Hendon Hooker's perseverance leading revival of Tennessee football as family proudly watches on

Hendon Hooker’s perseverance leading revival of Tennessee football as family proudly watches on

Leon Hooker would have loved this week. He didn’t take spit off anybody. So, if someone wanted to fade his grandson, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, there would be a literal fight brewing this week of the LSU game.

Leon was maybe 5-foot-9, 160 pounds. He made furniture frames in a small North Carolina town where folks sometimes grew their own food. But watch out at Little League games. He’d get in the face of umpires.

Once, when his son didn’t play the season opener quarterbacking for North Carolina A&T, Leon told him to go back to his dorm, pack up his stuff. They were leaving.

“My mom talked him out of it,” said Alan Hooker, son of Leon and father of Hendon.

“He would look for confrontations. If he thought it was injustice, he was going to deal with it.”

That’s why it’s a shame there is a key witness missing to what’s happening at Tennessee this fall. Leon was a proud, belligerent, loving grandfather to the quarterback leading the nation’s No. 1 offense. He died two years ago at age 78 having witnessed, as it turned out, enough.

“He saw Hendon play [before he died],” Alan said. “He’d tell the world how much better Hendon was than me. He would not let go. He would constantly remind me, ‘You couldn’t make that throw boy. You couldn’t make that throw.'”

Grandpa saw early what the rest of the world is now realizing: Hendon Hooker, a 24-year-old in his sixth year of eligibility, is a living example of perseverance, hard work and … crying. There was lots of crying before Hendon got to this point.

Before we go there, let’s assess. The Virginia Tech transfer is coming off the best game of his career: 349 yards passing, 112 yards rushing and three total touchdowns against Florida. A bye week has let him and Tennessee soak in the adulation prior to the LSU meeting. Tennessee’s first 4-0 start since 2016 has him out front of this quick turnaround under second-year coach Josh Heupel.

No. 8 Tennessee suddenly looks like challenger to Georgia in the SEC East. His quarterback is certainly a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate almost halfway through the season. But in an SEC loaded with plenty of QB talent this season, Hooker is the only one who can say he leads the nation’s top offense — and that means just about everything.

The Volunteers are exciting again. Neyland Stadium is selling out. There is a hint of the old days in the air by the banks of the Tennessee River.

Hooker got there because there was a lot of what he didn’t know. He didn’t know he’d get COVID-19 two years ago, essentially derailing his career at Virginia Tech. He didn’t know there would be a scare involving a heart condition. He didn’t know that, 19 days after arriving on campus at UT, the coach that recruited him (Jeremy Pruitt) would be fired.

Prove himself? Been there, done that. That included transferring from Virginia Tech after having started 15 games over three seasons.

“I remember my parents visiting me in my apartment during that fall camp,” Hooker said of his run at the starting job as a Hokies’ redshirt freshman in 2019. (He didn’t win it.)

“I was crying my eyes out. My dad being a great cheerleader said, ‘Everybody has a different path. This is going to be yours. It’s just another incredible scene in your story.’ It helped me persevere through tough times.”

When COVID-19 hit him in 2020, the symptoms (loss of taste, runny nose) were not the hardest part for him personally. The pandemic upended his routine. In the offseason, Hooker was used to getting to the facility at 5 am and throwing early with equipment managers. During that upside down COVID-19 period, health restrictions meant he couldn’t even access the hot tub after a workout.

Then there was the heart issue before the season. A procedure ultimately revealed there was nothing wrong, but Hooker and his father blame medication from the procedure staying in the quarterback’s system creating an embarrassing episode three months later.

Hooker was shown shaking and almost convulsing on the sideline during a December game against Clemson. When asked about his player after the game, Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said his quarterback was “cold.” The game time temperature was 37 degrees. Hooker said the medicine they’d used during the scope of his heart had “reactivated.”

“You’re sitting on the sidelines so long with no movement,” Hooker recalled. “You’re on the top of the mountain [at Virginia Tech]. There’s no heat on the sidelines. You try to do some jumping jacks. All the sudden, my body just starts to shake.

“My teeth are chattering. I see my fingernails turning blue. What in the world? This is crazy! To come back in the next day [and see] my coach told the media I was just cold was hurtful. I didn’t know what to say.”

In that game, Hooker completed one pass, fumbled a snap and never play another down at Virginia Tech. The Hokies went with Braxton Burmeister to finish the season. It became clear there was no future for him there.

“I grew up in Blacksburg,” Hooker said figuratively. “A lot of my friends from home came because I was there already. I tried to handle it professionally. … I jumped in the [transfer] portal a couple of days later. I remember coming in to tell Coach Fuente about it. It brought tears to my eyes because I really enjoyed being there.”

Any animosity about the transfer from the Hooker angle was cleared up. “Old news,” Fuente said when reached for comment through an intermediary. Alan told CBS Sports his son ended up texting his old coach last year to wish him Merry Christmas.

“There are no hard feelings there. Coach Fuente responded back, ‘Hey Hendon, you had a great year. I enjoyed watching you,'” Alan shared.

A month later as a transfer who had just arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee, Hendon was studying a playbook that would be obsolete in less than three weeks. Pruitt left in shame, the center of an ongoing NCAA investigation regarding bringing in leads during the COVID-19 dead period. The NCAA said Pruitt and his wife used money out of their own pockets on the recruits.

The Hookers sensed instability. When they asked, “Do we need to look somewhere else?” Tennessee quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke urged them to stay put. That spring, Heupel added Michigan’s Joe Milton from the transfer portal.

