A single father who became homeless while taking care of his four young sons was surprised with a temporary home, a standing reservation at a local restaurant, a car for his family, and tickets to a game by his favorite NFL team -- all thanks to the New Jersey community who rallied around their beloved former football star.
Mike Hudson was the star football player at North Hunterdon High School in Annandale, where former classmates still remember him as an "all-around nice guy."
After high school, Hudson stayed in his hometown of Clinton, New Jersey, and worked at a local factory. He had four sons, including twin 10-year-old boys -- one of whom has Fragile X syndrome -- and then separated from his wife. Hudson, who by then was working part-time to take care of his sons, went to live with his father along with the boys.
He returned home from work one day earlier this fall to find his father's house padlocked by the county. In an instant, Hudson and his family became homeless, and they entered a turbulent period of going from hotel to couches to an RV.
"At first they thought it was kind of cool to be in other places," Hudson said of his young sons. "And then after awhile, they were just like, 'We want our home, please.'"
Even so, the boys remained resilient through those rough weeks.
"We tried to keep everything as normal as possible within those parameters," Hudson told News 4. And his sons' school was extremely supportive: "Everybody went above and beyond."
Hudson's youngest son Devon, a fifth-grader who also plays football, told his best friend at school, Jack, that his family had become homeless. He begged Jack not to tell his parents. Naturally, Jack went home and promptly told his mother.
That mom was Debbie DeLorenzo, the star cheerleader at North Hunterdon High while Hudson was the football star, and an old friend from their Pop Warner days. She immediately sprang into action, borrowing a trailer for Hudson and his boys to stay in for a few weeks. One ask turned into a few dozen on Facebook, and then became a full-fledged fundraising campaign on GoFundMe.
"It was around homecoming, so our class rallied, then the town did, raising almost $30,000," said Barbara Martin, an old classmate who now lives in Washington, D.C.
The local Italian restaurant kicked in with a standing reservation for a month for the family, and the local car dealer chipped in with a cheap car that would hold the five of them. With the rest of the money, DeLorenzo found a small house in town and prepaid rent for a year.
"She was just relentless -- it was incredible what she did," Hudson said. "It was completely overwhelming."
Martin, a public relations executive, reached out to the NFL Players' Association, hoping for a jersey from the Atlanta Falcons -- Hudson's favorite team since his high school days -- as a gift that he could perhaps hang in his new home.
"Once they heard the whole story, they were like, 'Yeah, I think we could do a little better than that,'" said Martin.
Former Falcons quarterback DJ Shockley wound up recording a video message inviting the whole family to the Falcons game on New Year's Eve. Delta Airlines is flying the Hudsons out from New Jersey, and the team will take care of transportation, meals and hotel.
Shockley, whose brother also has Fragile X syndrome, will give the family a private tour of the stadium, where they will watch the game from the sidelines.
DeLorenzo, Martin and other hometown friends showed up at Hudson's home to surprise him with the news last week. Cellphone video captured the stunned reaction by Hudson and his boys as they watched Shockley's invitation.
Hudson's oldest son -- who also now plays football at North Hunterdon -- teased his father, "You're going to cry!"
He didn't cry. But clearly moved, the dad said, "This kind of stuff doesn't happen. Doesn't happen for us. We've been through a lot."
"I'm very appreciative of everything that everybody has done. People I don't even know have done things -- every day is like Christmas for the last couple of months. Especially today," he said.
When she first set up the page with the initial goal of raising $10,000, DeLorenzo wrote, "I have known this family for most of my life, as have most of you. He is a good man with a good heart."
"Mike has always been kind, caring, funny, giving, non-judgmental and always strived to do the right thing," she wrote. "His mother, who has passed, would be so proud of him. People like Mike are rare. If only more people were like Mike, this world would be much different."
The responses poured in: "Always had a soft spot for you and your boys"; "Mike, I love you so much. You were truly one of the shining lights and knights of high school for me"; "Mike, please keep your head up and don't be so humble. Accept the help from others for you have touched all of our hearts with your humor and smiles over the years."
Now Hudson will spend the holidays in a home with his four sons, who are ecstatic about heading out for the upcoming Falcons game.
"They can't wait," he said. "We talk about it every day. They just can't wait to experience that."