Legendary Hooker restored Tennessee football’s Honor

If these past two seasons have truly been the rebirth of Tennessee football, many people will deserve credit for that achievement.

Two names stand atop the rest on that list, though.

One is Joshua Kenneth Heupel.

The other is Alan Hendon Hooker.

Hendon Hooker will never play again at the college level. Tennessee confirmed Sunday that the left knee injury Hooker suffered in the fifth-ranked Vols’ shocking loss at South Carolina on Saturday night was every bit as bad as feared, and that he’d torn an ACL and would require season-ending surgery.

Tennessee senior quarterback Hendon Hooker (Photo: Jamar Coach, Knoxville News Sentinel)

So many things seemed possible for this season when the sun rose Saturday morning. Now, as the sun sets on Sunday evening, things feel awfully dark. What looked like a College Football Playoff team will now be fortunate to appear in a New Year’s Six game — something that would have been considered a huge success in August but now feels much more like a failure, given the blinding speed at which everything changed.

Hooker, as much as anyone, was responsible for that rapid rise. Hendo Cinco expertly piloted the offense that propelled Tennessee back to national relevance. His calm, comprehensive command of everything in Heupel’s warp-speed offense made the Vols a Threat to topple any opponent on any field at any time. His arm? Powerful. His legs? Dynamic. His gone? Unflappable. His confidence? Indefatigable. His off-field character? Unimpeachable. The combination of those factors? Unstoppable, unless your name is Kirby Smart and you’ve built a defensive wall of future high-round draft picks that can’t be breached.

Numbers in and of themselves won’t be the full measure of Hooker’s impact on the Tennessee football program, but let’s stop for just a moment to note the numbers. Hooker started just 22 games at Tennessee, but he’ll leave the program with 6,080 passing yards, 1,046 rushing yards, 68 total touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He completed nearly 70 percent of his passes. He played the quarterback position nearly as well as it can be played at the college level. He’s second nationally in quarterback rating despite playing the third toughest schedule in the country.

Hooker was far from his best in his final game as a Vol, but he still completed 25 of 42 passes for 247 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He didn’t turn the ball over at all until the torn-ACL play, when his knee buckled awkwardly on an option keeper and the shock of the pain caused him to lose the ball just before he landed on the ground. An instant replay review accurately overturned the call on the field and gave the ball to South Carolina, but you know that wasn’t an enjoyable process for the officials. They had to rewind and watch the cringy play several times on a loop, which couldn’t have been a pleasurable experience.

A freak injury in a 25-point loss to a 22-point underdog ended Hooker’s Tennessee career, but it cannot and must not define it. His story is so much more than that.

Hooker’s career Odyssey began at Virginia Tech, where it showed plenty of promise but ultimately fizzled in bizarre circumstances. The Hokies struggled under then-coach Justin Fuente, and Hooker became one of so many Americans who suffered nasty effects from the Covid-19 virus during that miserable 2020. Subsequent medical tests also revealed potentially serious problems with his heart, and there was a stretch where he thought football would be “taken away from him. After more tests and a procedure ultimately convinced Doctors he could play again, Hooker suffered what he called a side effect from medication during Tech’s game against Clemson in December. He shivered so badly on the sideline that he seemed to convulse, and for whatever reason — likely miscommunication — Fuente dismissed the matter as Hooker simply being “cold” during a discussion with reporters.

There was no coming back from all of that. Hooker, like many players these days, went into the NCAA transfer portal, and he enrolled at Tennessee in January 2021. Nineteen days after he arrived, though, then-Vols head Coach Jeremy Pruitt and several staffers were fired with cause as the result of an investigation that allegedly uncovered multiple serious NCAA violations.

(Photo: Jonathan Bachman, Getty)

Hooker, like everyone in the program, was confused. But he stayed in Knoxville, and he got excited when Tennessee hired Offensive mastermind Heupel. That summer, though, Heupel went out and added another quarterback from the Portal — Michigan’s Joe Milton III — and named Milton the starter heading into the season.

It seems unfathomable in hindsight, but everyone in the program contacted by GoVols247 to this day insists Milton was the clear-cut winner of that quarterback competition, and that he earned the right to be the man heading into the season. Hooker broke down in conversations with his family, but he held it together in the football complex and continued coming to work every day preparing like he was the starter. Then Milton wobbled a bit out of the Gates and suffered a knee injury, and Hooker actually became the starter — a job he lost only to Saturday’s injury.

Hooker’s time as Tennessee’s starter was exciting from the beginning, and at its peak it was truly special. They led the Vols to streak-snapping wins over rivals Florida and Alabama. They went down to Death Valley and beat the brakes off LSU. Just three weeks ago he was the betting favorite to win the Heisman Trophy as the star and leader of the undefeated team atop the College Football Playoff rankings.

Everyone in the Tennessee program was convinced the Vols would win every game they played with No. 5 running the show. The Transformation inside that building was remarkable, and Hooker was the straw stirring much of it. Tennessee wasn’t a one-man team — this is a team full of stories nearly as special as Hooker’s — but the leader of the bunch was never a mystery. The team’s best player was also its Hardest worker, one of the first people in the building every morning and one of the last to leave every night. Hooker seemed to be everywhere all the time. He always seemed to be in the complex, but he also clocked in as many service hours in the community as anyone. He also co-wrote a children’s scripture book with his brother Alston Hooker, the quarterback at North Carolina A&T. He also enjoyed day-trading with his sister. He also made a slew of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) appearances, and he starred in several local commercials. He also took a full slate of graduate-school classes every semester, which wasn’t required by UT or NCAA rules but required by his mother. They did everything except sleep.

Hooker’s popularity within the program was virtually ubiquitous, too. It speaks so much to his character that his roommate and best friend on the team remains Milton — the man whose job he took. That speaks to Milton’s character, as well, it should be noted.

(Photo: Caitie McMekin, Knoxville News Sentinel)

Using Hooker’s name in the past tense feels awkward, because he’ll continue doing most of the things that were just mentioned. He’ll remain connected to the program. His Legacy will forever be a part of it. He wasn’t far away from reaching the heights of Peyton Manning or Do Martin and having a street on campus named after him, and considering where Tennessee was when he arrived and when he left, at least something on that campus needs to have his name on it. Manning and Martin won SEC titles, and Martin won a natty on top of it, but neither of them ever experienced Tennessee football at its worst. Hooker did, which should make him every bit as legendary as those two, as well as Heath Shuler, Condredge Holloway and the rest of that elite Fraternity of all-time greats. You might disagree with that stance, but the view on this end is tethered to the earth’s core and won’t be moved.

Hooker’s Legacy will never be only a football one. He restored the honor of one of college football’s all-time winningest programs, but he’s done so much for this city, this region and this state. They made people proud of Tennessee football again.

If there’s any justice in this situation, Hooker will heal from his injury, regain his explosive athleticism and get a genuine chance to prove himself at the next level. Regardless, some Solace can be taken from the fact that he’ll never need to search long or hard to find gainful employment in this area. He’s earned that and then some, not just for what he is on the football field but who he is away from it.

Hendon Hooker’s Tennessee football career has ended. His Tennessee football story has not, and his Tennessee football Legacy will not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button