CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Friday night, Charlotte Catholic will play in the N.C. 3AA football semifinals at Statesville High, and Elijah Hood will continue the best season any Mecklenburg County running back has ever had.
Hood, 16, a junior, has rushed for more yards and more touchdowns than any county player before him. With perhaps two more games this season and his entire senior year ahead of him, Hood is 912 yards away from becoming the county’s all-time leading rusher and 11 touchdowns away from becoming its all-time leading scorer.
But when he goes to college, Hood, 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, isn’t wholly sure if he’d like to continue playing running back.
“I’m pushing toward linebacker,” Hood said Tuesday morning, “but I can’t deny the great season I’ve been having. I know I’m a running back in high school. My team needs me at that position. At the next level, I don’t know if running back-mode will suit me better or linebacker. I might gain 20 or 30 pounds. I never know how I will grow.’’
Hood attends a west Charlotte Catholic church each Sunday, and when he was growing up in Charlotte Catholic’s feeder middle school, Holy Trinity, he was too heavy by league rules to play running back. He was an offensive lineman and linebacker.
Hood’s father, Vee, and his uncle, Boo, were star running backs at Charlotte Catholic in the late ’80s. But Hood figured that when he got to Catholic he would continue playing on the line.
When he got there, his days as a lineman ended quickly.
Charlotte Catholic coach Jim Oddo – who coached both Vee and Boo – knew what he was getting.
“Both his dad and his uncle were really good backs,” Oddo said. “We thought he might have the capability to do it also.”
Hood played on Catholic’s junior varsity team as a freshman, but there were whispers around the program about this star-in-waiting, this guy with fullback size, sprinter’s speed and great vision and strength.
Hood moved up to varsity for the 2010 playoffs and ran for 200 yards and three scores.
Then, his sophomore season happened.
‘Football chose me’
Growing up in Charlotte, Hood admits he was a “rough” kid.
“I think football choose me,” he says. “I’ve always been a rough child. I was tackling people since I was 2.”
It probably didn’t surprise many that Elijah was athletic from a young age. His uncle and his father are both in Charlotte Catholic’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Elijah’s uncle, Everett “Boo” Hood, graduated from Catholic in 1987. He went on to play at Lees-McRae and Eastern New Mexico. Elijah’s father, Vee, graduated from Catholic in 1990. In 1989, Vee set what was then a school-record for single-season rushing with 1,832 yards. Today, that still ranks among the top 20 single-season rushing performances by any Mecklenburg County player.
Vee went to Western Carolina for 1 1/2 years before he came home. He and his then-girlfriend had a child, and Vee – so named because he was the fifth child in the family – returned home to take care of his child. While he worked to help care for his son, De-Mondel, he began to rethink his priorities.
Vee said he’d struggled with academics at Catholic because he didn’t apply himself. He said he and his wife, Melica, were determined to make sure the two kids they had together, Elijah, 16, and Harding student Jasmine, 17, were committed to academics.
De-Mondel was an honor roll student at West Charlotte. He is also a violinist and now a senior at N.C. Central. Elijah and Jasmine are also honor-roll students.
And while Jasmine has the speed that seems to run in the family, she chooses to not play sports. Not Elijah.
Elijah Hood was Catholic’s starter from Day 1 in 2011, his sophomore season. He rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns in a 46-28 win over South Mecklenburg to start the year, and he led Catholic to 13 straight wins before losing to Crest in the 2011 N.C. 3AA semifinals.
Hood finished that sophomore season with 1,982 yards - 150 more than his father did as a record-breaking senior in 1989 - and 35 touchdowns.
His junior year has been even better. Hood has rushed 223 times for 2,855 yards and 45 touchdowns. He averages almost 13 yards per carry, and because Catholic has won its games by an average of nearly 30 points, coach Oddo said Hood didn’t always play much past halftime.
Against Garinger, Hood had 131 yards and two touchdowns – on three carries.
