled off a couple (3-pointers) in a row, and one of the kids goes, ‘Make him go left. Make him go left.’ Zach fired back, ‘Yeah, make me go left. You can’t make me go left.’ And then he rattled off another 3. At that point, I knew this kid was for real. He wasn’t going to let kids bully him or punk him. He was out there to play. At that point, I realized that he had the mental toughness that it takes.”
Zach has spent countless hours working with Moore, his dad and other coaches on ways to counter defenders who try to force him to his left. Since he was little, he’s always had a deadly spin move. He’s developed a crossover that has left defenders stumbling and off-balance. And his behind-the-back dribble is something to be seen.
“I have to get my right foot around the defender first and protect the ball with my body (to go left),” Zach explained. “Usually I’ll do a step-back, get their momentum going backwards and then pull back really fast, which creates a lot of space. Or I’ll just go right around them.”
Will those moves work in the SEC?
Moore, who was a second-team All-SEC performer at Vanderbilt, believes so.
“I’ve played in the SEC and feel like, IQ-wise, Zach can play at that level,” Moore added. “I think it’s going to be a learning curve. He’s always had a chip on his shoulder; he’s always had to prove people wrong. I think he likes that.”
‘Make him go left’ is actually one of the nicer things opponents have said after being embarrassed by Zach on the court. Players often try to get into his head.
“They’re ruthless sometimes,” Zach said with a chuckle. “When I was 15, we were playing a ranked AAU team and I was guarding one of the best players in the nation. Before the jump ball, I went over and shook his hand and said, ‘have a good game.’ He said, ‘I hope you’re not guarding me. There’s no way you can guard me with one hand.’ It was on from there. I was yelling at him the whole game. It was a battle from that moment.”
The doubters fuel Zach’s relentless drive. It’s what makes him special, but it’s also been the toughest thing for him to overcome, according to his father.
“He’s such a perfectionist that he gets emotional,” Bob Hodskins said. “He’s so hard on himself, and that’s the toughest thing he’s had to overcome by far. He has such a drive and such a determination. It’s almost like a drive that never stops. I’ve seen him get 20 during a game and come home disappointed because his ballhandling wasn’t good or he had a couple turnovers here or there. Being able to control his drive has been very difficult for him.”
Zach knows it. Sometimes the chip on his shoulder just gets a little too big.
“I get frustrated with myself when I miss shots or I turn it over because I am kind of perfectionist,” Zach acknowledged. “I never get mad at my teammates or other kids. It’s about my own mental toughness and me believing in myself a little too much sometimes.”
He may be his toughest critics, but there also have been plenty of doubters along the way. Without them, though, Zach wouldn’t be where he is today — ready for a senior season at Milton, followed by playing for Florida.
“I’ve overcome doubters my whole life,” Zach said. “In middle school, I had doubters saying I couldn’t make the middle school team. People said I couldn’t make the freshman team in high school. People said I couldn’t make the varsity team in high school. I’ve proved them all wrong and maybe gone above that. I have no doubt in my mind that I will play at Florida, and I think coach Donovan believes in me and will give me that opportunity.”