North Dakota really tough: Senior Hodenfield gritted his way to scholarship

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FARGO—It was during practice in North Dakota State spring football when Keenan Hodenfield went up for a ball and came down wrong on his foot. Really wrong.

His cleats stuck in the turf while his body continued to twist. The result was something you don't want to see—and nobody on the team did, either.

Tight end Jeff Illies said he saw the replay on tape.

And?

"You don't want to know," Illies said. "Let's just say that it was pretty gruesome."

The impact wasn't the half of it. Hodenfield, a senior safety, while laying on the turf, took matters in his own hands for some reason and adjusted his dislocated ankle back into place. That's not North Dakota tough, that's North Dakota really, really tough.

"I didn't want to wait," he said.

He had already waited long enough, after all. It was Hodenfield's fourth spring football and he was going on five years of being a walk-on, grinding through workouts and practices without much playing time to show for it. The year before, a broken foot kept him out.

The rehabilitation from the ankle injury took the rest of spring, all of last summer and a good chunk of August fall camp. It was toward the end of August, right around the time school started, when head coach Chris Klieman stopped Hodenfield as he was leaving the Bison locker room in the lower level of the Fargodome and heading to an adjacent team meeting room.

"Keenan, I have to talk to you a second?" Hodenfield remembers Klieman saying.

Hodenfield stopped.

"We're going to take care of you this year," Klieman said.

Hodenfield's immediate reaction was something on the lines of, "What?"

"Yeah, we're going to put you on full-ride scholarship," Klieman said.

Hodenfield said he was speechless, didn't know what to say or how to react.

"I was shocked," he said.

In this day and age of a non-scholarship player getting a full ride via some sort of clever announcement where the video goes public if not viral, Klieman prefers the more personal, behind-the-scenes, one-on-one touch.

"I can't thank him enough, it means a lot," Hodenfield said. "It says a lot about his character. I mean, he said I really deserved it but I didn't know since I hadn't played a whole lot. It's something that he does and it shows he really cares about us."

The 5-foot-11, 182-pound Hodenfield walked on from the 9-man football town of Ray, N.D., in 2013, a player whom Klieman said has done all the right things on and off the field. After the ankle injury last spring, Klieman said he sat down with Hodenfield and asked him if he wanted to continue with the program.

There was no hesitation on the other end.

"He said, 'No, I started this and I'm going to finish this,'" Klieman said. "And that made me feel good. He's earned everything he's gotten."

Meanwhile, at some point after practice after getting the full-ride notice, Hodenfield called home to tell his parents, Shane and Stephanie. His father, Shane Hodenfield, is a former Bison player and assistant coach and his mother is an NDSU graduate. In all, five relatives are NDSU graduates.

When Shane answered, Keenan told him he had some news. Shane had heard that line all too often in the last couple of years and only assumed it was something not good, like another injury.

"He said, 'No, it's good news this time,'" Shane said. "So he told me what had happened. I dang near cried thinking about the whole deal and realized that he did have an impact on the program, maybe not so much playing but with the other things that he'd done."

Before playing the University of South Dakota on Saturday, NDSU will celebrate Senior Day and no player will have more family rings running through the tunnel with the lights out than Keenan.

Shane was a Bison defensive back from 1977-80. He was an assistant on NDSU title teams in 1985, '86, '88 and '90 before leaving coaching in 1995. At the rural family home northwest of Ray sits seven rings with Shane's four and Keenan's three from 2013, '14 and '15.

The rings are bigger, more gaudy, these days but they mean the same. NDSU has won 13 national titles in its football history and the Hodenfields have been a part of more than 50 percent of them.

When, during high school, Keenan told his dad he wanted to follow his footsteps to NDSU, there was no sugar-coating it with either father and son. It was going to be a long road.

Both knew it. The Division I level was a different animal than the Division II competition that Shane played against.

But Shane said he also had a message above and beyond playing time.

"The lifelong experiences will outweigh anything else and I think that's basically what happened," Shane said.

It's not certain if Keenan will get into the game against the Coyotes. He's been working hard on special teams in practice, he said. He played in blowout wins over Western Illinois and Missouri State as a sophomore and got into the game against Incarnate Word (Texas) as a freshman.

He played some against Robert Morris (Pa.) earlier this year. Shane played considerably more working his way into a starting role by the time he was a senior. Keenan said he's heard the stories from Shane's former teammates and friends and asked if he felt pressure to live up to his father, he said, "A little bit."

"I'm always trying to be like my dad, not necessarily comparing myself to him, but to follow in his footsteps although taking my own path in doing so," Keenan said. "I love being part of this place, this team. I can't ever think about not being a part of it. It goes fast. It's been tough and there have been bumps in the road but, yeah, it's been completely worth it. It's tough but everyone has it tough if they've gone all five years."

In Keenan's case, he's been North Dakota tough.