Comebacks are frequent occurrences in sports, but not every one happens on the field. Sometimes comebacks take place out of sight, in the shadows of the bright lights, where no one is watching.
North Allegheny’s Cade Hoke emerged as one of the top young linebackers in the area last year, recording 48 tackles and seven sacks as a sophomore. A versatile and speedy backer, Cade started drawing interest from big-time programs, such as BYU, Utah, and Navy. He even took trips to all three schools in the summer.
The name Hoke might ring a bell. Cade is the oldest son of Chris Hoke, former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman. Much like his father, Cade relishes at dishing out punishment. “Rather hit than be hit,” the 11-year NFL veteran said.
The younger Hoke worked tirelessly in the offseason to build muscle, adding nearly 20 pounds of good weight to his frame. Not even the family’s summer vacation trip could slow down his workout regiment.
“Even when I was on vacation, I would work out and have my dad help me,” Cade said. “Last year, I had a lot of plays where I could have made more tackles here and there, but didn’t just because I wasn’t as strong. This year I could have made more because I’m a lot bigger.”
But on August 16, just two days into practice, a season of promise and hope turned to anguish. During an offensive drill, Cade’s assignment was to block for the ball carrier, but as he pursued to clear a lane for his teammate, his right foot got caught in the artificial turf, and he heard a noise every athlete fears.
“My foot just got caught on the turf, and I felt it right away,” Cade said. “My leg locked, the bone went forward, and I could feel the pop. Immediately, pain was surging over. I really didn’t know if it was torn or not, I just knew something was wrong with it. They told me as soon as I heard that pop that it’s most likely torn.”
Chris was en route to Steelers training camp when he received the devastating news from North Allegheny head athletic trainer Scott Frowen.
“I pulled up into the [Steelers] parking lot, and I got a phone call; that’s when this happened,” Chris said. “The trainer called me and said Cade hurt his knee. I said tell him to suck it up and get back on the field, and he said, ‘No, no, no, he hurt his ACL.’ I just, it was like the wind got knocked out of my sail. No, I can’t believe this happened.”
Chris immediately turned the car around and raced to North Allegheny. His heart breaking as he rushed to be there for Cade, fully comprehending the severity of the injury.
“He had worked so hard, and put in so much time,” Chris said of his son. “I watched him battle everyday to get bigger, stronger, faster, and get prepared. And nobody had worked as hard as he had—he was ready. I think the hardest thing as a parent—when you see your kids hurt, you hurt.”
A MRI two days later confirmed their worst fear. In a cruel twist of fate, Cade’s junior season was lost.
Chris took an untraditional path to the NFL, one that has since shaped his family and Cade to this day. Born and raised in California, Chris’ family was Mormon and belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After graduating in 1994 from Foothill High School in Santa Ana, California, Chris went on a two-year mission trip to Belgium and France, customary for all young Mormon men.
Upon returning from his trip, Chris enrolled at Brigham Young University and starred on the football team for four seasons. The Pittsburgh Steelers signed him in 2001 as an undrafted free agent. Chris never saw the field in his first three seasons with the Black and Gold, but six games into the 2004 campaign, he took over as starting nose tackle for the injured Casey Hampton. He appeared in 14 games that year and played in all but two contests over the next six seasons. A neck injury that required surgery cut his season short in 2011, and he officially retired from the NFL later that year with two Super Bowl rings.
Cade is the oldest of five children, and even at a young age, he displayed an early aptitude for the game.
“He knew a lot about football,” Chris said. “He would sit in his room, and he would have a notepad and draw plays, and Sunday night before going to be bed, he would be on his bed and writing down all the scores of all the games that day. He was wise beyond his years in terms of knowing what was going on in football.”
The elder Hoke was reluctant, though, to push his son to slip on a helmet and pads for the first time. Chris and his wife Jaimee wanted Cade to wait until middle school to start playing football. Not until a family friend inquired to see if Cade might be interested in playing for his youth league team did the Hokes consider the notion.
“We decided to let Cade play at nine-years old, but that wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t about me pushing in him,” Chris said.
Naturally, Cade took to football like a fish in water. “I picked it up really easy because it’s in the DNA. The intelligence factor was like the easiest part; I just had to get adapted to the hitting,” Cade said.
To no surprise, Cade enjoyed hitting others. He starred on the freshman team at North Allegheny before earning the starting middle linebacker gig just a week into practice as a sophomore. His coach, Art Walker, calls him a “throwback” player.
“He does everything you want him to do,” Walker said. “He’s quiet, leads by example. He understands the importance of practice and how preparation is going to make him better. He gets it. He’s everything you in want in an athlete.”
Cade was one of many reasons why the Tigers entered the season ranked among the top teams in Class 6A. He was expected to be a leader on a team stacked with marquee names and talent.
“He’s a great run-stopper, tackles well in the open field, he’s athletic, he can play against spread teams, chase backs down, blitzes well,” Walker said. “He’s very, very bright and picks up things very quickly. So when you lose a kid like that, it’s like losing three.”
Pittsburgh Steelers team doctor Jim Bradley conducted Cade’s reconstructive surgery on August 20, four days removed from tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. “He’s the best in the business,” Cade said.
In the days following his surgery, Cade leaned on his siblings and parents for support, both emotionally and physically. “They didn’t complain one time,” Cade said. “They were really good to me. My mom was the ultimate, she did everything for me.”
The doctors stressed caution in the weeks following surgery to avoid pushing the knee too quickly. When his rehabilitation schedule permits it, Cade spends his afternoons at practice with his teammates, determined to help the Tigers succeed on the field.
“People look to me and understand how much I worked and how much I wanted it for our team,” Cade said. “They kind of use it as motivation on the field for them. To me it was always about the team, and I wanted a big year for our team.”
Watching from the sidelines is challenging for the younger Hoke and yet it drives him in his recovery process.
“You realize how much you take the game for granted when you’re in there, and how much it motivates you to want to get back there for your team,” Cade said.
The flexibility and mobility in his right leg is gradually coming back. Just this week he was cleared to resume driving, an important freedom for any 17-year old. To avoid losing the upper body strength he added in the offseason, Cade carves out time between practice and homework to lift weights. If all goes as planned, doctors anticipate he’ll be cleared for football activities in early March, giving him five months to prepare for his final high school season.
A recruit’s junior season is paramount in landing that coveted scholarship offer. College coaches are finalizing recruiting plans for the following year and zeroing in on specific targets. Cade will be making up for lost time but is confidant once he returns from the injury, his film will reveal he’s still the same menacing force on the field.
“Showing them I have my speed back, and show them I still have my instincts, my quickness,” Cade said. “I still have one more year to put up some good film.”
Cade’s post-high school aspirations include completing a two-year mission trip and playing college football, just like his father. He plans to major in either business or history.
Throughout this tribulation, Cade has leaned on his faith more than ever to cope with the emotional heartache.
“My dad thinks the Lord is trying to teach me something by this experience,” Cade said. “I’m not sure what is, but I’m trying to figure it out each day. I think relying on my faith and knowing He’s going to help get me back.”
Cade still has a long and difficult recovery process ahead of him, but his faith and support system are guiding him in the meantime.
“This happened for a reason,” Chris said of his son’s injury. “He’ll figure it out, we’ll figure out, but he’ll be better because of it.”
There’s no doubt the tape will say the same thing.