Sometimes the toughest journeys result in the greatest reward.
The road Hozey Haji-Badri traveled to a scholarship offer to play football for East Carolina certainly fits that scenario. A 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive end from Chantilly, VA, Haji-Badri made a verbal commitment to the ECU recruiting Class of 2019 on November 19 after also considering offers from Buffalo, Georgia State, New Mexico, Old Dominion, UAB and Western Kentucky.
“It has definitely been crazy,” said Haji-Badri of the odyssey that for the last two seasons landed him at ASA College in Brooklyn, NY. He recently completed requirements there for an Associate of Arts degree and is scheduled to enroll at East Carolina in January.
Playing major college football wasn’t something Haji-Badri was thinking about growing up just outside the nation’s capital. He played mostly baseball until he reached the ninth grade at Chantilly High School when he decided to give football a try.
“I was a bigger guy and a lot of people saw I was athletic for my size,” Haji-Badri said. “People would always ask me, ‘Do you play football?’ So my freshman year I gave it a try. I was pretty good and things took off from there, honestly.”
Four years later the scholarship offers started rolling in from schools like Eastern Illinois, Marshall, Norfolk State, Rhode Island and Mississippi Valley State. Haji-Badri, though, wound up accepting an offer from Temple as a senior at Chantilly in 2015.
But those plans altered in May 2016 when Haji-Badri re-opened his recruitment and announced he was reclassifying academically. The latter allowed him to spent another year growing physically and improving his academics at the Virginia Prep Sports Academy.
“Basically, my first couple of years in high school I didn’t have the best grades,” Haji-Badri said. “I played football and loved it, but I didn’t think I’d be getting these scholarship offers. My junior and senior years I picked up tremendously (academically), and I committed to Temple. But I had waited too late because my GPA was too low and my test score wasn’t good enough. So I didn’t get into school (at Temple).
“So I was told to take the prep school route and I ended up at Virginia Prep.
West Virginia recruited Haji-Badri as a preferred walk-on out of Virginia Prep and he accepted the offer in January 2017. But once again those plans were derailed when he came up shy of a qualifying score on the SAT mere weeks before he was scheduled to enroll at West Virginia.
“I was sitting there really disappointed and upset with myself,” Haji-Badri said. “But I had to keep going. But West Virginia helped connect me with some junior colleges. The two they had connected me with were Lackawana and Northeast Mississippi. But there was an article written about me not qualifying and I was going to take the junior college route. One of the ASA coaches saw it and they offered me a scholarship.”
Haji-Badri appeared in five games as a freshman as the Avengers produced a 9-1 record. He earned second-team All-Northeast Conference honors after making 12 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He made 16 tackles, a team-best 8.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks this season to repeat his All-Northeast status.
Between his freshman and sophomore years as ASA, Haji-Badri also found himself dealing with some serious family issues.
“In January before my sophomore season I found out my dad had cancer,” he said. “A couple of weeks later my uncle passed, and then my grandmother passed. It was really a tough time for me. All that happened within a span of a month or two months.
“But I have four sisters and had to become the man of the house for a while. I wanted to make sure everything was OK with my family and take care of them. Eventually we worked through it all. My dad is fine now. That just motivated me even more to go out and do big things.”
Several suitors began to pursue Haji-Badri, but the Pirates didn’t get involved in the recruitment until October. ECU defensive line coach Rodrique Wright was the first to make contact.
“He said they had just found out about me and he was coming to see me practice in a couple of days,” Haji-Badri said. “He literally came two days later to see me practice. Obviously, he was really impressed. After practice I had a little meeting with him in the school and he told me they wanted to get involved with my recruitment.”
A scholarship offer followed from the Pirates on Nov. 1 and Haji-Badri came to Greenville for an official visit during the weekend of the Connecticut game on Nov. 16. He made his verbal commitment to ECU four days later.
Haji-Badri said the opportunity for playing time at ECU was one of the factors that led to his commitment.
“I think I can come in and help turn things around and get back to their winning ways,” Haji-Badri said. “I’ll have a lot of opportunities to make big plays. That’s what I am, a big playmaker.
“The one thing that separates me from other defensive linemen is I’m big and really athletic. My athleticism is what takes me to the other level. I’m primarily a three technique, but I can play nose, defensive end or wide nine, it doesn’t matter to me. I just love to play football.”
Haji-Badri was aware when he committed that ECU might not retain head coach Scottie Montgomery after the 2018 season. The school wound up deciding to part ways with Montgomery last Thursday leaving defensive coordinator David Blackwell in charge for the final regular-season game against N.C. State.
“I don’t think it (Montgomery’s departure) it would (change his mind about ECU),” Haji-Badri said. “Coach Wright and coach Blackwell are the two guys who helped me make the decision to go to ECU. They’re great coaches and guys I’d play my butt off for. As far as a coaching change, if those guys go, then I might (change mind).”
Highly regarded former James Madison coach Mike Houston was named to succeed Montgomery as head coach earlier this week and is in the process of putting together his staff.