The layover might have been in Chicago. He isn’t sure. He knows he was alone, and in a strange place. But what Khalil Hodge most remembers about his worst trip home, a sudden, bleary-eyed cross-country trek last December, was the anguish.
“I cried a lot on that plane,” Hodge said.
A day earlier, the star linebacker and his University at Buffalo teammates were furious to learn they were snubbed for a postseason appearance, despite ending the regular season on a three-game winning streak to become bowl-eligible with a 6-6 record. Injuries had forced the Bulls to cycle through three quarterbacks, and they had lost two games by a point apiece and one in a staggering seven overtimes.
Hodge, who’d amassed the second-most tackles in the nation, and a small group of teammates continued playing the only way they could, with a video game, mourning the unexpected early end of their season with a Madden marathon.
But that too was cut short, by a far more devastating loss.
Hodge’s little brother, Kadeem, had been shot dead the previous night, his body found by police at around 2:30 a.m. on Empire Mine Road in Antioch, Calif., a desolate, rural stretch long closed by the city to motor vehicles in an effort to curb its history of rampant crime.
Hours earlier, according to reports, Kadeem had been arrested for shoplifting from an area mall. It remains unclear whether the incidents were related.
Kadeem was the 12th homicide victim in Antioch in 2017, according to police records.
He was 19 years old.
“We heard that our son was brutally murdered on a Sunday, about 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” Howard Hodge said. “All day we were worried about where he was. And when the police came and knocked on the door, we still didn’t know where he was. And they told us he had been killed. It was traumatic.
"You never want to lose a kid, and this is something that really, really hurt me and my wife to the core.”
Howard and his wife, Patrice, tried to compose themselves over the next few hours before beginning to inform relatives, one by one.
Khalil had stepped out of his friend’s living room at UB to take the phone call from his mother, who somehow summoned the strength to deliver the news to her lone remaining child.
He returned a mess.
“He came in emotional, you know what I mean?” said Khalil’s roommate, offensive lineman Paul Nosworthy. “So we were like, ‘What’s wrong? What’s happening?’ And he told us.”
Emmanuel Reed grabbed Hodge and hung on tight, the running back swallowing the much larger linebacker in his arms.
“I can remember Emmanuel just hugging me, supporting me, just trying to help me through it,” Khalil said.
Meanwhile, his father dialed the coaches.
“When that call came and his father called to tell us, I could barely understand what was coming out of his mouth,” UB coach Lance Leipold said. “But the next call, quickly, was to assure him that we’re going to do everything we can to get their son home as fast as we can.”
In between, Leipold reached out to the school’s administration to secure the airfare, while linebackers coach Chris Simpson called Khalil, offering to open their homes should he need to spend the night. But there wasn’t much time between packing and heading to the airport for what’s typically at least a nine-hour trip, with a layover, plus the time zone change.
“He was on a plane the first flight out the next morning,” Simpson said.
Their paths diverge
Khalil and Kadeem had grown up nearly 2,600 miles away in the Bay Area, east of Oakland. The brothers, about a year apart, enjoyed separate bedrooms across the hall from one another in their Antioch home.
The boys each wore the No. 4 in Mighty Mite football, their father serving as coach. It was their dad’s number in high school and junior college, and when it wasn’t available, they picked 22 because 2+2 = 4. Khalil now wears No. 4 at UB.
They each overcame a stutter, in part with the help of their mother, a speech pathologist who found them outside assistance and always stressed proper diction.
They each went to private school until reaching middle school, when the boys successfully persuaded their parents to enroll in the local public-school district, eager to ditch the uniforms and join the kids in the neighborhood.
But that neighborhood was changing from a sleepy bedroom community into something more sinister, Howard said, and the brothers' paths diverged.
Khalil remained committed to football, working hard for every bit of achievement. He returned to private school for high school, spending his freshman year at football powerhouse De La Salle in nearby Concord before transferring to St. Mary’s in Stockton, carpooling and later driving the nearly hour-long commute. He volunteered at his mother’s work, helping kids with special needs, and led the state with 262 tackles in 14 games his senior season.
Kadeem, in contrast to his older brother, had an innate athletic talent and breezed to success running track. He was adamant about staying local and attending Deer Valley High School with his friends, and his parents allowed it, rather than insisting on private school.
“My youngest son didn’t want to go, and I really wish that we had,” Patrice said. “Teenagers, you can’t really force them to do things like that, and he just wasn’t in a place where I felt like he would have flourished or developed. He just did not want to go there. He wanted to attend the neighborhood school.”
