Caleb Hodge still remembers what he said to his father when he didn’t want to answer the phone.
Home sick from school, Caleb was stretched out on one couch and his dad, Chapman head football coach Mark Hodge, was on another when their home phone rang. Mark told Caleb to answer.
“I said ‘I’m sick, you go get it,” Caleb said.
The Hodge’s caller ID didn’t pick up the number. Mark told Caleb that if it was important, whoever was calling would just call his cellphone.
It was. They did.
But because of a dead battery and with the phone still in silent mode due to a meeting Mark had at church the day before, those calls went unanswered, too.
The calls would have changed the Hodge family’s lives. What came about as a result of the missed calls was equally life-changing.
Mark Hodge makes no secret of his great faith. It shows in his daily actions, in the way he runs his team, in the way Chapman interacts with opponents following games, gathering to pray in a circle with everyone on the field involved. The day those phone calls came and went unanswered, that faith wasn’t tested. It was strengthened.
Mark and his wife, Dana, were on the waiting list for adoption. With sons Caleb and Joshua at home, the couple wanted to adopt a daughter. Mark had just taken the job at Chapman, Dana was teaching at a new school, and the agency they were working through didn’t have their new work contact numbers. So when the Hodges didn’t respond immediately to voicemails and calls, they moved on. A baby girl went home with a different couple.
“It was a sad moment, but we realized that we were really blessed,” Mark said. “We just hoped that whoever did get the phone call was blessed by it as well.”
“It was heartbreaking,” Dana agreed. “But Mark helps me keep things in perspective. That evening, even, we knew that we weren’t God’s plan for that baby.”
That was in January 2013. Later that summer, Mark was at a coach’s conference where he ran into Bill Owens, for whom he’d served as defensive coordinator when they worked together at Broome, and former longtime Chapman head coach Randy Burns, two men he has long respected.
“I was just going to mess with them a little bit so I ran up and was giving them a hard time,” Mark said. “They were walking behind a curtain, and Bill told me to come on back there too, that he had something he wanted to share with us both.”
Mark thought the news would be that Bill was going to take the head coaching position at Boiling Springs, which had come open near the beginning of the season. Instead, it was family news.
Bill’s daughter, Rebecca, who was 15 at the time, was pregnant.
“I was shocked,” Mark said. “I’m almost ashamed to say I even wondered if what has matriculated is what was going to happen. You’re kind of afraid of it. You don’t want to think of it. We were trying to adopt, but humanly speaking we didn’t want it at that cost. We’ve known Rebecca since she was two. That wasn’t part of our fairy tale.”
Support from many sources helped his family weather the first few uncertain days after learning about the situation, said Bill, now the head football coach at Chesnee.
“We were so fortunate to have so many people support us in the Chesnee community and at our church, and Mike Hamlet and Ken Smith, who has mentored me for years,” he said. “You really don’t know what to do. But God has a way of quieting us and letting him speak. As a dad and a coach, that’s a hard place to get to. You’re supposed to have all the answers. Sometimes you just don’t have them.”
The bond between Hodge and Owens is a strong one, dating back to their days at Broome.
Mark said his faith could be traced back to working under Owens. As Rebecca’s pregnancy went on, the Hodges provided support to their friends, until one day Dana told Rebecca something that was on the couple’s mind.
“Dana told her that if it was something on her heart, she knew that we’d be there for her,” Mark said. “They had another conversation, and after that it became clear what was going to happen.”
Snow was falling the day that Dana, a teacher at Campobello-Gramling, and Rebecca talked.
“We went upstairs and she was showing me around, and I told her that Mark and I had been waiting to adopt for four years, and we were willing to do this with her,” Dana said. “She was so young, and she’s our hero for sure. She wanted to do what was best for her baby.”
Rebecca said Dana’s words left her speechless.
“I didn’t see it coming, but God’s ways are higher than our ways,” Rebecca said. “I didn’t turn her down, but I didn’t say yes, either. The good thing is that I had four days to just sit and think and pray. I couldn’t go out in the snow.”
In a few days, Rebecca called. She invited the Hodges over to talk, and told them what she wanted to do.
“At the end of those four days it was crystal clear that they were the family and that we were just supposed to sit back and watch God work,” she said.
Rebecca gave birth to a beautiful baby girl she named Ruthie, whom the Hodge family adopted in an open adoption situation. Now 3 years old, Ruthie experiences a life somewhat different than other children, in a remarkable way.
“She’s got five sets of grandparents,” Mark said. “She sees them all just like any grandparents. She knows as much as a three-year-old can know that she’s got two mommies and two daddies. To her it’s normal. She just rolls with it.”
She also makes her family’s eyes light up. Mark, who coached Chapman to a state title last season and has the Panthers ranked No. 1 in 3A after a 5-0 start, can often be found after games conducting interviews with Ruthie in his arms.
“Her personality is just amazing,” Mark said. “You just watch her and you feel like you’re always watching a miracle. Watching how my other children have embraced her is another miracle in itself.”
The family situation involves the Hodges, the Owens, and Ruthie’s dad Jay Evans and his family. Mark said that while the situation seems odd, it’s a perfect fit.
“None of this makes sense,” Mark said. “I’m not sure how many people would have signed up for it. It’s just amazing what has happened and what continues to happen. We thought initially we were supposed to adopt to help a kid. We realized we adopted to help three kids and three families.”
Both Rebecca and Jay are active in her life through the open adoption, and both are happy with the situation.
“It’s incredible,” Rebecca said. “People ask how it works. The only way you can describe it is that it’s a God story. We couldn’t have dreamed this up. At the last second, this worked and it’s beautiful. There was an overnight change of heart. I had 100 percent peace about it. There’s no better feeling than to live my life and be able to influence people through our story and to see her living that story.”
“It was something different, but in talking with Coach Hodge, I put my trust in him and he’s been keeping it up,” Evans said. “He’s a special guy, a great man, and a standup guy. It really doesn’t feel like an adoption. She’s changed my life. This whole situation has made me look at things a lot different.”
While many can’t fathom the changes, challenges and hurdles that any adoption, particularly and open adoption entails, the Hodge, Owens and Evans families see it differently. Dana said Ruthie has had a huge impact on everyone involved in her young life.
“I can’t imagine life without her,” she said.