The Florida Gators got a player in 2014 guard Zack Hodskins (Alpharetta, GA), and being a player is the only thing Hodskins has ever wanted.
Excelling as a high school basketball star can earn one a lot of attention. Supplement that talent with the unavoidable fact that Hodskins only has one hand – he was born without a forearm or hand on his left arm – and the rush of recognition has become overwhelming, especially since August when Florida was the first Division I program to offer him a role with its basketball team.
It did not take long for Hodskins to realize that he belonged with the Gators, which are interested in him solely because of his on-court ability – equal to that of other players – rather than the story of how he has overcome adversity and come close to achieving his dream despite working with a perceived limitation.
“They made it clear, first of all, that I’m a player for them. They see me as a player in every aspect,” Hodskins told OnlyGators.com in an exclusive interview Monday night. “I have every opportunity to earn a scholarship. It’s not just because of who I am. It’s because they see me as a player.
“That’s what they want people to know. I know Billy Donovan wants a lot of people to know that, and I want people to know that. That’s the main thing. That’s what they told me. I’m just like any other player that got recruited for them. It’s just a different type of offer. That’s it.”
That is why Hodskins committed Saturday to join the Florida basketball program in 2014 without a scholarship but rather in a preferred walk-on role.
Since Gators assistant coach John Pelphrey first offered Hodskins, enthusiasm for his services has exploded. Other walk-on offers arrived at his doorstep, Western Kentucky showed a great deal of interest, and Kentucky head coach John Calipari also called to discuss a potential opportunity without officially offering one.
After speaking with coaches at other schools, Hodskins believed he would have been in line for even more preferred walk-on opportunities and likely a few Division I scholarship offers while being evaluated during his senior season of high school. But he also felt like some of the programs he spoke with – he chose not to disclose which ones – were more interested in the narrative of having a one-handed player on their team rather than banking on his talent and giving him a chance to contribute.
“I did get that vibe from very few schools,” he said cautiously, “but all the other schools I got attention from seemed [legitimately interested] because I’m there as a player.”
In the end, it did not matter if any other program reached out to Hodskins. The only offer of consequence to him was Florida’s – and not just because it was the first.
“Once I got that Florida offer, it really did open up some other schools to, ‘Wow, maybe this kid isn’t just a good story. He is a player.’ It opened up the eyes of a lot of colleges around the area and people like WKU. They really admired me and saw me as a player at that point,” he explained.
“But nothing compared to Florida. Even if it was just a preferred walk-on spot. Nothing compared to the future I’m going to have after going there, all the education, playing for Coach Donovan and his team. It’s going to be an amazing experience.”
It only took Hodskins about two months to make his decision, but it likely would have come even quicker had he been able to visit Gainesville, FL, sooner to ensure that he wanted it to be his future home.
Hodskins was in Gainesville this past weekend to meet with Donovan, tour the campus and check out a Gators basketball practice in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Suffice to say, he came away impressed.
“We went down there, and I had seen a lot of pictures on the internet of the campus and also just [read up about] Florida. Everyone who came out of there, all the great people that come out of there. The great vibes you hear about the program. That really pushed me towards there,” he said. “Then when we got down there to the campus, I was just amazed. The campus was beautiful. The people were awesome. Just everything.
“Then I had a meeting with Coach Donovan, a really good meeting, really long. We talked about everything. After that meeting, I really knew that I was there – I really wanted to go there for sure. Coach Donovan made me feel so comfortable. The fact that he told me I’m there as a player first was the only thing I needed to hear. That’s when I told him I’m definitely coming here and made the decision to commit.”
Hodskins (6-foot-4, 185 pounds) bought in immediately when he heard Donovan discuss Florida’s camaraderie, communication, and the program’s family atmosphere. He said he felt welcome as a part of Gator Nation and had no reason to continue putting off a decision that had already been made.
