Football

Less weight, better grades changed Walled Lake Western player's life

Walled Lake Western's Robert Hudson before his team game against Northville on Monday, September 9, 2016, at Warriors Stadium in Walled Lake, MI.

Walled Lake Western’s Robert Hudson before his team game against Northville on Monday, September 9, 2016, at Warriors Stadium in Walled Lake, MI.

What do you order when you stop at McDonald’s?

A Big Mac? A Quarter Pounder with cheese? Maybe some fries, too?

Try this: Eight McChicken sandwiches and eight McDoubles, which are double cheeseburgers.

All for yourself.

Welcome to Rob Hudson’s life — well, his life three years ago when Hudson was a freshman at Walled Lake Western.

“I’d eat until I was stuffed,” Hudson said. “And I’d drink two 2-liters of pop a day.”

That was when he weighed 440 pounds. But that was three years and a lifetime ago for Hudson.

Today, Hudson is 6 feet 7, 315 pounds and emerging as one of the top left tackles in the state, already accepting a scholarship offer from Purdue.

As stunning as his weight loss has been, so too has his turnaround academically and socially. The youngster will graduate from high school and meet NCAA standards to be able to play as a freshman.

And Hudson will be the first to tell you it all began with football — Western’s coaches and its players — who provided him with a sense of belonging that was desperately missing from his life.

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Finding football

When Hudson was a freshman, graduating from high school and going to college wasn’t even a pipedream.

“No, I never even thought about it because my grades were horrible,” Hudson said. “My freshman year I had a 0.8 because I missed 84 days of school.”

Hudson missed so much school because his father, Robert, was slowly slipping away. A diabetic who had both legs amputated below the knee, his father had become so incapacitated he no longer could care for himself. That left the young boy to be the caregiver in the family.

“My mom wasn’t really in the picture, so I wanted to live with my dad,” said Hudson, who moved in with his father when he was 9. “After that, I tried to take care of him as much as I could. I was really worried about him.”

There was much to worry about. His father had heart issues and had suffered a heart attack.

“He was very obese,” Hudson said. “Even not having legs, he was around 350 pounds.”

His father died in April 2014, a moment of revelation for the youngster, who realized he had seen a vision of what his life could become if he didn’t make drastic changes.

That’s when he turned to football and Western coach Mike Zdebski.

Walled Lake Western's head coach Mike Zdebski on the sideline against Northville on Monday, September 9, 2016, at Warriors Stadium in Walled Lake, MI.

Walled Lake Western’s head coach Mike Zdebski on the sideline against Northville on Monday, September 9, 2016, at Warriors Stadium in Walled Lake, MI.

Back then, there were no expectations that Zdebski and his assistants miraculously could transform Hudson into a college prospect. His goals were more elementary than that.

“I had no intention of playing college football,” Hudson said. “I had no intention of really doing much. I just had the intention of losing weight, and I knew Coach Z would help me lose weight.”

Zdebski and his staff did all that and more — but it wasn’t quick and easy.

Hudson went out for football as a freshman, but it was a disaster.

“He’d come out a day, we’d get him in a three-point stance, and he wouldn’t come back for two days because he was too tired and sore,” Zdebski said. “His hands hurt too bad, his back hurt, his legs hurt. Then we’d get him to where he could come out of a stance three or four times for 5 yards, and then we wouldn’t see him for a couple of days because he was too tired, too sore.”

Draeton Steiner was Western’s line coach for Hudson’s first three years and formed a bond with the youngster.

When practice ended, Steiner would make sure all the other players were in the locker room and then would begin the simplest of drills with Hudson.

Hudson would come out of his stance and run 5 yards. Eventually it became 10 yards.

“I would run with him,” Steiner said. “It was easier if he saw me run with him. The next day he wouldn’t be in school, so I called him. He said I wouldn’t believe how sore he was.”

Zdebski put Hudson on the varsity even though he wasn’t capable of playing in games. But it was easier for Zdebski to keep tabs on him that way.

“At that point, he wasn’t necessarily used to anybody pushing him,” Steiner said. “To have me and Z every day working with him, he really liked it, but at the same time he really bucked the idea and pushed back.”

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Hitting the weights and books

But Hudson didn’t push back when it came to school. As a sophomore, he made a commitment to attend school every day and began to care about his academic performance.

Gradually, Hudson’s grades improved, although he certainly was not a candidate for the National Honor Society.

“My sophomore year I got a little better, I was getting in shape, getting more concentrated on school — not as concentrated as now,” he said. “I was getting C’s and a few B’s here and there.”

Steiner remembers receiving a text from Hudson, saying he had lost 15 pounds that month. Next month came a text saying he had dropped 20 pounds.

Soon, the pounds seemed to be melting away, coinciding with his workouts once football ended his sophomore year. Hudson would lift weights during school and after school. He also would do agility drills to improve his quickness and footwork.

“I’d stay after school for hours doing ladders and lifting like crazy,” he said. “I’d lift three times a day sometimes.”

Late in his sophomore year, Hudson’s weight had dropped to 275. Then his fanatical weightlifting helped him add muscle. By the time his junior year began, Hudson was a starter on Western’s defensive line and his grades were improving.

