McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Chinaka Hodge: A special partnership, a unique journey

By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — "Let’s go! Let’s go, baby!" Chinaka Hodge shouted.

She was on her feet, sporting her blue New Orleans Breakers jacket and rocking a pair of high-top Nikes that matched the Breaker uniform color scheme, as her partner, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, dove toward the first down marker against the Pittsburgh Maulers en route to the Breakers' first win this season.

Their daughter, Aziza, sat just a few seats to her right in the lap of New Jersey Generals quarterback, and family friend, Dakota Prukop.

Chinaka sat back down, briefly checked in on Aziza, and picked up our conversation about just how she, head writer for Marvel’s upcoming Disney+ TV series, "Ironheart," fell in love with the starting quarterback for the Breakers — having never been a football fan.

"I didn’t watch any football when we met," she said. "I’m a [Golden State] Warriors fan through and through. I watched a lot of basketball growing up, but football was what my mom sent me to do when I was on punishment."

Bethel-Thompson did not want to first appear as a football player when he met Hodge. Though he was playing for the San Francisco 49ers, he’d trusted his friend, Cal receivers coach Burl Toler, to introduce him to a person who might find him interesting rather than someone who was simply interested in his profession.

Toler didn’t hide Bethel-Thompson’s occupation from Hodge, a friend he’s known since they were children. He only told her that Bethel-Thompson would prefer it be a secret.

"At the time," Bethel-Thompson said, "I was in the NFL, and that brought a lot of attention. Someone that I've been interested in, I would like her to be interested in me as a person and that's just kind of how I move in the world. I don't move football forward. I don't present that first. That's a game that I have a relationship with. And, I'll be totally transparent, as we got to know each other and we started dating and getting into a relationship, I tried to keep that too private sometimes."

Even now, he can find it difficult to explain his vocation even to casual football fans, as it's been quite a journey. His college career started at UCLA and finished at Sacramento State, while his pro journey included shots with seven NFL teams, the Arena League, the United Football League, the Canadian Football League and now the USFL.

The past 12 years have been unique. He has won two Grey Cups in the Canadian Football League, including this past November with the Toronto Argonauts, along with the Most Outstanding Player Award in that game. And Hodge has invested in all of it even as her own career has steadily gained momentum.

In joining the USFL, Bethel-Thompson is playing football stateside for the first time since 2016 and for the first time since Aziza was born. With a unique opportunity for the family to live together in Birmingham, Hodge made the decision to join him with their daughter and continue to work both remotely and make trips to Los Angeles as needed during the USFL season, because she believes in her partner.

"The reason that we're here in Birmingham is because I believe that the world deserves to see his talent and not the other way around," she told me. "I believe that the world deserves a quarterback like him, who is conscious about the men who play with him, who talks about race, class and gender in locker rooms and mentors young Black, brown and white men on and off the field."

And Bethel-Thompson gushed his appreciation to be partnered with a person who not only believes in his ability but is willing to do her best to make their relationship work given their two different career paths.

In working as head writer on "Ironheart," she is in a position to become a household name in a way many writers can only dream about. And, to be clear, it was a dream she hustled after before it was a reality.

Hodge graduated from New York University in 2006 before earning an MFA in Writing for Film from USC on an Annenberg Fellowship in 2012. That same year, she served as Artist in Residence at The Headlands Center in Marin, Calif., and became a Sundance Feature Film lab fellow in 2013 while being featured in HBO’s Def Poetry.

"Marvel was a combination of I applied for a job with Marvel and didn't get it," she said. "That's part of that process. I like to make that plain because every writer hears so many nos. In this case, it really was a ‘no’ that led to ‘yes.’"

She has a friend in Eve L. Ewing, who wrote the second run of "Ironheart" for Marvel Comics beginning in 2018, and that certainly didn’t hurt her chances of landing this unique opportunity. "Ironheart" is centered around the adventures of Black genius Riri Williams, who was first introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in "Wakanda Forever," and feels like a natural character for Hodge to explore on screen.

"But honestly," she said, "I think it was Aziza and God. We needed a job. I pitched on the other project I didn't get from the hospital room as Aziza was being born. And I started on ("Ironheart") within three months of her being born."

Now, with a toddler in tow, she’ll sit in the stands as her partner leads the undefeated Breakers against defending champion and undefeated Birmingham on Saturday (12:30 p.m. ET on USA). She, a woman who did not enjoy football, learned to love the game because she loves Bethel-Thompson.

Perhaps he can become the first USFL quarterback in history to win CFL Grey Cup and USFL championships — let alone accomplish it nine months of each other.

And then, later this fall, he can hold their daughter while his partner is lauded, praised, interviewed for her achievement and triumph on one of the most important Marvel properties of 2023. In that space, he’ll get exactly what he wants — to be her partner, her support system, her daughter’s father while someone, somewhere, gets to genuinely ask, So what do you do? and he gets to say, I play football, a genuine surprise.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The Number One College Football Show." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to "The Number One College Football Show" on YouTube.