Fearless attitude: Two-sport athlete Torii Hunter Jr. leads the Irish against Virginia Tech on Senior Day
Marek Mazurek | Friday, November 18, 2016
Torii Hunter Jr. loved playing baseball growing up.
He played all through high school and was drafted by a major-league team — just like he always dreamed.
“That was a childhood dream of mine,” Hunter said. “In high school, that’s what I thought I was going to do. I was going to play baseball and get drafted out of high school and all that stuff.”
Hunter’s father, Torii Hunter Sr., played baseball professionally for the Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers, and Hunter Jr. credits his father with supporting his athletic endeavors.
“He never really forced me to play baseball,” Hunter said. “I just played a lot of baseball growing up, just because I was around it, and that’s what I wanted to do. In any sport I was playing, he pushed me hard, whether it was basketball or football or baseball, no matter what it was. He was out there making me shoot 100 shots or making me catch 100 balls. He was always there working with me and he was there and no matter what I wanted to pursue, he was helping me get there.”
But that traditional narrative of a talented young athlete on the cusp of making it professionally doesn’t quite encompass Hunter’s journey.
“I got hurt,” Hunter said. “That route kinda got messed up.”
A broken left femur sidelined Hunter for his freshman year at Notre Dame, but the Texas native was not to be deterred. Hunter was named Notre Dame’s Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year as a member of the football team. The following season, he earned the football team’s award for Offensive Newcomer of the Year.
“I always wanted to get back there and fulfill that dream,” Hunter said. “I’m truly blessed to fulfill that dream and have that be on my path. I’m excited about it. It was a dream that I had in high school to be able to [play two sports]. To have those dreams fulfilled, it makes me feel good that I was able to get there. I’m just excited about it. I’m glad I was able to achieve that goal.”
And four years later, Hunter finds himself not yet in the MLB, but a captain of the Notre Dame football team. Hunter said he was surprised when he was first named a captain, but he never doubted his ability.
“When I got the call and Coach Kelly called me into his office, I didn’t expect anything of it — I didn’t know it was coming so it caught me by surprise,” Hunter said. “But I knew I was a leader on the team; I was one of the older guys on the team. But when I got that call, I was surprised and excited and ready for the honor.
“I knew I had the ability to be a leader.”
Whether it’s hitting a 95 mile-per-hour fastball or making a tough catch over the middle of the field or making a full recovery from a tough injury, Hunter said the key to his success stems from his fearless attitude.
“[It’s] just being fearless,” Hunter said. “[It’s] being able to take on that wall that might be coming after you catch that baseball. That fearless attitude and that intensity that you bring to the game, you can also bring to the baseball field.”
On the football field, Hunter’s fearlessness is evident. In Notre Dame’s opening game of the year, Hunter suffered a concussion after a big hit in the end zone. The trainers rushed onto the field and if they had reached Hunter any slower, he may have gotten right back up and kept on playing. Against Navy two weeks ago, Hunter racked up 75 yards and a touchdown in just the first quarter before taking another big hit and exiting the game. Just two possessions later, however, Hunter was back on the field, contributing as consistently as ever.
“I knew how to deal with [injury]. You have to attack it,” Hunter said. “Whether it’s rehab or whatever treatment they have you doing — you just try to attack and get back out there as soon as possible, to be with the brothers you keep grinding with since last year.”
Off the field in his role as a leader, Hunter says he learned that fearless attitude from the players and leaders who came before him, like Chris Brown and Will Fuller.
“Those guys … always had a certain vibe about them,” Hunter said. “They were always ready to go out to practice, they always gave 100 percent on the field. They were also real cool … they never acted like they were on a pedestal. They were for the players — they would always joke around with everyone.
“I took on those roles. But the good thing about it is I didn’t have to act too differently. I could go out there and joke around, but also get work done and make sure everyone else is getting work done. That’s what I’m good at. I just did what the guys did last year.”
Though a captain in his senior season with the Irish, Hunter said he never considered himself to be a vocal presence, but knew that when his number was called to lead, he would be ready.
“I was never a vocal guy, I was just always a guy that tried to take care of what I had to and lead by example,” Hunter said. “Here and there put in my two cents, but I was never really a vocal guy, but I knew my time would come, it just happened to be this year. I didn’t know if it would come sooner or later, but I knew it would come.”
Hunter said it was a little difficult at first to get his fellow receivers to be fully prepared, but they soon grasped the message and the results are showing.
“It was definitely difficult in the beginning just trying to get everybody up to speed and get them to understand that [they] are going to be counted on this year,’” Hunter said. “‘Y’all will have to make some big plays. There’s no more time to redshirt — y’all are going to be thrown into the fire.’ … I know I have the most experience, but it’s not just going to be me. I don’t know who it is, but we need playmakers out there.”
So far, Hunter’s fire has paid off. Sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown has emerged as a star in the Irish receiving corps and freshman Kevin Stepherson isn’t far behind. St. Brown has nearly 800 receiving yards in the 2016 campaign and has developed a penchant for flipping into the endzone, while Stepherson is coming off of a 100-plus yard performance versus Army.
However, St. Brown and Stepherson inherit a tradition which Hunter is currently helping shape. Hunter said one of the things he admires about Notre Dame’s tradition is its continuity from year to year, player to player.
“It just lets you know that it’s greater than you, it’s bigger than you — that ‘C’ on your chest,” Hunter said. “You have a lot of people looking up to you, watching you, so you have to carry yourself differently than the average person. You always have to be that positive person, you always have to be that vocal person, because everybody is looking to you to lead because you have that ‘C’ on your chest. It also represents the guys who came before you — it’s our brotherhood. The guys that came before you, like Nick Martin, Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, all those guys — they did such a great job. We have shoes to fill every year. It’s a great honor to have it on my chest this season.”