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Friday July 11, 2014To Dream the Possible Dream: Walk-on Zach Hodskins Sees No Barriers

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Michael Frazier II and his University of Florida teammates weren’t any different than the, oh, say, 5 million or so others who clicked on the viral YouTube highlights or saw feature stories on “Good Morning America,” ESPN, CBS, CNN, NBA TV, etc., etc., profiling the kid named Zach Hodskins.

It was last October and the Internet was burning with news about Hodskins, born without the lower half of his left arm, accepting an invitation from Coach Billy Donovan to come to UF as a walk-on for the Gators basketball team.

Frazier and friends watched. Frazier and friends were amazed.

“But there was a part of me that said, ‘I really need to see this for myself,’ ” Frazier recalled. “It’s always different seeing something like that in person.”

For the last two weeks, the Gators have seen it. And now they believe it. 

Hodskins, the 6-foot-4, 203-pound shooting guard from Alpharetta, Ga., arrived in June along with the bulk of UF’s first-year student-athletes for the start of the Summer B session and thus took the next step in his remarkable story of perseverance and determination.

Despite his physical challenges, Hodskins averaged 11.8 points, shot 37 percent from the floor and 29 percent from the 3-point line his senior season at Milton (Ga.) High and at one point late in the year went on a red-hot long-distance tear when he scored nearly 23 a night over eight games.

Zach pulling ropeNow, six months later, Hodskins not only is on a college campus, but wearing Gators garb and taking part in individual instruction workouts, along with weight-lifting sessions and daily pickup games with his new teammates.

Incredible? Yes.

Reality? Absolutely.

“It wasn’t surreal until I actually got here and saw my name on my locker. That’s when it all hit me like a freight train,” Hodskins said. “I know to some it may look and sound crazy, but I didn’t get here by accident. I worked as hard as I could and feel like I deserve this sort of opportunity. Now that I’m here, this is my new family and I love everything about it.”

His story has been told in virtually every corner of the world. Zach’s father, Bob Hodskins, said the family did interviews with media outlets from New York to England to India and beyond. Every major American television network came through the Atlanta suburb in Fulton County and helped make Zach a world-wide web sensation.

But now the plot is about to change and all parties understand that.

This isn’t high school anymore. This isn’t AAU. And this isn’t just Division I basketball.

This is Florida, one of the top programs in the country. The Gators are coming off a Final Four run and have all 13 scholarships filled for the 2014-15 season. Hodskins is the youngest of four walk-ons and that will require some patience on his part and an altogether different role than the one in the beaming spotlight he’s grown accustomed to the last several years.

By all accounts, everyone is fine with that.

“I get that people are interested and attracted to the story because of his limitations, and I get that he’s an inspiration to a lot of people, but I don’t want that for him here,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “I want him to feel like another player in our program -- and I think he wants that, too. He’s not looking to be someone who is the face of overcoming obstacles. He’s a young kid who wants to be a normal kid and doesn’t want anyone to take it easy on him.”

It’s a mentality that famously worked for Jim Abbott, who without a right hand became an All-America pitcher at Michigan, an Olympic gold medalist and first-round draft pick of the California Angels. On Sept. 4, 1994, as a member of the New York Yankees, Abbott no-hit the Cleveland Indians at Yankee Stadium.

Last spring, Hodskins got a graduation note from Abbott, wishing him well in his dare-to-dream pursuit.

“I’m sure people doubted him at one time, too,” Hodskins said.

Plenty will wonder why Hodskins opted for longshot, walk-on stature in the Southeastern Conference as opposed to pursing potential scholarships at lower-level programs; or even the certainty of Division II. 

The answer was in the opportunity. Florida extended an offer to be part of a marquee program. Beyond that, no promises.

That was all Hodskins needed to hear.

“I would say that if I didn’t take this offer -- this challenge -- to go and try to play at the highest level possible, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. I would not have felt fulfilled,” Hodskins said. “Had I gone that [other] route, I would have felt I didn’t try to reach my full potential. I truly believe the sky is the limit and that’s why I’m here and going to work so hard.”

He’ll have to. The life of a walk-on is in no way glamorous. Some don’t travel. Some don’t dress. Some don’t even get sit on the bench for home games due to lack of space.

Frankly, even seeing time on the scout team during practice can be sporadic.

Some Context: The most accomplished walk-on in Donovan’s 18 seasons, hands down, is current fifth-year senior forward Jacob Kurtz, who has scored 56 points in his career, including 42 last year mostly when the Gators were dealing with suspensions and injuries early in the season. Once the SEC schedule began, Kurtz appeared in just 12 games and averaged less than five minutes. UF’s other two walk-ons on the 2013-14 league championship team, guards Billy Donovan (the coach’s son) and Lexx Edwards, combined for 25 minutes in 14 SEC games and did not score. 

