Gerald Hodges could have said anything, really.
The high-strung, high-decibel, neophyte middle linebacker was sitting on the edge of a stool in front of his locker at Winter Park, trying to think of an appropriate answer.
His teammate and occasional dancing sidekick Antone Exum stopped on his way to the showers and was eager to hear what Hodges would say.
What is one thing that people might not know about Gerald Hodges, who in his third season with the Vikings finally has settled down enough to settle in as a starter?
“People might not know I’ll go days and sometimes weeks wearing the same underwear, same clothes to practice every day,” Hodges said. “My teammates don’t even know.”
Exum, incredulous, responded, “That’s not cool, man. If he publishes that…”
“I want him to publish it, though. Because I’m a gritty, dirty person,” Hodges beamed.
The following day, wide receiver Jarius Wright started giggling at the mere mention of Hodges, arguably the most animated player on a young Vikings team with no shortage of characters. And when he was told about his teammate’s unashamed proclamation, Wright lost it.
“He’s like a cartoon character,” Wright said. “You never know what you’re going to get from him.”
Coach Mike Zimmer felt the same way about Hodges in his first year in Minnesota.
He knew the 2013 fourth-round pick was athletic and physical enough to carve out a meaningful role in his defense. But he also wondered if Hodges, forever the class clown, could stay focused on football long enough to be trusted with that kind of responsibility.
It took some time for Zimmer to get a handle on Hodges and for the two to find middle ground. But Zimmer thought enough of Hodges this summer to install him as his starting middle linebacker even though Hodges never had played the position until a month ago.
“He’s much [more mature],” Zimmer said this week. “He’s not totally there yet, but he’s got one foot over the fence.”
Long before he was frustrating football coaches, Hodges was testing the patience of his parents and his three older siblings, along with his teachers and classmates.
Growing up Paulsboro, N.J., a town that is a 15-minute drive east of Philadelphia, Hodges was a hyper kid who spent most of his time wrestling or playing football when he wasn’t driving the rest of the Hodges household up a wall.
“I was the one who always got in trouble, always getting the spankings and the butt-whoopings,” Hodges said. “I used to make a lot of smart comments to my parents. I still do and they still get irked.”
He pestered his way from elementary school through high school, with it only taking laughs from a student or two for Hodges to push his one-man comedy shows too far.
“When he gets to laughing and having fun and gets cranked up, you have to be like, ‘Gerald, it’s over. Stop,’ ” said his father, Gerald Sr. “I would tell him in grade school, ‘Gerald, if no one is laughing but you, it’s not funny.’ Because once he starts going, he doesn’t know how to stop. He cracks himself up basically.”
Junior was just as willing to stand out as he was to speak up. For example, when his parents picked out his outfits for school, he would make unique wardrobe adjustments like tucking his pant legs into his socks. They finally let him dress himself and found that he was more focused in school when wearing his mismatched color choices.
“Gerald liked to do his own thing,” his father said. “He kept me and his mom pretty busy.”
Loyal to Penn State
In high school, Hodges was one of the top wrestlers in New Jersey, advancing to the state semifinals in his junior year. Today he credits the grueling three-hour workouts in 115-degree gymnasiums for instilling mental toughness in him.
But football had been his biggest passion since his pee-wee days. He loved it so much he didn’t mind the bumps and bruises and skinned knees that came from playing on the street, cars constantly beeping at the kids and young adults to get the heck out of the way.
Hodges starred as a safety and dual-threat quarterback for Paulsboro High. Being the QB allowed him to show off his athleticism to college recruiters, but he said he always had a defensive mind-set. After all, his favorite player growing up was Brian Dawkins, the hard-hitting former Philadelphia Eagles safety.
Hodges soon became one of the top outside linebacker recruits in the country, but a dinner with legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno at the Allen Street Grill in State College, Pa., helped convince him to play big-time college football relatively close to home.
“It was a blessing [to play for Paterno], man,” he said. “At the beginning, I didn’t know the importance of it and the history behind him. … He’s literally a legend. He had a lot of things he liked to instill in all of his players. It was about being a man first, a student and then an athlete.”
So when the Jerry Sandusky scandal stunned Happy Valley and reverberated across the college football landscape, Hodges, who credits his strong Christian upbringing, decided to ignore the calls from big-time programs such as Alabama and Georgia, remain loyal to the Penn State program and finish his college career there.
“You don’t back out on someone you committed to and the teammates you have been striving for,” he said. “You don’t just back out on them when stuff goes bad.”
Center of attention
The Vikings drafted Hodges in the fourth round in 2013 and he played mostly on special teams as a rookie. Injuries to Chad Greenway and Anthony Barr helped Hodges start seven games at outside linebacker in Zimmer’s first year. But even though Hodges had flashes of brilliant play, he still hadn’t won over his new coach.
You see, it is hard for Hodges to resist goofing around. He got that from his old man.
Last year, he cracked up reporters as he frantically searched for his gold teeth in his cluttered locker before getting on camera. Drive by Exum’s house and you might see the two of them busting a move in the front yard. And poor T.J. Clemmings was quietly minding his business the other day when Hodges started making fun of the rookie right tackle’s college choice, hollering a couple of one-liners across the locker room to cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
“He’s crazy. But he’s a great guy, man,” Munnerlyn said. “If you come in and you’re having a bad day, Hodges, he’ll bring your day up.”
While Zimmer can crack a joke or two, too, he is not the biggest proponent of nonsense, especially not on his practice fields and in his meeting rooms. Eventually, Hodges got the memo and has learned there is a time and a place for shenanigans.
“He became a better player this year and a better teammate,” defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said. “It’s understanding your environment, understanding where you are. We’re grown now. We’re in a business world. Him changing that is tremendous.”
Said Zimmer: “He’s serious about football. He cares. He wants to play. He had to realize that the respect and the way that you play is earned, not given to you because you’re a good athlete. It’s about earning your playing time, so I think that’s part of his growing up.”
Game face on
Now, for the first time in his NFL career, Hodges is a full-time starter based on merit, though he is manning a position he never had played before last month. With a desire to get his three best linebackers on the field and the lack of an established middle linebacker, Zimmer suggested the position switch in a casual conversation.
“I’m going to try you out at the Mike this week, babe,” Zimmer told him. “You all right?”
He was, and he is starting to settle in now, having started in the final two preseason games and the 20-3 loss to the 49ers in the season opener in which the defense gave up 230 yards rushing. Hodges had been watching tape of last year’s starter, Jasper Brinkley, to see how he might fit in Zimmer’s attacking 4-3 scheme. But — surprise, surprise — he just wants to be himself out there.
Someone over at Winter Park might want to convince the 24-year-old to change his underwear every once in a while. But beyond that, Hodges, who had eight tackles against the 49ers and will start Sunday against the Detroit Lions, believes he is finding the right balance between being the locker room class clown and a serious, professional middle linebacker.
“I’m a jokester and I’m always going to be one. That’s just my personality,” Hodges said. “I think the only thing that matters is that when I get on the field, it’s all serious with me. ”