“I did think about it for a long time. Every day I just felt like God pushed me closer and closer to Florida. I just knew it. I didn’t care about any other program. I didn’t care. I just really wanted to go to the Gators no matter what over any offer. I told Billy that. I didn’t care what offer came my way. I wanted to go to the Gators and that’s what I’ve always known. I don’t think I ever hesitated pulling the trigger on Florida,” Hodskins said.
As it turns out, despite first living in Tennessee before moving to Georgia, Hodskins has always been a UF fan and calls the opportunity to play for his favorite team a “dream come true.” He recalled watching the Gators play in person a few years ago and getting a chance to speak with one of the players he admired most after the game.
“Before this I was living in Nashville, Tennessee, and Florida came down to play Vanderbilt. Me and my dad got front row tickets to that game, used all our money just so we could see them,” he said.
“At the game, Corey Brewer came in just to spectate and see his team play. After the game, I got to get Chandler Parsons’s autograph after he was done playing, and I got to talk to him for a minute. After that game, I really looked up to him and followed him ever since, still follow him on the [Houston] Rockets today.”
Having now made one of the biggest decisions he has faced in his young life, Hodskins can focus on finishing up high school, improving as a basketball player and gaining some much-needed weight. He said Florida already has a plan in place to help him bulk up and “get ready for the big leagues.”
He will also do his best to keep the distractions at bay.
Minutes after the conversation with Hodskins concluded, ESPN requested that he go live on SportsCenter for an interview, one of many national broadcasts he has participated in since first being offered by the Gators. News crews are even attending his practices. But he luckily has a great support system in place to keep him in line as he remains laser focused on his career and eventual move to Gainesville.
“My parents and my teammates have really humbled me for sure, always having me keep a level head with all this attention,” he explained. “It’s tough but you got to be real organized. You got to be motivated to stay on task, stay on goal, don’t think too far ahead. I still got practice to go in high school. I still got my whole senior season.
“We got all these people talking about me being a Gator already. It’s my junior year. I still got a whole high school year to go. I’m just staying on task and staying on goal, remaining humble.”
That does not mean Hodskins is any less excited about his future. Not in the least. He related that Florida fans have already been letting him know via social media how happy they are to have him as the newest member of Gator Nation.
“I’m ready to be a Gator. I have to thank all these fans for the love and support they have given me, all the messages that I’m getting. Go Gators,” he exclaimed.
The hard part is now over for Hodskins. The attention may be relentless and the stories plentiful. And he will continue to participate because his tale is certainly one worth telling.
It may very well inspire some and force others to take a second look at what they perceive to be impediments only to realize that opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
In his mind, though, he’s not concerned about being a story or an inspiration, does not see himself as either disadvantaged or someone in need of special treatment.
How could he be when he taught himself how to tie his own shoes at five, dominates on the monkey bars, does more pull-ups than many of his friends, and participates in any sport he can from baseball to wakeboarding?
He’s on his way to being the only thing he’s ever wanted, the only thing Florida is interested in helping him become – a basketball player.
ADAM SILVERSTEIN: When were you first aware that Florida was interested in you as a player and considering recruiting you?
ZACH HODSKINS: “It was just kind of a random thing. I was playing in an AAU tournament here locally in Suwanee and I had a really good game in front of a bunch of college coaches, caught the eye of a couple of them and one of them was Florida. After the game, somebody that was sitting close to John Pelphrey came up to me and told me John Pelphrey was talking to him about maybe offering me a preferred walk-on spot for the team. At the time, the coaches couldn’t talk directly to the players. At first I was kind of skeptical, thinking hopefully this will go through. A couple weeks passed and I got in contact with Florida and it kind of went down from there.”
AS: I would imagine that when teams game plan for you defensively, they do whatever they can to force you left. How are you able to combat that and still thrive on the court?
ZH: “When I was coming up playing when I was little, we always knew – me, my father and my coaches – we talked about kids, when they guard me, forcing me left no matter what. So we just came up with tons of different moves and things to have me go left, to beat the defender left. Now that I’m older, I have so many just little moves that I can do to go left, get around the defender.”
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