Saron Hood remembered the words.
He may have been foaming at the mouth when he heard them, but the 22-year-old University at Buffalo wide receiver remembered those words, he told Zach Duval.
“He came up to me and gave me a hug and immediately started sobbing,” said Duval, who was saying goodbye to Hood before he left campus for the last time. “Not crying, but sobbing.”
It had been almost exactly a year since Hood had had that seizure on the field at UB Stadium. The team-organized seven-on-seven drill was running smoothly when Hood hauled in a pass on a seam route and sprinted to the end zone.
But something went awry when Hood started walking back to the huddle. He raised his hand to call for a substitute and then collapsed.
Duval, UB football’s strength coach, was supervising the activity.
“It was probably the hardest moment of my career,” said Duval, who ran on the field and performed CPR on Hood. “Picture this: I really love this kid. I’ve got him cradled so my bicep is underneath his head. I’m down on the ground with him, just talking to get him, trying to get him to concentrate.
“What I whispered into his ears, I didn’t know if he heard it or not. I said, ‘Saron, you are so blessed. The Lord loves you and he never hurts those that he loves.’ ”
Hood survived that episode, the second of his life, but did not survive the third. It happened June 5 at Texas A&M, where he was earning his second degree after graduating from UB in May. He collapsed during a game of pick-up basketball and could not be revived.
Hood was never a major contributor on the field for the Bulls. In his four years, he hauled in just four passes for 33 yards. But he was a leader, the team will tell you — one of the strongest leaders — and his death left his former teammates pensive this offseason, pondering all they learned about life from the death of one of their own.
As the Bulls proceed through summer training and the new football season approaches, friends, teammates and family think of the bubbly, outgoing young man who cared more about his Christianity than anything else. They talk about how he cared more about his teammates than himself. They remember Hood’s propensity to resist the norm and for buying sneakers and dressing in many colors.
He was an eccentric, 6-foot young man from San Diego with dreadlocks and a room-illuminating smile.
Fred Lee, a senior wide receiver, remembers the many lessons Hood taught him — some life lessons and some dance lessons.
“Off the field, although he didn’t drink, he used to love going out and going to parties and stuff,” Lee said. “And he would always dance. We’d do The Reject, The Jerk, stuff like that when it was popular. He actually taught me how to do it, how to Dougie, Cat Daddy, all that stuff.”
While Hood let his boyish side show on the dance floor, he was ahead of many of his teammates in maturity level — a character trait that blossomed from him being far from home and receiving minimal playing time.
“Overall, he matured much faster than the rest of us and tried to explain that life was more than just the bubble that we assume revolved around us,” said senior cornerback Najja Johnson. “Saron was one of those guys that always had a smile on his face. He never let anything negative get him down. He was truly a genuine guy.”
Nobody on the team understood Hood’s affinity for life better than Duval, who helped Hood lead the team’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings.
“Very, very thankful kid,” Duval said. “Very personable kid. Always smiling. Never saw the kid ever without a smile on his face. I think the majority of that was his appreciation for the brevity of life. He was always thankful.”
His family was close
Karen Hood was at work when she heard what had happened to her son at Texas A&M. She had her cell phone turned off, per company policy, and knew something must have been seriously wrong when her 19-year-old twin daughters called her office.
She does not yet know all the details of what happened, just that her son was playing basketball and then collapsed. No medical condition was diagnosed.
Karen speaks with warmth as she recalls her beloved firstborn.
“I tell people, ‘all I know is what I know,’ and that is, in times like this, relying upon what God’s word says is true. I know the type of life that Saron lived and I know the type of person who he was and I know who he believed to be his Lord and savior, and so I know that Saron is in a better place. That part gives me comfort. For a close family, it is an extreme loss, and things will be forever different because of him not being here.”
Karen remembers watching her son apply for 65 internships over the winter break and create a spreadsheet to keep track of them all. Coach Jeff Quinn wrote Hood letters of recommendation for nearly all of them. Hood was ecstatic to accept the 10-week chemical engineering internship and become an Aggie.
Karen remembers one week she spent visiting Hood at UB. She went to all his classes and carried a backpack, “like I was one of the students,” she said. One rainy day that week, they were waiting in a long line for UB’s Stampede bus to transport them across campus.
“It was raining and everyone was pushing and shoving to get on the bus, and I looked up and saw Saron was on the bus and I was still standing outside,” Karen said. “And he said, ‘My mom needs to get on this bus,’ and somebody actually got off the bus and I was able to get on, and not only that, they gave me their seat.”
When Hood went home to California, Karen said the family went everywhere together “like a club, as a unit.” She calls her late son “our family glue.”
“When I was pregnant with his sisters, he would go around telling everyone, ‘I’m going to have twin sisters,’ and he was really excited about that,” Karen said. “Even though he was our son and a big brother, he was also like a mentor and a peacemaker.”
Almost everyone wore white at Hood’s funeral. It was a request he had once mentioned to his girlfriend.