But all was not well in his life. He had been living with an aunt, who early in the season decided to move more than an hour away from Walled Lake, which caused Hudson to place an emergency call to Steiner.

Steiner visited the house and learned the only option was for Hudson to file a motion under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

But there was a catch. Someone had to be willing to file for an emergency guardianship hearing.

At the time, Steiner was living with his fiancée, Melissa, who hadn’t met Hudson, but had heard of him and seen him play.

“Melissa had come from a situation where she was on her own at 17,” Steiner said. “She lived on her own, she had her own apartment, she finished high school. She worked two jobs.”

It didn’t take much for Steiner to convince Melissa to give it a shot, even though they weren’t much older than Hudson. Steiner was 26 at the time, Melissa 27.

“At the end of the day, what it came down to is we knew we could make a positive influence,” Steiner said. “We could give him a positive environment. We just wanted him to have the ability to be a kid and not worry about where he was going to live.”

They were granted emergency guardianship, but had to wait six weeks before a hearing in Oakland Country’s Children’s Court to show why two people their age should be granted custody.

In those six weeks, Hudson did not miss a day of school, didn’t miss any class assignments, and his grades climbed.

One of the keys was Dave Walczyk, a counselor at Western, who took a genuine interest in Hudson and was bound and determined to make sure the youngster would be solid academically.

“Honestly, I don’t think we would have been able to do it without Dave,” Steiner said. “Academically, before we went to court, Dave set up a year-and-a-half worth of classes to make Rob NCAA-eligible.”

A stable environment

When Hudson arrived to live with Steiner, all he had was a T-shirt, a pair of shorts and sandals.

That is when the Western community came through, donating everything from clothes to a mattress.

Hudson soon got into a routine, and Melissa, a biomedical researcher for the University of Michigan’s medical school, began working on his schoolwork.

“Academically, she spent hours and hours with him, teaching him study habits, how to be a good student, how to take tests, how to stay organized,” said Steiner, a logistics analyst with Penske. “She really embraced the idea that she had to start from the ground up with Rob.”

Hudson earned a 3.35 GPA in the second semester of his junior year, and he also got an “A” in both classes he took this summer.

And for probably the first time in his life, he was in a stable environment.

“Once we established an open line of communication with him, he’s never once broken curfew,” Steiner said. “He’s home when we ask him to be home. If we ask him to walk the dogs or take the trash out, he does it. At this point, I think he’s really happy to have a family.”

Not only is he happy, Hudson is grateful.

“He was a big part of what helped me push through,” Hudson said of Steiner. “They even asked me to stand up in their wedding.”

Over the past three years, Hudson has changed in more ways than physically and academically. He has become more social and fits in well with other students.

“My self-esteem changed all around,” he said. “I went from a big kid that wouldn’t even talk to anybody to someone that doesn’t mind talking to a random stranger to just say hi if I want to meet them.”

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Crossing the line of scrimmage

This year, Zdebski moved Hudson from defensive line to offensive tackle, because that’s where he believes Hudson will play in college.

And naturally, there was some pushback from Hudson. He didn’t like the idea of playing on offense.

Defense, where he could crush people, was so much more fun, and he had an excellent junior season on defense.

Reluctantly, he agreed to go to camps as an offensive lineman — and then the offer from Purdue came.

“I told them I haven’t played there before,” Hudson said. “They said: ‘We’ll get you there. We’re not worried. You look like the type of guy that can get it in.’ They said I was so athletic on defense that they feel as though I would be able to mold into anything that they wanted me to be.”

That’s precisely what Zdebski has done with Hudson.

“He’s a beast,” Zdebski said. “He’d never done it, but he looks great.”

Western’s players agree. Cody White, who has committed to Michigan State as a receiver, spent the first three weeks at quarterback for the Warriors and liked the idea of Hudson guarding his blind side.

“I’ve known Rob since seventh grade,” White said. “Oh, he was a big dude. He was really big back in middle school and freshman year. He’s slimmed down, and he’s looking good now. It’s really amazing to see.”

White’s admiration for Hudson has grown exponentially as he watched him transform himself into a Big Ten recruit.

“I knew he had the size for it because he was such a big kid,” White said. “I knew if he got his feet right and did everything he needed to do, he could, and he did it.”

For his part, Hudson has a lot of people to thank for helping him on his journey.

He appreciates the way teammates rallied around him and turned out to be much more than just teammates on the field.

“They helped me every little step of the way,” he said. “I really didn’t have a big family growing up because my mom wasn’t really in the picture. My dad was a big part of my family, and I lived with my aunt after my dad passed away, and that was pretty much it. The team became my family. They helped me through it.”

And Zdebski and his assistants have gone above and beyond what you will find in a coaching manual.

“I feel like I would have failed high school if I wouldn’t have had football,” Hudson said. “The coaches are unbelievably my mentors, because they really helped me through everything. They saw something that I didn’t even see in myself. I have unbelievable respect for them.”

And because of that, he has a level of self-respect he never thought imaginable when he was ordering eight McChickens and eight McDoubles at a time.

“Now I usually eat as good as I can,” he said. “Once in a while I kind of let myself splurge. But I’ll only get two McChickens and that’s it.”

Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or mmccabe@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.

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1 comments
Joepoconnor
Joepoconnor

Great story Mick. Thanks for sharing it. 

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