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May 5, 2009

Hood moves forward on second chance

The date comes simultaneously with ease and torment for Daniel Hood.

It will not be forgotten. Not by Hood. It's the period that changed his life forever.

Changed Hood from just another teenager to a child temporarily in the custody of Department of Children's Services.

Changed a cousin from close friend to victim.

Changed Hood. Forever. Now almost six years later, Hood is forging ahead in a new direction in his life. On Tuesday, the Tennessee Class 3A Mr. Football award winner signed scholarship papers with the University of Tennessee.

Then, smiling but nervous, patient but passionate, Hood told his tale. Of climbing up from life's depths. Of living with guilt. Of mending relationships with friends and family -- and yes, his cousin unwittingly at the center of this storm.

"It was tough emotionally, and there were times like I said, you don't even know. You're thinking well, this is just football. Why go through this for that," said Hood, bouncing nervously in a leather chair inside UT's Neyland-Thompson Center. "But I've prayed about it a lot and it's come to this and I'm excited to go through it all.

"To really get the true emotion of how it feels, to say, you know, I'm playing at UT. I've had to climb a mountain to get here. When you get to the top it's just so much better to actually get there."

Because of an incident that occurred August 11, 2003, the lives of several East Tennessee teenagers and their families irrevocably changed. According to court documents, Hood's cousin was the victim of kidnapping and aggravated rape.

Because of his determined involvement in the incident at his family's home, Hood was ushered from his middle school classroom to state custody mere days later.

"I'd say the low point was Wednesday, August 15, 2003. I was sitting at, I'd actually gotten arrested at school in eighth grade," said Hood, tears welling in his eyes and a half-empty water bottle an improbable steadying force clutched in his hands. "They took me out of the principal's office in handcuffs into the car, and I could look through the windows on both sides and see people glaring out the window at me. So then getting into the car and thinking about all your friends, how many friends you would lose, the emotions of that, was horrible. Then getting to the detention center and talking to my dad on the phone. As a 13-year-old, my dad was the greatest person in the world and still is to me. You just kind of feel insignificant to him.

"And then talking to my cousin afterwards, I called her the next day, and hearing the pain in her voice then. The conversation with her, I was apologizing for what had happened and I said, 'You know I love you. You're family.' And I remember her last words to me were, 'Well, evidently last night you weren't family to me.' And she hung up the phone. Hearing that at 13 years old and she's grown up like a sister to me, it was tough. It tore me apart. That period over about three days, it was awful."

Because of what his father, Tri-Cities area bail bondsman Allyn Hood, termed an attorney's error, the document has been unsealed in Tennessee's courts system and made available in an online database.

Because of this collective horrific series of events chronicled in the document, Hood saw his recruitment peak last summer -- when some 27 colleges had extended scholarship offers -- and bottom out as news of his past trickled from keyboards across the college football sphere.

"When I first talked to the coaches at the University of Mississippi, they were talking about players with character and that he thought I was one of them. I stopped him and said, 'Well coach, before we start talking about players with character, I want you to know this was in my past and this is where I have come since then,'" Hood recalled. "He and I ended up talking for two and a half hours that night. It was a trying process. I had a lot of ups and downs. At the end of the day would I go through it again (the recruiting process). I don't know because it was that hard emotionally to go through.

"But being here now and being able to sign your name to a full scholarship to Tennessee speaks a lot for itself. Without being drug through the mud the whole time and making it to the top, I don't think I would appreciate it as much as I do now."

While Hood's past remains a point of contention for those outside the family of the honor student with a 3.8 GPA and 27 on the ACT, Hood insists his family has reconciled. His cousin penned a letter on his behalf to the University of Tennessee, according to UT officials. Hood said they've begun to reconnect after a court order had prevented contact for years.

"The actual victim in the case, my cousin, she wrote a letter saying she supported me in the actual college decision that I made and part of the decision to really try to go somewhere where I'm going to be tested in every aspect of the game was because of her," said Hood. "Because, with all of this coming back out, it doesn't only affect me; it's going to affect her, too, because people are going to start bringing it back up to her. Reliving everything through her. When she really gave me her support, that was a big thing emotionally. I felt like I just had to do it.

"We'd been talking a little bit and just talking. She was like, 'You know, I really support you.' After talking about it, I actually asked her to write it down so that when I was talking to people, they weren't like, 'Oh, he's just making that up.' We went over there around Christmas and she has a young son now. We went over there to see him. While we were there, we caught up on things and got the letter."