“He wanted it to be a celebration,” Karen said.
An inspiring mentor
Karen Brim could talk for hours about Saron Hood.
Her son, Derek, was one of Hood’s best friends on the team. Derek, a Canisius High School alum and starting safety for the Bulls, found his way on the team thanks largely to Hood, a year older and a mentor.
“Saron taught me to always work hard and never lose focus, and positive things will happen for you,” Derek said. “He also taught me to always have faith in God. He had very strong faith in his religion, and he taught me to keep having faith in God. He would always give me a scripture verse and mentor me.”
And Hood found his way in Buffalo thanks largely to Brim, a mother away from home. Hood became another child in the Brim family, his bond with Derek strengthened by a mutual love for football and engineering.
“They were so competitive — who could eat faster, who could eat more,” Brim said with a laugh. “I said, ‘You guys are going to be old and in a wheelchair and see who can move the wheelchair faster.’ ”
Brim took Hood to North Buffalo Community Church every Sunday.
“He was a wonderful person,” she said. “Mature beyond his years. He gave me comfort.”
Karen Hood called Brim the day of her son’s death.
“All I could do was thank her,” Brim said. “Instead of telling her I was sorry, all I could do was thank her for sharing her son — for sharing her son with the team, for sharing her son with me, for sharing her son with my son and him mentoring my son.”
Like many of Hood’s teammates, Brim can rattle off stories about him. She walked Hood and fellow Californian Jerry Davis onto the field for UB’s Senior Day. She gave Hood a sign that read “Thanks, Mom and Dad.”
“He said, ‘That is so corny. That is so corny,’ ” Brim chuckled. “And so he held it up during the ceremony and afterward, I said, ‘I’ll take that, Saron.’ He said, ‘Absolutely not, this is mine. I’m keeping it.’ ”
To watch Saron Hood in practice was to see his immense potential; the short, speedy slot receiver weaved through traffic like Wes Welker. But that potential never revealed itself under the college lights.
The reason? Hood missed his opportunity.
After waiting for his turn for three seasons, Hood finally got a chance to shine Oct. 15, 2011, when all-conference slot receiver Terrell Jackson left the game on a stretcher after taking a scary shot to the head.
It proved to be the last game of Jackson’s career. That meant the slot was open.
Look at the stats from that game and in addition to the massive disparity on the scoreboard (Temple won, 34-0), you’ll notice that Hood did not amass any catches. He was thrown at twice and dropped both passes.
Fred Lee was not looking forward to the conversation. Quinn instructed Lee to take Hood’s spot in the slot. That was when Lee got a true glimpse into Hood’s heart.
“He was a selfless person,” Lee said. “Most people when you tell them, ‘Coach is pulling you and I’m going in,’ they would get angry. They would start cursing; they would walk off; they wouldn’t care about you. But not Saron. He came to me and said, ‘Listen, hey man, you go in there and get it done. If you need help with any plays, every time you go on the field, come over here to me.’
“And he had the whiteboard — he would draw up plays and see what route I had to do. Honestly in that moment, I was thinking: ‘That’s crazy. This guy who wants to play, who hasn’t gotten a chance to play his whole career, finally got his chance to play, and he goes out there and stinks it up. And instead of being selfish and upset, he finds a way to help somebody who has taken his spot.’ That truly says a lot about your character and who you are as a person.”
That was the last time Hood had a chance to play wide receiver. He continued the season on special teams.
But after he collapsed on the field the summer of 2012 during the seven-on-seven drill, he couldn’t do much of anything physical. He wore a heart monitor and had to keep track of his steps. Duval remembers sitting in the hospital with Hood, Quinn and several other coaches.
“He’s sitting there and he knows football is probably done for him, and the kid is smiling,” Duval said. “He was thankful, thankful to be alive. The first thing he said was, ‘Well, coach, I may not be able to be on the field, but what can I do to help the team?’ That is really who he was.”
As it turned out, the team needed a signal-caller — someone to wear the headset and translate the play calls from the coaches’ booth down to the players on the field. On game days, he could be seen wearing a red hat and his full uniform on the sidelines.
“He still attended every practice,” Johnson, UB’s star corner, said. “Saron taught me to never let the negatives affect you, just keep moving.”
Memories linger on
Throughout summer training, the Bulls have Hood in their hearts. Before home games this year, they’ll see him right before they trot out onto the field.
The team had a photo of Hood framed. It hangs in the hallway at UB Stadium next to where Quinn addresses the team. During a memorial service a week after Hood’s death, attendees signed the photo as the Bulls community reminisced about his impact. Brim spoke up.
“I said, ‘Guys, he was here for a purpose. He came to show you how to properly conduct yourself in life. He showed you the love of Christ by how he lived,’ ” she said.
UB is looking to Hood for inspiration.
“Any time you’re tired, any time you think you don’t have any more, think about Saron,” Johnson said. “It’s extra motivation. When you think there are things you can’t do, look at that picture – that should mean everything to you.”