Jimmy’s blog: Hooker hung around team after surgery, mentored Milton

Jimmy’s blog: Hooker hung around team after surgery, mentored Milton

By Jimmy Hyams

Hendon Hooker sat in a chair next to the locker of Joe Milton at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.

Hooker’s surgically repaired knee was extended, encased in a brace, protecting the torn ACL that he suffered in late November.

As the media descended upon Milton to inquire about his MVP performance in Tennessee’s 31-14 victory over Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Hooker grinned from ear to ear.

His roommate, his teammate, his soulmate, his “pupil’’ had just delivered a solid performance against the No. 7 team in the country. And Hooker was delighted.

The only thing missing was a victory cigar.

“Extremely proud of my brothers,’’ Hooker said less than an hour after the Vols posted their first 11-win season in 21 years.

“They prepared at high level through bowl prep season. They were getting tired of competing against themselves. They were eager to get out here and attack and give their all and play for their brothers beside them.’’

Hooker’s brother from another mother, Milton, had just grabbed the game ball that had been presented to him. Milton caressed it like a new born baby.

“I thought he did great job managing the game,’’ said Hooker, who was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year for helping guide UT to a No. 6 national ranking. “He made some great plays with his throws and feet as well.

“To see him work on things in a game-like situation, it was a beautiful thing.’’

Hooker noted that some UT drives stalled after going three-and-out – the Vols have five during the game — “but he didn’t change his demeanor. He took some constructive criticism.’’

Some of that criticism came from Hooker.

“I didn’t let him slide,’’ Hooker said. “He wouldn’t have let me slide, either.’’

What was Hooker’s critique?

“Couple of times I asked him about his form and his feet and his decision making,’’ Hooker said. “Sometimes we might not agree. His view might be different than mine. His view is on the field. I’m on the sideline.

“If we disagree, we agree to disagree. There’s never any type conflict.’’

That Hooker remained engaged with the team says a lot about the former transfer from Virginia Tech.

While some UT players opted out or entered the transfer portal and we hardly seen again, Hooker, after his Dec. 13 surgery, went to practice, went to staff meetings, went to film sessions.

Why stick around?

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,’’ Hooker said. “It’s bigger than me. It’s about the team. It’s about the University. It’s about the fans. It’s about the community of Knoxville.

“Any time I can be around them and show them love and share knowledge and lead, that’s what I want to do.’’

When Hooker transferred to Tennessee, the Vols were coming off a 3-7 record, Jeremy Pruitt was getting fired and almost 40 players entered the transfer portal.

Tennessee’s program was a hot mess.

Soon, Hooker would become a hot quarterback.

And, more than anyone, Hooker led the Vols from the abyss, helping Tennessee to its first 11-win season since 2001.

“It’s been great,’’ Hooker said of his UT journey.

“I remember the first day getting here (Knoxville) and the structure of it. We didn’t know who our coach would be. Coach Heup (Josh Heupel) came in, the whole demeanor of the whole building just changed. Nothing but positive energy and positive reinforce from him. Positive coaching. He’s a great teacher and he brought great teachers throughout the building. We’re in debt to them.’’

And they’re indebted to Hooker.

At a time when a season-ending injury could have left Hooker despondent and isolated, he chose to be with his teammates during their bowl journey.

He chose to encourage them.

He chose to encourage Milton.

And when he chose Tennessee in January of 2021, it changed the fortunes of the program.

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