Outside Louisiana, people tend to get their quarterbacks mixed up. There are so many of them that it's difficult to sort them out. This season there are all manner of Aikmans, Peetes, Ellises, Taylors and Joneses sporting cannons for arms and wings for feet. But down in Louisiana there is little confusion because no team will depend more on its quarterback than will LSU. Tommy Hodson doesn't have a cannon arm or winged feet, but he does have touch.
"I'm not quite sure where he gets his touch from," says LSU coach Mike Archer. "But he has great accuracy. He knows that instant when there's going to be a window. That's when the ball is there. We know that wherever we're going this year, Tommy will take us."
"No sense worrying about it," says Tommy of LSU's brutal line of opponents this season. He has just left the weight room beneath Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, his cheeks flushed from the workout. "The schedule's there. We've got to play it."
Tommy has lost only one road game since he was the quarterback at Lockport Junior High, down along Bayou LaFourche (la-FOOSH). Last year LSU had a 10-1-1 record, including a Gator Bowl win over South Carolina. The loss was to Alabama, a game Hodson didn't start in because of a sprained right knee. "We were better than Alabama," he says. "But they won. Football is not a game of luck."
Luck had nothing to do with Hodson's 61% completion record (162 for 265), 15 TD passes and 2,125 passing yards. "I don't think about the numbers," says Tommy. "I take it one drive at a time." Three times last year he drove LSU to the winning score in the fourth quarter. This is called touch.
It's also called not choking. The last time Hodson seriously choked on something, he was two years old: A jawbreaker had stuck in his windpipe. In her panic, Mary Hodson turned her son upside down and shook him. And he heaved up that jawbreaker. This is not the reason why Tommy is now the quarterback for LSU, but with the Tigers facing that jawbreaker schedule, Hodson will again have to heave it up.
It has been 19 years since Tommy choked and Mary Hodson last thought she would just about die. Since then the living has been easy for the Hodsons down on Bayou LaFourche, "Now I'm the one who turns purple," says Mary, who wears the LSU color on every fall Saturday. Tommy's father, Raymond Jr., has been a health and phys-ed teacher for 20 years at Lockport Junior High. Mary has also taught, at the local high school, for 20 years, not counting the time off to have children (they have seven, ranging in age from 15 to 26). Tommy is third oldest. The Hodsons are part Cajun and proud of it. But, says Tommy, "We were not wrestling alligators or anything."
Grandfather Hodson drove a school bus. He also raised cattle, as did his son Raymond. "There was a choice for my boys," says Raymond Jr. "They could come out into the field and work with me or they could take part in athletics." For Tommy, who also starred in basketball, this was no choice at all. "In high school I never worked hard at football," he says. "I picked up a football when football season was there."
"I think athletics to Tom is fun," says Raymond Jr. "It was really just a question of which way he would go with it, how far he'd go from the bayou."
Louisiana is unique among the states of the Union. It has no north-south interstate highway, its counties are called parishes, and some places seem transplanted from another continent. One of those places is Assumption Parish, down below Baton Rouge along the marshlands and inlets where, in anticipation of LSU football, Cajuns gather to listen to zither music and zydeco bands at food festivals. Tommy often drops in on these Cajun celebrations. He goes to pig roasts, called boucheries (BOO-sherays), and seafood festivals where there are plenty of fried oysters, catfish and crawfish, gumbo, jambalaya, stews, sausages and hog's head cheese. There is not much Cajun in his voice, however. "I've lost so much of it that I have a hard time understanding it now," he says. "I listen to [Saints quarterback] Bobby Hebert. Now he sounds Cajun."
Hodson's favorite athlete of all time is the late LSU basketball legend Pete Maravich, though it was Billy Cannon's game-winning punt return on Halloween night of his Heisman Trophy season of 1959 that made LSU football a religion, of which Tommy is currently the high priest. The people of Louisiana like to worship. There are Catholic churches all along the bayous, and they still show Cannon's run on TV every Halloween. "He came into the locker room before the Ole Miss game," Tommy says of Cannon. "He said they were always tougher against LSU than against anybody else." Tommy has never lost to Ole Miss. He probably never will.
Though Hodson is only a junior, it seems as though he has been at the helm longer than Huey Long. Still, it's not the kind of position that comes without a price. Against Kentucky in the fifth game of the '86 season, Tommy took a shot under the chin and nearly bit his tongue in half. He was stitched up in the locker room and came back to the huddle. His teammates could hardly understand him. Hodson glared and said, "Lis-then clos-ther!" LSU won 25-16. Hodson was 16 of 24 for 255 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
By the time the Miami game rolls around on Nov. 19, Hodson's name will be on just about everyone's lips in Louisiana, and by the Tulane game the week after, the Tigers will know whether they'll be spending New Year's at the Sugar Bowl or settling, as they did last season, for one of the lesser holiday matchups. "It's going to depend on how the state does as a whole, if Louisiana can come back," says Raymond Jr. "Louisiana has been losing youth and brainpower to other places. We have to do something to keep them here, and the politicians have to bite the bullet."
The LSU quarterback has to bite the bullet too. If the Tigers make it to the Sugar Bowl despite that schedule, then anything could happen. Louisiana might even come back one day.
"Where's it been?" asks Tommy Hodson. Then he laughs. Nice touch.
HODSON HAS HIS ROOTS IN THE SUGARCANE FIELDS OF BAYOU LAFOURCHE