For years, Isaiah Hodgins’ bedroom featured a personalized autographed photo of Larry Fitzgerald, Kurt Warner, and Anquan Boldin.
It was one of the best gifts Hodgins’ father, James, received from asking his NFL teammates to sign items for his son, a Madden video-game enthusiast who was “by far one of the worst players on his team” of 7-year-olds, every Christmas. When James Hodgins left the Cardinals for the Jets in 2006, Leon Washington would occasionally join the family for Chinese food at their Point Lookout rental home, and Jericho Cotchery and Brad Smith would welcome Isaiah to bible study.
If Isaiah, now 24, was pinching himself back then, imagine how surreal it must be now that he is the Giants’ unlikely No. 1 receiver heading into Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Eagles.
“I never look beyond it,” Isaiah explained. “I knew that I could do this, but just a couple months ago I was getting cut from one team and now I’m in the second round of the playoffs. Sometimes I get that overwhelming feeling of, ‘Man, I’m so lucky to be here, and I’m so grateful.’ I just try to remember that every day.”
By the age of eight, Isaiah had worked hard to become the best player on his youth team, and he never stopped improving.
“Isaiah has a good ability to receive coaching,” James told The Washington Post. “When he sets his mind to something, he is unstoppable. It was amazing to see how quickly he could flip that switch and bring out the competitor in him.”
But James, who won a Super Bowl with the Rams during his seven-year career, understands the harsh reality of the NFL.
“I knew Isaiah had this potential all along, but a lot of guys never got their chance to show what they can do,” James explained. “Injuries take over, or they’re labeled a ‘practice-squad guy,’ and that’s all they ever become. Some guys wish for it and fantasize about it, but they don’t put in the effort. Isaiah made certain that when his time came, he would be in the best position to take over.”
Isaiah was released by the Bills on November 1 after appearing in three games in his first two and a half seasons with the team. His father was devastated by the “heartbreaking” news and wished for a better match.
The Giants claimed Isaiah off waivers because their receiver corps had been decimated, and he was already familiar with head coach Brian Daboll’s offense from his time in Buffalo. As Bills assistant general manager, Joe Schoen scouted Isaiah in person and pushed for a sixth-round draft pick on him in 2020. The insider knowledge paid off when Hodgins took advantage of the new opportunity, culminating with eight catches for 105 yards and his fifth touchdown catch in six games last week in their wild-card victory over Minnesota.
James, a former fullback, scored four touchdowns in his career, including two with the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams from 1999 to 2001. Coach Mike Martz’s receiver drills — “you overexaggerate staring at the ball,” James said — were passed down to Isaiah and are a big reason he has zero drops on 48 targets.
“I was going good for a while there,” James laughed when asked about their touchdown totals, “and then he passed me by in one half-season.”
Isaiah’s weekly playtime left an impression on Thomas Miller, 9, and brought him full circle back to the photo on Isaiah’s wall.
Miller, another avid Madden player, lives in Eagles territory, but copied his Staten Island-born mother’s allegiance to the Giants. Cassandra and Thomas watch the games together every week and she bought tickets for his first NFL game (Giants-Eagles in Philadelphia on Jan. 9) as a Christmas present. The sign he held behind the visitor’s bench included a three-item bucket list: High-five a player, get an autograph, and meet Saquon Barkley and Hodgins.
Not long after Cassandra’s tweet thanking kicker Graham Gano for giving her son a Giants beanie and a wave, Hodgins sent her a direct message apologizing for not seeing his young fan and asking for an address. Thomas cried happy tears when a box of autographed gloves and shirt out of Hodgins’ locker arrived this week.
“I want everyone to understand what a huge impact this was on my son … to express to him that every athlete starts out as a kid with a dream and a love for the game,” Cassandra told The Post. “It speaks volumes to who Isaiah is and who the Giants organization is. They’ve created another fan for life. My son will never forget the experience of his first game. After the way he played last week, our son couldn’t have picked a better favorite player. On top of that, a good human.”