That Hodskins was willing to come to UF on such terms was another facet of his purposefulness that impressed Donovan.

“First and foremost, he’s a gym rat who loves the game and wanted to play at the highest level. More importantly, he really wanted to be here,” Donovan said. “Zach is coming here as a walk-on and when you do that you come with an understanding that, ‘I’m here to help the team,’ whatever that might be. We made that very clear in the process. We told him there are going to be more talented and more capable players here. His whole thing was, ‘I understand.’ He just wanted to be a part of it.”

That was Hodskins’ motivation since first being approached by UF assistant coach John Pelphrey during an AAU Tournament last year.

And really long before that.

From the time Hodskins was a young boy, he loved sports -- all of them -- and never once viewed himself differently from those he competed with.

“I always had the mindset that I had two hands. I never told myself I couldn’t do something and my parents never did, either,” he said. “There were doubters. Coaches cut me. Kids wouldn’t pass me the ball. I just kept coming back and fighting through it. I always found a way.”

It wasn’t always the textbook way, but as Bob Hodskins put it, “Zach always managed to teach himself how to make it work.”

He did it with baseball, golf, soccer, surfing, skim-boarding, whatever he wanted to do. As far as young Zach was concerned, there were no boundaries. That line of thinking definitely applied when the kid, backed by his Kentucky roots, locked in on basketball -- “his first love,” according to Dad -- and never let go.

Even with one hand.

Many a day went by when dribbling in the driveway only stopped so Zach could come inside, get his hand taped to stop the bleeding, then head back out to work on his shooting and ball-handling.

As he grew up and the competition intensified, so did Zach’s persistence. His skills, too. When Hodskins took the court for his high school teams, fans in both the home and road gymnasiums soon found out the kid who played with one arm was not just from the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” file, but a basketball player who could shoot, drive, pass, rebound and defend.

 In a way, Hodskins knew he had arrived to his coveted place of normalcy when opposing student sections -- and players he was matched against -- began talking trash and taunting him. Sometimes it even got ugly.

“My wife and I vowed a long time ago never to react to anything,” Bob Hodskins. “I don’t think we ever did.”

Zach, though, had his own method of striking back.

“Hit a 3,” he said with a grin.

Like the time against Woodstock High last January when he bombed in eight 3-pointers in the first half on the way to a career-high 33. 

Yeah, that’ll quiet a crowd.

“You just have to see him play to understand,” father said of son.

Hodskins can definitely shoot the ball. That’s his strength. He’s at his best offensively on the break or when he can shake a defender and get a clean look in the halfcourt.

His most difficult transition at the college level figures to be the disadvantage he’s at relative to ball-handling and protecting the ball (and the inability to switch hands). He has, however, become quite proficient with his inside-out moves to create space and change directions. In high school, Hodskins loved when teams thought they could force him to his left because he’d worked all his life to develop counter moves and was ready for it.

“Zach’s accomplishments on the court are truly amazing,” said Milton coach Matt Kramer, who used Hodskins as the sixth man on a team with several Division I prospects. “He is a very good shooter who can stretch a defense with his range. All that said, the thing that gives Zach a realistic chance to succeed as a walk-on at college basketball’s highest level is his incredible drive and competitive spirit that is unsurpassed by anyone I have ever coached.”

Again, this is a new and far more competitive challenge.

But as has been the case for Hodskins’ entire life, he’ll find a way to adapt.

“He’s continually had to prove himself and reprove himself … and he’s OK with that,” Bob Hodskins said. “He thrives on it.”

The look in Zach’s eyes during individual instruction and 3-on-3 games with the UF guards and his want-to in weight and condition periods are all signs of a kid who is living a dream.

“He’s extremely confident with what he can do,” UF junior forward Alex Murphy said. “He’s only been here a few days, but he hasn’t backed down yet.”

Added Frazier: “To see a guy overcome so much, even as a walk-on, and to be able to come out here and stick with us? Oh man, it just says a lot about his game, his drive and his character. I love him.”

The feeling is mutual.

Just the other night, Zach called home and told his parents he hadn’t stopped smiling since setting foot on the Florida campus. He loves the school, loves the coaches, loves his teammates and can’t wait to get to the gym every day.

“I’m a player first, so I can’t tell you how great it is to be here and be one of the guys,” Hodskins said. “It just goes to show you that there are no limits, that you can do anything you want, and, yeah, anything is possible.”


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