You watch him, and you see this big strong kid pushing away tacklers with strong stiff arms. He runs into a pile, and the pile moves forward. Sometimes, he runs into a pile and suddenly emerges out of it with speed that’s been timed at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
“But you know what,” says Catholic Principal Jerry Healy, “he may have 4.5 speed on the clock, but on the field it seems like he’s running 4.2.”
Healy said the only time Hood has been to his office is to say hello. He jokes about how Hood doesn’t get into trouble, but he’s also surprised that the guy who might be the biggest football star ever at a football-crazy school doesn’t seem to have an ounce of an ego.
“The kids say he’s so humble and so bright and so friendly,” Healy says, “that half the time they forget he’s as good as he is.”
Hood walks around campus and everyone notices him. The three volunteers selling tickets to the Statesville game outside the gym wave as he walks by.
Catholic freshman Emily Daly has never spoken to him, but she always waves, too. She says everyone does.
“He’s really nice,” Daly says. “The kids here, they all look up to him because he’s such a good role model. He’s huge here.”
Out of his uniform and pads, Hood can bench press 360 pounds and once squatted 500 pounds twice, and he says it was easy. He says his coaches wouldn’t allow him to do more.
Hood speaks in fast sentences and always makes eye contact when talking. He laughs a lot. He’s been in the Boy Scouts since sixth grade and is currently doing two church projects: one to make Christmas ornaments by hand and to wrap presents that will be given to residents of a homeless shelter; the other to collect clothes for needy adults.
Hood said other than God, his best friend is girlfriend Meredith Farley, a Charlotte Christian student whom he began dating Sept. 26, 2011.
“I’ve still got it to the date,” he says, with that ever-present smile and giggle. “She’s gonna like that.”
Like all Catholic students, Hood has a school-issued silver Apple laptop computer he carries around school and at home. He keeps his very busy schedule on it.
His Spanish Honors III teacher Ramon Villacurra says Hood is juggling his responsibilities well.
“He’s a very dedicated student,” Villacurra says. “He’s very serious about what needs to be done. He’s always looking ahead and getting ready for what’s next. Not everybody is. And he’s an easy-going guy. He’s fun to be with.”
The big choice
Elijah Hood has scholarship offers from Clemson, East Carolina, Georgia Tech, Michigan, North Carolina, N.C. State, Stanford and Wake Forest. Notre Dame is seriously interested.
“He’s got a motor that’s hard to believe,” coach Oddo said. “I’d love to see him play running back in college. He’s a good linebacker now, but he’s gotten so much experience as a running back. He’s big and strong and fast. He’ll hit you, but he’s got a better feel as a back.”
Catholic athletics director Kevin Christmas remembers when Hood was a freshman and an assistant coach saw him working in the weight room – something instilled by Boo and Vee – and said “Elijah if you keep working like that, you’ll be playing on Saturday (as a college football player).”
Like many youngsters, Hood said his goal was to play Sundays, in the NFL.
“Now it’s shifted to, ‘Where can I go to a good school,’ ” Christmas said. “We’ve had a lot of schools in here, but the one question he asks recruiters is, ‘Can I come sit in a class and see what the classroom environment is like?’ ”
Christmas said Hood has always been a great listener and able to apply coaching instruction, but believes the biggest jump in his game came after the Cougars’ only loss, 31-28 at home to Charlotte Country Day on Aug. 31. Watching film of the game, Catholic’s coaches told Hood that he was running side to side too much trying to elude tacklers.
“We said, ‘Elijah you’re average going east to west,’ but when you’re going north and south, no one wants to tackle you,’ ” Christmas said.
Since that talk, Hood has had four of the top 21 rushing performances in Mecklenburg County history, and he’s put together the best single season in Mecklenburg County history for a running back.
But the big question remains: Will he always be a running back?
“I’m just a confused child on it,” Hood said, the smile and the giggle returning. “I don’t know. Honest. I have to wait until my senior year. I’m very fortunate to be able to choose which position, I guess, but right now I’m doing a great job at running back.”