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The Daily Tar Heel

Junior running back Elijah Hood’s talents extend past the football field

Running backs Elijah Hood (34), TJ Logan (8) and tailback Khris Francis (1) share a laugh on the sideline during the North Carolina football team's Spring Game on Saturday.
Running backs Elijah Hood (34), TJ Logan (8) and tailback Khris Francis (1) share a laugh on the sideline during the North Carolina football team's Spring Game on Saturday.

His intellect is extraordinary. But under control?

No. His thoughts have no discernible beginning or end. They move in a circle — no, in a zigzag, with the arrow always pointing the opposite direction. Or maybe they’re even more untraceable than that. Maybe they weave and wind and overlap. Maybe they’re squiggles.

So, is this too much to expect?

Don’t ask Elijah Hood, North Carolina’s junior running back. He didn’t choose to be this way, with the thoughts and the questions and above all, the curiosity.

“I just have a brain that likes to know and think,” Hood says. “I really don’t know what the deal is with that.”

He shrugs.

“It’s just I already know what I am. I wanna know more about the other stuff. And the more I know about other stuff, I think the more I end up knowing about myself.”

So you see, Hood is destined for something better, but who the hell knows what?

[More reading: UNC football's competition in the ACC for 2016.]

The bird is colorful, mostly a bright green. Hood is two years old, yet he’s been given naming rights.

One Eye, he decides. The bird has two.

His mother, Melica, is confused. It takes her a year to figure out Elijah’s thought process.

“You know in the cartoons, the pirates always have a bird and they have the patch over one of their eyes?” she says. “It’s like that. Pirates having only one eye.

“For somebody that was two, that was a lot of complex thinking.”

It might seem trivial, but it’s a connection nonetheless. It doesn’t matter that it’s between a real bird and a cartoon one. This is the first; more will follow. It’s the spark.

That early ability to see one eye where there are two doesn’t go away. It surfaces in Lego towers and chapter books and building blocks.

One of his early schools, Charlotte Montessori School, fosters his curiosity. Hood learns to knit, garden, do arts and crafts. It is an eclectic and unusual mix of talents.

It is also the beginning.

At age five, that curiosity leads Elijah to the football field. His father played before him, and his uncles, and his grandfather. He’d start with flag football and work his way up.

Or not.

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“I was a rough kid and I said, ‘I’ll tackle people anyway,’” Hood says. “They kicked me out of the game.”

So, he waits until he’s seven, and then picks up like he never left. He’s a defensive lineman at first, one of the big kids who hits people.

He switches to running back in middle school and finds a home. His sophomore year at Charlotte Catholic High School, his first as the varsity starter, he runs for 34 touchdowns and almost 2,000 yards. Before long, every major college football program — Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan — is begging Elijah to join.

He narrows his choices to two: Notre Dame and UNC. Continue the Catholic tradition, or stay close to home?

He picks Notre Dame.

“I thought that’s where I wanted to be,” Elijah says. “The more I thought about it, I thought it’s a little far. It’s not close enough to home.”

“I have grandparents and I wanted them to be able to come to my games instead of just watching me on TV.”

So he switches, from the heralded high-profile program to the uncelebrated homegrown one.

His grandparents come to every home game. His grandmother, Gladys, calls from the stands no matter the noise.

“And whenever he hears that call, he looks straight up,” she says, “and then I raise my hand and he knows that we’re there and he’ll be all right.”

[More reading: Mitch Trubisky is done waiting his turn.]

Elijah’s alone, in one of the seven rows of seats in this white-walled room. It’s not bright. A little sunlight trickles through the stained-glass windows of the chapel. Elijah’s eyes are shut.

It’s his free period at Charlotte Catholic, a time to study or play or snag a bite to eat. Or, in Elijah’s case, to pray.

“It was a time for me to be quiet and sit and talk to God on my own,” Hood says. “Ask him to keep me humble, keep me strong, keep me within His wisdom.”

For all the thoughts Elijah has, all the directions on the compass he could seemingly go, his faith remains a constant. An altar server from the age of nine. Grace before meals as young as five. God, no matter everything else going on in his mind, is forever present.

“He knows where his power comes from,” Edward Hood, Elijah’s grandfather, says. “His power comes from God, and he gives God the glory and the praise for all that he’s capable of doing.”

How fitting, then, that the boy with the biblical name somehow grows to a similar stature. To lift a football team to glory, sure, but is that really what matters?

[More reading: For Nazair Jones, sacrifice equals success]

There’s a final question.

“A greater purpose than football?” he says. “I can see it. I can see football as a beginning.”

“It’s obviously not something that’s the end-all of who I am, not the least bit. If you’ve been asking people now, you probably know football is merely a piece of Elijah Hood.”

A sizable chunk, perhaps — Hood’s 1,463 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns last season contributed to one of the nation’s top scoring offenses.see bio for stats

But his conversations reflect he knows more. His thoughts flow from fiscal analysis to the philosophy of language to chess. Getting his pilot’s license to being an Eagle Scout to printing paper. Black holes to information sciences to the show “How It’s Made.”

Always learning. Always taking in everything he can.

Consider that, and then this: his ultimate legacy will transcend the sport that has given him glory. How? It’s impossible to say. Even his own expansive mind is still waiting to find out.

But listen to those closest to him, from two walks of life. They see it.

“Even if you took football away from him, he’d still have an impact on this universe,” running backs coach Larry Porter says. “That’s just the type of young man he is.”

And then his actual family.

“Football will not be his life’s work,” Melica says. “He’s going to accomplish something better. Some people you just feel that way, and I’ve just always felt that way.”

The potential is there. The curiosity. The intelligence. It’s lurking.

“I want a completely human experience,” Elijah says. “I don’t know anything else. There’s so much to do in the world, and so much to know, and I’m trying to get as much of it as I can before I go. That’s about it.”

Maybe he can handle all this, after all.