Hendon had another fight for a starting job on his hands. Maybe that’s the moment a bit of Grandpa Leon’s stubbornness kicked in. This would be where he made his stand.

“Did he tell you about ‘The Last Dance?’ Alan asked.

Well, no. It took some digging for an anecdote only a family could detail. Turns out Hendon and his brother, Alston, took up watching the documentary about the Chicago Bulls dynasty as a means of motivation. Michael Jordan famously motivated himself by exaggerating the tiniest of slights. Half the documentary is about Jordan’s perceptions of slights, incidents and beefs.

Now we see those issues being resolved on Saturdays. Alston, like his father before him, is a quarterback at North Carolina A&T. Hendon goes into Saturday tied for the national lead with the most touchdown passes without an interception this season (11). Only Heath Shuler (18) has thrown a TD in more consecutive games at Tennessee than Hooker (16 and counting).

Against Florida, Hooker posted the most yards passing against the Gators by a Vols quarterback since Peyton Manning in 1997. Unlike Manning, Hooker also got a win over the Gators.

Milton started the first two games of that 2021 season before Hooker took over. Then Tennessee truly morphed into Heupel’s vision. In seven of the remaining 11 games, the Vols scored at least 45 points. Tennessee jumped on opponents hard and fast. In his career, Heupel leads all active coaches averaging 12.79 points per first quarter.

Hooker picked up where he left off at Virginia Tech. His decision-making remains incredible. His streak of 212 consecutive passes without an interception has already smashed the school record by 46. Since coming to Tennessee, he has thrown 39 touchdowns to only three picks. His career ratio (6.1-1) nearly triples the national average (2.2-1).

After finishing the 2021 season ranked third nationally in pass efficiency, Hooker is currently sixth in 2022. It’s scorched earth type stuff. The Flights are averaging 559.3 yards per game. If the average of 48.5 points per game holds up, it will be a school record.

Hooker calls Heupel “the best coach in America.” Heupel says he never had a player who understands the “why” of it all. Existential, yes, but Heupel seems to spread this kind of magic wherever he goes.

It’s easy to forget the 44-year-old has two Heisman Trophy references on his resume. He was the runner-up for the trophy as Oklahoma’s quarterback in 2000. Eight years later, he was Sam Bradford’s quarterbacks coach the year Bradford won the Heisman at OU. As Missouri’s offensive coordinator in 2017, Heupel oversaw Drew Lock leading the country in touchdown passes (44) while setting the SEC and Missouri single-season records.

Heupel’s had a chip on his own shoulder since being let go by Bob Stoops as OU’s co-offensive coordinator seven years ago. While at Mizzou, Heupel actually recruited Hooker.

“I always remember what Coach Heup saw in me at the time,” Hooker said. “After some games he would let me know, ‘I saw the film, you look good.’ He would give me some insight into what they were running that week. I had them in my top five coming out of high school.”

Virginia Tech was the choice because of a warm reception and a vision of the future. Out of Greensboro, North Carolina, Hooker was pursued by North Carolina, Wake Forest, South Carolina and NC State. Then Wolfpack offensive coordinator Elijah Drinkwitz was the first coach to call Alan about his son.

Hooker visited Notre Dame and Oregon, among others. In 2016, he was in the stands when Virginia Tech and Tennessee met — irony of ironies — in the Battle of Bristol. The game played at Bristol Motor Speedway was witnessed by the largest crowd ever to see a college football game, 156,990.

On that night, Hooker convinced friend Jalen Holston to commit to Virginia Tech. Holston is a redshirt senior running back still with the Hokies. Hendon has become a national story, not witnessing this much adulation since his early days at VT. Of course, there are grainy VHS tapes laying around the Hooker home as a reminder of something bigger.

They show Alan becoming the 1986 Black College Football offensive player of the year.

“There were stickers all over Greensboro … saying, ‘Hooker for Heisman,'” his son said.

At the advanced football age of 24, Hooker is playing for so much more than himself. He and Alston have written a faith-based children’s book called “The ABCs of Scripture for Athletes.” Fred Whitfield is watching. The Charlotte Hornets COO is a close friend of Jordan’s who was once his father’s agent. Alan grew up in tiny Liberty, North Carolina. One of the locals made it to the minors with the Los Angeles Dodgers. A distant cousin, Andy Headen, lived three houses up. Headen was a linebacker on Clemson’s 1981 national champion team.

“He always advised my kids, ‘Hey man, go hard,'” Alan said.

There are actually two Alans in the house. Hendon is Hooker’s middle name taken from his mother Wendy’s maiden name. That’s a salute to his maternal grandfather. Alan is the doting dad who began videotaping his son’s warm-ups when he was a redshirt freshman at Virginia Tech.

“He wasn’t going to play,” Alan said. “We just went to record his warmup. That was his game time.”

Things are much different now. After his senior season 36 years ago, Alan played in the East-West Shrine Bowl — a college all-star game — and did well. After the game, a bunch of players decided to hang out.

“My dad came up with his pick-up truck, got all my clothes and said, ‘We’re leaving. We ain’t hanging out. You’re not talking to that girl,'” Alan recalled. “He grabbed me by the ear and said, ‘You’re not doing that. You’ve got dreams.'”

In his early 20s, Alan’s football dreams were over. He signed a free agent deal with the Dallas Cowboys and made it to August before being cut in training camp. Today, he is recruiter for a local school district heavily involved in the lives of two sons playing the same position he did.

But something is missing. Something proud, belligerent and loving.

“He’d be so proud of Hendon,” Alan said of his father. “He was already walking around with his chest out when [Hendon] was at Virginia Tech.”

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