But the people he hung out with weren’t the best influence, and with plenty of free time, Kadeem’s poor choices caught up with him. He bounced in and out of juvenile detention centers.
“He graduated from high school. He graduated from juvenile hall,” Howard said. “He had a nice little part-time job and he was moving in the right direction. But I’m a firm believer of ‘birds of a feather flock together,’ and it’s kind of like when you’re hanging out with the wrong people, sometimes you get influenced by the wrong things. And I think that my son was influenced. He was easily led by the wrong people. And there’s only so much you can do to shelter your kids from certain things.
“I prayed and prayed, and my wife and I visited him in juvenile hall and talked to him and got counseling. We went to counseling for over a year and tried to get him to change his ways and change the people that he was around. We always said that these kinds of people are going to lead you two ways, either lead you back here where you’ll stay the rest of your life or you’ll end up dead.”
Khalil, meanwhile, grinded toward a football scholarship, diligent about meeting the NCAA’s academic qualifications.
He’d garnered some interest from Cal, his dad said. But ultimately no Football Bowl Subdivision schools wanted him. Khalil had offers from lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision schools Weber State and Sacramento State.
But he thought he could do better.
"A lot of people in my corner were telling me that I should just take the full-ride scholarship and go to school and take my chances there," Khalil said. "But ... I just kind of took a bet on myself.”
Unearthing a gem
Simpson, the UB linebackers coach, found Khalil at the City College of San Francisco.
Unlike many junior college players, Hodge didn’t need better grades. He needed additional exposure, hopeful that he could play his way onto the radars of big-time football programs. And CCSF drew eyeballs. The JUCO powerhouse once produced O.J. Simpson, before the running back rose to stardom at Southern California.
Khalil rode the train four hours each day that first fall semester in 2015, commuting from his parents’ house to school and back.
He chose to major in sociology, inspired by his experience volunteering alongside his mother.
“I think that it actually had a profound effect on him, not only on his choice of major, but also in the way he relates to people,” Patrice said. “He’s a big, cool, well-adjusted young man, and for him to be able to mix it up oftentimes with kids in wheelchairs, kids who couldn’t speak, and just treat them with respect and like a regular kid and have fun, play basketball with them, play tag with them. I think that just helped him learn how to relate to people and helped him recognize that just because a person is different, not to look down on them or treat them any differently.”
The Rams went 12-1 and won the state championship his freshman season.
UB needed a middle linebacker to replace graduated starter Nick Gilbo, and at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, Leipold and Simpson were impressed by Khalil’s size, speed and nose for the football.
They made three visits to the Hodge household while recruiting Khalil, the final time specifically to meet his mom, who wasn’t home for the first two meetings.
“We were up front with Khalil and said, ‘Hey, listen, we need a guy to come out here and be a player for us immediately,’” Simpson said. “So opportunity was a pretty big factor for Khalil. ... There’s no guarantee that it’s going to shake out that way. But we always will promise guys that we’re recruiting an opportunity to compete for positions and jobs, and that’s what we did for him – and made him and his father and his mother and his family just comfortable with that. We were transparent and honest with what our plan was for Khalil.”
Buffalo wasn’t the only school to express interest, but it was the only FBS program to offer a scholarship.
CCSF coach Jimmy Collins tried to persuade Hodge to remain in his program a second season, confident he’d land with a Pac-12 Conference school.
But Hodge was eager to get on with his career.
“I knew I really wasn’t supposed to be in junior college, you know what I mean?” Hodge said. “I wanted to make that experience as worthwhile, but at the same time as short as possible. With the offers I had after the season, I was going to make that decision and just run with it.”
Encouraged by the success of Raiders star Khalil Mack, among a handful of UB alumni in the NFL, Hodge enrolled in January 2016 and joined the Bulls for spring and summer workouts.
“It is a very long way from home,” Patrice said, “but there’s nothing like watching your children live out their dreams. He wanted to go away to school. He wanted to go away to play. And if this was how it came to him, then I’m happy for him and I just tried to support him.”
Going the extra mile
Khalil had never seen snow before first arriving in Buffalo, stepping into his new life and ankle-deep accumulation in a pair of shorts, socks and slip-on shoes.
“I can remember just buying a bunch of jackets. Like, a bunch of jackets,” Hodge said, laughing. “And hoodies and beanies and all type of stuff like that.”
He quickly earned the starting job at middle linebacker, as expected.
“It was pretty evident in a few practices, back even when he first arrived, that he was going to be impactful to our program,” Leipold said, citing Hodge’s ability to learn the defense, make plays and clearly communicate with teammates, a critical aspect at his position.
