Thanks to new prosthetics and approval from the state athletic association, 16-year-old Damon Hodges' dream has come true: A double amputee, Hodges is playing for his high school football team, and he's grateful people see him as a player and not disabled.
“He doesn’t want a handout or want someone to feel sorry for him,” mom Shelika Wilder told TODAY. “He worked hard.”
Hodges was born two months early and in distress; he was a twin and his umbilical cord was wrapped around his brother and his legs. His brother died and the stress to Hodges legs stopped them from developing normally. While doctors urged Wilder to consider amputation, she sought out other opinions to try to save his legs.
“He needed to know that I did everything that I could do and exhaust all my options before I made that choice,” she said.
By 2, Hodges still could crawl and doctors said his best chance to walk was with a double amputation below the knee. Wilder agreed. Only a few months of therapy and prosthetics transformed Hodges from a crawler to a walker.
“He took his first steps maybe a couple months after he was fitted with them. He learned to walk with them really quickly,” Wilder said.
As long as Wilder could remember, Hodges wanted to play football. Like any mom, she worried about her son getting hurt — and even more so with his expensive prosthetic legs. As she watched her determined son grow, she realized that she had to let him try.
“He never liked the word handicapped or disabled. He never really asked for help; he did everything on his own,” she said.
Hodges wasn’t eligible for the team his freshman year and by sophomore year his grades were so bad he couldn’t play. But he wouldn’t give up. He attended the voluntary weight lifting sessions and studied constantly to improve his grades.
He just had to play football.
“I have always been dedicated to football but wasn’t always allowed to play,” Hodges said. “I love sports, I do."
When coach Chester “Chet” Allen learned that Hodges wanted to play, he worried that his prosthetics might hurt the other players or his legs might pop off or break. But he wanted to support the teen.
“Who am I to tell him he can’t do it?” said Allen, head coach of the Liberty High School Leopards in Youngstown, Ohio. “He is a normal kid. The only thing he doesn’t have is ankles.”
The team approached the Ohio High School Athletic Association to see if there were any barriers to Hodges playing; it required that he padded his prosthetic legs to avoid injury.
Hodges has been practicing as a defensive end. He likes blocking and rolling off and going after the ball. Starting his football career in high school means he needs to work harder to get into playing shape.
“He’s very raw. He doesn’t have the technique that other kids do,” Allen said. “But his heart surpasses other stuff. He wants to do that so much. That is what pushes him every day.”
Hodges hasn’t played in a game yet because he’s still waiting for his prosthetics. But he says that in practice, tackling and hitting do not feel any differently for him than walking or running.
“It feels good,” he said. “I don’t seem to be any different than any of the other players."
He hopes to one day be the first player in the NFL with prosthetics. For now, he appreciates all the support he's received and hopes that others can learn from him.
“They told me I was never going to be able to walk when I was first born and now I am playing football,” Hodges said. “Never ever give up. Always keep your head up.”