Catholic school officials didn't have such a letter three years ago when Hood sought admission to the school. What Catholic principal Dickie Sompayrac did have was a conflicted heart until he began to vet Hood's past.

"We did a lot of research. We talked to a lot of people from every stop along the way that Daniel had. We obviously met with Daniel and his dad and I will tell you the initial thought and reaction from us not knowing Daniel at all was probably similar to people who read the document on line and that was no way," Sompayrac said. "But the more we looked into Daniel and talked to more people, Vic Wharton is someone I want to mention. He worked at Mountain View and is an assistant coach at Webb and he is a guy who I have known for a number of years. He had obviously worked with Daniel at Westview. He and I met four or five times over a two week period and I would say that he played an important role for me and our school in making the decision on Daniel. What we heard from everybody was the same message. This is a great kid that deserves an opportunity. We took a chance and we feel like being able to go to bat for Daniel has been easy because we have a three-year track record with him. He has a 3.8 GPA and a 28 on the ACT. An outstanding school citizen. His teachers rave about Daniel and he is respected by his peers. We are willing to stake our on reputation on Daniel's character."

That character, Hood professes with an almost-pleading earnestness, has evolved dramatically since the incident.

"When I think of me myself now, I'm nobody without my faith," Hood said. "I'd say the one thing that makes me significant is my faith. It's not something I take lightly, like, 'Oh yeah, I go to this church.' I go to Catholic churches and other churches, too. And I've been thinking about studying theology in college. I think that's one of the things that defines me. From the past incident, I'm more of a mature person. The childish things I don't really care about. The silly pranks and things like that, I don't care very much about.

"I've just changed a lot mentally since then. With that incident happening, the one thing I really felt the most from it, was the absence in my life of Christ. So that was the first thing. Then going into Christ, I see what virtues He had that I didn't. Being a Christian, I wanted those virtues. Those are virtues I wanted to develop. Because of that I've developed a lot of the virtues and it's made me a better person since then."

Hood's virtues likely have been tested by this process. After Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin initiated first contact in December, Hood steadfastly answered every question of countless University of Tennessee officials from athletics director Mike Hamilton to public relations director Tiffany Carpenter to Richard Bayer, assistant provost for enrollment services who has oversight over undergraduate admissions among myriad other responsibilities.

"Daniel made a terrible mistake a number of years ago and was involved in a very bad thing," Hamilton said. "He's very remorseful and has worked hard to turn his life around. Catholic High gave him a second chance, and he lived up to expectations. We feel like he has earned the chance to continue that."

Added Kiffin, "We didn't go about this lightly. We spent a lot of time researching the issue and talking to a lot of people who are well respected in the community. Everyone spoke very highly of Daniel. He's a very bright young man who wants to move past this incident and be a good representative for the team, the university and the community."

Hood was happy for the opportunity to reveal his character to those aforementioned UT representatives and anyone else.

"Really, Mike Hamilton just wanted to get a feel for who I was. He had Kiffin telling him one thing, but when you read the 21-page report on the Internet, you get a certain idea of me," Hood said. "He had this idea of me from the report and this idea from coach Kiffin, and so he wanted to get to know me so that he could form his own idea.

"He formed his, and I think that's when athletics were like, 'You know what? I really think we can do this.' And then I met with Mrs. Carpenter because her job here is pretty tough at UT. She needed to know who I was."

Mark Pemberton, Hood's coach for at Catholic for three seasons that culminated in 2008's unblemished 15-0, Class 3A state championship, saw as much from Hood through their almost-daily interaction.

"He's pretty tough-minded," Pemberton said. "He's gone through a lot. He totally understands where the schools are coming from on this stuff and he's really proud of this opportunity. He's really looking forward to playing at Tennessee."

With the support of his family and a faith that he said inspired "seven or eight" readings of the Bible during a two-year span, Hood has advanced past a dark hour in his and the lives of others. He'll wear Tennessee orange and play in Neyland Stadium, much to the delight of family members whom Hood described as "all Tennessee."

He knows he'd even like to have a special guest when the Vols open their 2009 season on Sept. 5 at home against Western Kentucky.

"If (the cousin and victim) is able to come, that would be great. Thinking about it, definitely I'd like her to be there because she is one of the biggest supporters of me," Hood said. "That would be probably one of the best ways to really say thank you to her."

To perhaps add another memorable date for the two relatives, one that brings only pleasant memories of life's new journeys.


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