2020 has been a challenging year.
It became even more difficult this week as the wrestling community mourns the passing of National Wrestling Hall of Famer and Olympic Silver Medalist Danny Hodge, who died Dec. 25 at the age of 88 in his hometown of Perry, Oklahoma.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Danny Hodge, a true giant in the sport of wrestling,” Oklahoma vice president and athletics director Joe Castiglione said. “He was a man who displayed great character and toughness but was also selfless and had an ability to connect with people of all ages. His mindset of what makes a champion was timeless. In that sense he reminded me of what made Port Robertson so memorable. He made everyone feel important when actually he was the one we were trying to celebrate. I was so honored to get to know him a little over the years. It was always special to have him on campus.”
While Hodge earned an Oklahoma state title in 1951 wrestling at Perry High School – one of the all-time great prep programs, his wrestling went to a truly elite level during his three seasons (freshmen were not allowed to wrestle varsity at the time) in the Oklahoma Sooners’ wrestling program.
As a collegian, the 6-foot-1 Hodge went 46-0 with 36 pins. He was a three-time Big Seven conference champ and a three-time NCAA champ at 177 pounds (1955–1957). In the NCAA finals, Hodge pinned all three of his finals opponents. Hodge remains just one of two three-time NCAA Division I champions to have done that, the other being Oklahoma A&M’s Earl McCready (1928–1930). Additionally, Hodge was named Outstanding Wrestler at the NCAA tournament on two separate occasions – including his senior season in 1957, when he led the Sooners to their fourth team title.
Hodge’s dominance in Norman was simply unparalleled. Not only did he amass an unblemished record, but he also did so without surrendering a takedown throughout his entire college career, and won 11 of his 13 NCAA tournament matches by fall. As such, Hodge remains the only amateur wrestler to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated as an amateur wrestler, doing so in April 1, 1957. His success on the mat led some to call him the greatest amateur wrestler of all-time.
Hodge’s victories didn’t stop after his amateur career. Hodge won three national freestyle championships and took home a silver medal from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He also enjoyed an 18-year run as a professional wrestler and recorded a 17-0 record as a boxer in the 1950s.
Today, Hodge is the namesake associated with the top award in college wrestling for the past quarter-century.
The Dan Hodge Trophy (wrestling’s equivalent to the Heisman Trophy) has been presented annually since 1995 by WIN magazine to the top college wrestler in the U.S.
The trophy was created by WIN founder Mike Chapman, who authored a book on Dan Hodge.
The list of Hodge Trophy winners is impressive. It includes Olympic gold medalists Cael Sanderson and Jordan Burroughs along with world champions Stephen Neal, David Taylor, Kyle Dake and Logan Stieber.
As a competitor, he was physical, he was intimidating, and he was dedicated to his craft. Not surprisingly, Hodge was a wrestler who many of his opponents feared. He wrestled to not just get the pin, but to dominate them through brute strength and a persistent offensive attack. This tenacity unrelenting motor is reflected in the criteria for winning the Hodge Trophy.
Winning the sports highest individual accolade not only focuses on wins and losses, but also on a dominant style of wrestling. Pinning opponents, a result synonymous with Hodge’s own career, factors heavily into determining the winner of the prestigious trophy each season.
Off the mat, Hodge remained a pillar of the wrestling community and one of wrestling’s biggest ambassadors. Hodge appeared frequently in recent years at the NCAA Championships and during Hall of Fame events in Stillwater, Oklahoma and Waterloo, Iowa. Hodge himself was inducted as a charter member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1978.
Those who got to interact with Hodge at any number of his public appearances over the last few decades were likely treated to two things: wonderful wrestling storytelling and a strange display of raw force.
People always knew Hodge was a strong and forceful man, but once his days of competition ended, he found a new and truly unique way to do that. Even in his 70s and 80s he was still freakishly strong: he could crush an apple one-handed.
In 2005, at age 72, Hodge was honored by Oklahoma state lawmakers as an “Oklahoma Sports Hero” and was invited to the House of Representatives floor to perform his trick, crushing an apple with his bare hand, something he had become famous for over the years.
Hodge’s performance on the mat is unrivaled. He was a prolific pinner, arguably the best wrestling has ever seen. His legacy will continue to live on via the Hodge Trophy. His contribution on the sport can be seen in the countless wrestlers that he has inspired over the last five or six decades.
Wrestling is fortunate to have had a person, a wrestler, and an ambassador like Danny Hodge. Wrestling is also a better sport today because of Hodge’s tireless service to the sport – both on and off the mat.
It is safe to say that Danny Hodge is among the Mount Rushmore of the wrestling community. Now may he Rest in Peace.