Quarterback Tyree Jackson, one of his initial roommates, was floored by Khalil’s work ethic that first summer together.
“The guy would come catch balls for me when I was getting ready for my redshirt freshman year,” Jackson said. “He would come out to the field and run routes for me, working on his hands at linebacker. How many middle linebackers are really trying to work on the little stuff like being able to catch the ball, running routes for the quarterback?”
Hodge started all 12 games as a sophomore, piling up a team-high 123 tackles, and was named to the 2016 All-MAC second team.
Outspoken and brimming with confidence, the Bulls named him a team captain last season.
It began with great promise, the Bulls opening with a 3-1 record before multiple injuries contributed to a brutal four-game skid, three of those losses heartbreakers. UB won its final three games to finish 6-6, marking just the third non-losing record in 19 years as an FBS program.
Hodge sealed the final victory against Ohio with an interception in the end zone. He finished second in the nation with 154 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and three sacks. The junior added two picks, two forced fumbles and was named to the All-MAC first team.
But the Bulls weren’t selected to play in the postseason, one of just three bowl-eligible programs rebuffed.
“Honestly, I still don’t know how that works,” Khalil said. “I still don’t know how we didn’t get picked.”
But on that horrible day, Hodge’s anger and disappointment over the football team’s fortunes were quickly drowned by the sorrow of losing his little brother, and the race to pack and head to the airport for a long journey that would deliver him, finally, into his grieving parents’ arms.
'Playing for him'
Nine months later, Kadeem Hodge’s death remains an open investigation, the family said.
They continue to search for answers.
“You ever been hit in the stomach and you lost your air?” Howard said. “When somebody knocked the wind out of you? This knocked the wind out of both of us. It was just painful. It’s still painful. The only thing different is time, and time is healing every day. It’s getting a little better. But every time you think about it you think back about how it happened and why it happened and when it happened and it just takes you back, and you re-live that horrible day over again. And that’s just something that I’ll never get over, I’ll never get over as a father, ever.”
Antioch police did not return a call seeking comment.
“It was just the environment in which you were brought up,” Khalil said. “I mean, I really don’t want to get into too much detail about it. But it’s just an unfortunate situation and I hate that it had to be him. And I just hope everything works out in the end, that the killer is found.”
Simpson attended the funeral, the position coach representing the UB football family.
Khalil spent nearly two months at home, before returning to Buffalo.
“He was pretty quiet when he came back,” Leipold said. “He’ll work; we didn’t have any problems that way. But, also, I think there was a time when you could tell there was a new sense. He’s playing for a little bit more now.”
Khalil is also beginning to generate a degree of national attention. No returning FBS player had more tackles than Hodge last season, and he has been tabbed on several preseason watch lists, including for the Bednarik and Butkus awards.
NFL draft analysts are pegging him as a potential mid- to late-round selection.
But there’s still a season to play.
The Bulls return a seasoned roster, having lost few starters to graduation. They’re talking about the MAC Championship and playing in a bowl game for just the third time in school history, eager to make amends for their shortfall last season.
“Without these guys,” Hodge said, “I feel like I definitely wouldn’t be able to be 3,000 miles away from my parents, away from everyone that I’ve known my entire life. The guys on this team, they make it worthwhile and they’ve really become my brothers. I can really say they’ve become my brothers. I just can’t wait to play with them.”
Hodge’s parents plan to attend several games this season, just like last year, including UB’s home opener Saturday against Delaware State. Kadeem will attend in spirit.
“It’s going to be very emotional,” Hodge said. “I definitely can see myself crying in the locker room before the first game. But I’m playing for him. This whole season is definitely dedicated to my little brother, no doubt.”
Since UB didn’t play in a bowl last year, it will mark Khalil’s first competitive game since his brother's death.
“We try to keep Kadeem alive in our hearts and in our thoughts any way that we can,” said his mom, Patrice. “I try to say his name every day. I try to just look at his pictures all the time. It means a lot to me that Khalil would dedicate his entire season to his little brother. He says that he’s going to name his first-born son Kadeem, so all of those things are really, really important. And I’m so happy – it makes me proud and it makes me feel really good when he says and does things in the name of his brother.”
Khalil recalls hugging his parents goodbye at the Oakland airport, as he left to return to school.
They told him they loved him, that dealing with grief is a part of growing up, that they were pleased with the man he has become and that he had to handle his business.
“I just had to understand that there’s a goal in mind,” Hodge said. “It’s a mission and I’m out here and I’m going to try to make them proud.”
Of course, he already has.