Hendon Hooker was three years old when he walked the football field for his first competitive game, but his love for football began at a time he’s long forgotten.
“My mom always told me when I was really young that the only way I would calm down is if they put on my dad’s football highlights,” Hooker said on the Josh Heupel Show. “I really fell in love with the game at an early age.”
The Vols’ senior quarterback was a quarterback from day one. From his days playing flag football at a local North Carolina YMCA, there was never a doubt what position the strong athlete would play.
“I’ve played quarterback my whole life,” Hooker said. “The only other position I’ve played is outside linebacker when I was at a young age.”
While football was Hooker’s first love, it wasn’t his only love. Hooker was a talented basketball player growing up. The uncertainty about what sport he would end up playing helped lead him to Dudley High School.
At Dudley, Hooker learned as a freshman from Emmanuel Mosely. Before the lanky cornerback was playing in the Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers or arrived at Tennessee as a two-star recruit, Moseley was playing quarterback at Dudley, teaching a freshman Hooker the ropes.
Hooker took the ball from Mosely at Dudley and ran with it. The former four-star recruit was a high school star, earning a scholarship to Virginia Tech and using his basketball skills on the gridiron effectively.
“Naturally, I move like a basketball player,” Hooker said. “I really can’t help it but it definitely helps.”
After sitting on the bench his freshman year at Virginia Tech, Hooker started off and on for the Hokies in his sophomore and junior seasons.
Last season, Hooker faced a major scare that tested and reminded him of his love for the sport he watched as a baby.
“I contracted COVID-19 and they were telling me, we’re going to go get your heart checked,” Hooker said. “That’s the procedure you do after you’re done going through the quarantine process, so I went and got my heart checked and they told me that they saw something was wrong and that I may have to have open heart surgery and I was in awe. … I had to go get a scope where they go in and kind of just look at your heart from the inside and they said nothing was wrong.”
“It really just opened my eyes to show me how blessed I am. Really just gave me the thought that I shouldn’t put anything other than God and my family before football. Just because I’ve put in so much work and have so much love for the game that I shouldn’t take it for granted.”
After the 2020 season, Hooker decided he needed a fresh start. The North Carolina native transferred to Tennessee to play for offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and head coach Jeremy Pruitt. 10 days later, Tennessee fired Pruitt with cause.
Hooker was stuck at a school he’d been at for 10 days. The university no longer employed any of the coaches that recruited him and Vol players were fleeing the program.
The cool and collected senior just weathered the storm, knowing he was walking into a new situation no matter who the coach was.
Hooker continued to stay the course even when new coach Josh Heupel named Joe Milton the starting quarterback.
“Both of them have handled it in a really positive way,” Heupel said of Hooker and Harrison Bailey when he named Milton the starter. “I know that they know we believe in them. I think that is a big part of being able to handle that information. They have continued to get opportunities to grow in practice and they will believe in who they are and what they do in their future here.”
It didn’t take long for Hooker to get his chance. Milton struggled the first game of the season and suffered an injury in Tennessee’s week two matchup against Pitt in the second quarter.
Hooker took his opportunity and ran with it. The senior’s 179.9 quarterback rating is the nation’s third best.
The dual threat quarterback has totaled 1,994 yards and 21 touchdowns while throwing just two interceptions. Hooker stabilized Tennessee’s quarterback room for the first time in five seasons.
The Vols hope his love of the game— which was rekindled last season at Virginia Tech— leads Hooker to taking advantage of the NCAA’s COVID-19 eligibility relief. If he does, Tennessee is secure at quarterback through Heupel’s second season in Knoxville.
“The love of the game just really came naturally,” Hooker said. “Even to this day it feels relaxing to be on the field and throwing the ball.”
For now, Hooker isn’t focused on that decision. The senior is trying to take advantage of every opportunity he has this season. Right now, that is beating Kentucky.