IN THE ZONE

A soccer star finds inspiration in her own travails to lead cancer fundraising efforts at WCU

By TYLER NORRIS GOODE

Samantha Hodge knows all too well the sinking feeling that comes when a doctor delivers bad news. Like the people for whom Hodge raised money this academic year, Western Carolina’s standout soccer player also knows what it’s like to battle a vicious disease through setbacks and glum prognoses. She also knows how to win — and that’s what she’s determined to do as coordinator of WCU’s “Pink Zone” fundraising campaign, which raises money for breast cancer awareness.

“There’s a competition among all the schools in the Southern Conference to see who could raise the most,” said Hodge, whose paternal and maternal grandmothers had breast cancer. “Samford would always just dominate this competition. We were second but could never reach the point where they were.” Her approach to changing that: a multipronged, all-out blitz — including T-shirt sales and Pink Zone participation by every athlete in all of WCU’s intercollegiate sports.

Hodge’s personal ordeal began after knee surgery in February 2010 following her sophomore season. Intense pain and redness in her knee prompted another surgery, which revealed Hodge had contracted Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a severe staph bacteria. “When they told me it was MRSA, the first thing that went in my head was, ‘There’s nothing they can do for it,’” said Stephanie Hodge, Samantha’s mother. “Watching her go through the agony was terrifying.”

Recognizing the seriousness of the diagnosis, Hodge knew she was in for the fight of her life. “I ended up having a total of seven knee surgeries, and I had an eighth surgery on my chest because the MRSA was like, all around,” Hodge recalled. “So, it was eight surgeries in six months.”

Doctors ultimately determined that a screw inserted in Hodge’s knee during the first surgery had the MRSA on it, so they removed it and had Hodge take an antibiotic through an IV drip twice a day for six weeks. Eradicating the MRSA and preserving all her limbs didn’t mean the fight was over. In fact, Hodge said one of her lowest moments came after she started feeling better physically.

Her own health battle and grandmothers who experienced breast cancer inspired Samantha Hodge in her Pink Zone efforts.

“I almost got to the point where I was walking, and that was a huge step for me,” Hodge said. “(But) I could not get my knee to bend. It was just stuck at an angle. It wouldn’t straighten all the way, and it wouldn’t bend. We couldn’t get it to do anything. My doctor said, ‘We’re going to try another surgery. We’re going to have to go back in.’ That was at the point where I had fought through all the MRSA and I was healthy physically. Before going into surgery, he said, ‘If this doesn’t work, you’ll never be able to run again.’ It was just to the point where I had no choice to do anything. I literally was on my hands and knees praying it would work. That was definitely the hardest part, hearing, ‘I don’t think you’ll be able to run again.’”

Hodge’s coach at WCU, Chad Miller, recalls a sobering sight when Hodge returned to Cullowhee after her surgeries and walked into his office in fall 2010. “I remember it like it was yesterday. She walked into my office with a walker and an IV attached to her, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God!’ It was a very trying time. At that point, it wasn’t about soccer. It was about her getting better and finishing out the year academically.”

Hodge wasn’t ready to give up on her game, though, and a little less than a year later rejoined the team. She didn’t simply return as a member; she was a leader. A defender in her first two seasons, she moved to forward and led the team in goals (five), assists (six) and shot percentage (.208; 5 of 24).

“She just blew us out of the water,” Miller said. “She exceeded our expectations tenfold. She was one of the players on our team that I felt like every team was game-planning and trying to stop. She had an unbelievable year in terms of soccer, not to mention the coming-back-from-surgery thing.”

Off the field, Hodge is doing her part to help overtake Samford in the SoCon’s Pink Zone fundraising campaign. Through T-shirt sales, Pink Zone events and the contribution of at least $1 from every WCU student-athlete, WCU’s already raised $4,597.75 at press time. That’s more than twice as much as the Catamounts’ total from the previous two years combined ($1,800). Last year, Samford raised $3,921.

Whether or not the Catamounts surpass their rivals from Alabama, Hodge already experienced a major highlight a few months ago. “It was nice for me after (the Pink Zone game in the fall),” Hodge said. “I called my grandmother and said, ‘Hey Mee-maw, I just wanted to let you know we raised over $1,500 toward (fighting) breast cancer.’ It’s nice for me to be able to give back. That’s not only good in general, but also personally. It makes a difference in my life.”

Hodge said her fight to return to the soccer pitch has helped her identify with the suffering breast cancer patients endure. One who’s particularly close to her heart came to mind. “My Dad’s mother, I call her Ma-Maw, her (cancer) started as a skin rash, and they treated it as a skin problem. By the time they realized it was breast cancer, she died within a year,” Hodge recalled.

“It was kind of the same thing; I didn’t know what was going on with me. The fact is you have to take it as it is. I can’t blame anybody for me getting sick. It’s not my fault. It’s not my coaches’ fault. It’s not the doctors’ fault. It just happened. You don’t ever know what life is going to bring you. You have to take what it gives you, and work and make the best of it,” she said. “Obviously, fighting through adversity is hard. You learn to struggle and you learn to lean on people you can depend on. You find strength in anything you can grasp onto.”

Reprinted in edited format with permission of the Asheville Citizen-Times.