Every now and then, Shay Hodge will reflect back on all the accomplishments in his young 31-year old life.

He was one of the state’s top 2-sport high school athletes just a little over a decade ago. 

From there, he went on to become the first player in Ole Miss history to have a 1,000 yards receiving in a single season. He’s played briefly in the NFL, and he’s helped develop two of the best athletes his hometown has ever produced. 

When he thinks back on it, this is what typically comes to mind.

“Man, just a kid from Morton, Mississippi,” Hodge said.

Photo by Hays Collins

Now, he welcomes his next challenge: reviving what has been a struggling Hillcrest Christian football program.

Hodge was named Hillcrest’s head coach in May after spending one season as offensive coordinator at Provine. Prior to that, he spent some time volunteering at his alma mater of Morton High, helping with highly-recruited players like D.D. Bowie and Diwun Black. But this is his first head coaching gig. 

“It’s been a drastic jump,” Hodge said. “It’s been fun, but also a learning experience. You don’t see all the ins and outs of being a head coach when you’re an assistant. So I’m just learning how to do it and taking the punches as you go. But overall, it’s been exciting.”

Coaching is something he has always wanted to do. In a way, he was born to do it. When he was 5-years -old, his coaches would often boast on how much he already knew about the game.

“They would tell me how smart I was and how I always knew how things worked together for the overall team,” Hodge said. “So I always knew I was going to be a coach.”

His first job won’t be easy. 

Hillcrest hasn’t won a football game since October, 2016 when it beat Amite School. The Cougars bring a 24-game losing streak into the season. 

“The thing I’m trying to teach is winning habits,” Hodge said. “The small things like effort. Teaching them that effort will take you way further than talent will. Talent that doesn’t work hard won’t get you far. You can beat someone with talent if you work hard.”

It’s all about a change in mindset. Hodge rattles off all the little things he reminds his 35 or so players as if is reciting it from memory. 

Photo by Hays Collins

“Running through the line during drills. Being a good teammate. Holding each other accountable. Good attitude. Handling adversity. How not to be jealous when someone else is getting some shine. Just learning how not to give up.”

If he sees a player not pushing himself, he’ll remind them of the possible results, “That’s 0-10,” he’ll remind them about the team’s record the past two seasons. “I have to get that 0-10 out of you. Just all of the things I’ve learned through sports is going to help. We know we are going to get adversity throughout life for as long as we live. So I’m using the game to teach them life lessons too.”

Hodge says having played the game professionally, including a year and half with the Cincinnati Bengals and a training camp with the Washington Redskins, should help relate to his players. 

” I know what they are going through,” he said. “When they mess up, I know what they are thinking and I can put them at ease.” 

Hodge says his team could make some noise this season. 

“We have some players,” he said. “People are going to be shocked and will say ‘wow, Hillcrest has all of that?”

Hillcrest begins its season on Friday night when it hosts Amite School. It’s the same team the Cougars last won a game against almost 34 months ago. Leading the Cougars onto the field Friday night will be a first time coach making his head coaching debut. He isn’t sure what his emotions will be like when he trots onto the field for the first time wearing not only Hillcrest blue, but also wearing the title of head coach. 

But he’s played on much bigger stages, so he’s prepared for this moment. He’s played in NFL stadiums. And he’s played in SEC stadiums as one of the most productive players in Ole Miss history. And coaching is what this kid from Morton, Mississippi has always wanted to do. 

“I have a lot of pride in where I’m from,” Hodge said. “You can make it out of there. You can be something where everybody knows you for doing something well. Focus on the little things and the big things will take care of themselves. What I’ve gone through has prepared me for this blessing.”

Photo by Hays Collins