Winter 2022 magazine

QB Hendon Hooker 'giving Him all the glory' as Tennessee jumps to No. 3 after Alabama win

On Oct. 21, 2006, Hendon Hooker was 8 years old and busy learning his multiplication tables. Oct. 21, 2006, also happened to be the last time the Tennessee Volunteers beat Alabama. That is, until Saturday.

Led by Hooker, now the Volunteers’ starting quarterback and senior leader, Tennessee snapped its 15-game losing streak to the Crimson Tide with a thrilling 52-49 victory on Saturday evening, in the process proving to be one of the best teams in all of college football.

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The Vols jumped to No. 3 in the Associated Press poll that came out Sunday, and they also received 15 first-place votes. It marks their best ranking since they started the 2005 season at No. 3, and the last time they were ranked this high this late into the season was 2001, when the Vols entered the SEC championship game ranked No. 2.

When Tennessee kicker Chase McGrath’s 40-yard field goal squeaked just over the goalpost as the clock hit triple zeroes on Saturday, the entire state of Tennessee was sent into a frenzy. The field at Neyland Stadium was soon enveloped in a sea of orange. The goalposts were torn down, paraded through the Knoxville streets and tossed into the Tennessee River.

Yet the unflappable Hooker, along with his teammates, repeated the refrain that their work is not done. They know Saturday’s victory was simply one important step toward achieving something greater than a regular-season win against No. 3-ranked Alabama (now No. 6).

“We’ve had a main goal (reaching the SEC Championship) since January,” Hooker said in the postgame press conference, “and we’ve been working and pursuing that goal this whole time. So until that goal is obtained, there’s no rest. And then after the goal, we still have more work to do. … Back to work on Monday.”

The QB helped Tennessee jump out to a 21-7 first-quarter lead on Saturday, but Alabama battled back to tie it at 28 early in the third quarter. The rest of the second half was what you’d expect from two of the nation’s best teams — one side countering a big play from the other. With 3:26 remaining, Hooker’s fifth touchdown of the game to receiver Jalin Hyatt from 13 yards out tied the score at 49. The defense forced a missed 50-yard field goal from Alabama with 15 seconds left, giving Hooker the time he needed for two crucial completions to get his kicker in range.

One of the many storylines from the game was that Hooker, one of this season’s Heisman Trophy favorites, went toe to toe with last season’s Heisman Trophy winner, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, and came out on top. Hooker amassed 385 yards and five touchdowns (all to Hyatt) on 21 completions with one interception.

Through only six games this season, he has 1,817 passing yards and 15 touchdowns and that single interception. His completion percentage is a blistering 70.0%, and he’s also added 287 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. The Volunteers’ offense is the best in the entire country, averaging 551.0 yards per game.

A native of Greensboro, North Carolina, Hooker spent four years at Virginia Tech, redshirting his first one, before transferring to Tennessee under new head coach Josh Heupel. Hooker eventually became the Volunteers’ starter, and hasn’t looked back since.

In December 2021, after an impressive statistical campaign in which he threw 31 touchdowns with only three interceptions, yet only mustered a 7-6 record, Hooker announced he was returning to Knoxville for his redshirt senior season.

He was asked about what went into his decision to return in a late December episode of Sports Spectrum’s “Weekly Slant.”

“Just spending time in prayer and conversation with my family and coaches, I felt like it was in my best interest to come back and use my super senior year — my sixth year — to come back and just develop a little bit more; get a little smarter, a little stronger, a little faster,” he said.

Faith in God is something Hooker said he really made his own once he got to college, although he grew up going to church regularly. One impressive expression of his faith came when he partnered with his brother Alston, a quarterback at North Carolina A&T, to create “The ABCs of Scripture for Athletes” last fall. It’s a comic book which features some of the brothers’ favorite Bible verses and is designed with young athletes in mind.

Hooker also discusses his faith on social media, saying in his Twitter and Instagram bios that he’s “Giving him all the Glory” and sometimes posting about his faith. He’s so calm under pressure on the football field, he said on the “Weekly Slant,” because he knows he’s loved no matter what by his Father in Heaven.

“When I step onto the field, I’m not worried about anything because I’m really playing for an audience of One, and that’s God,” he said on the “Weekly Slant.” “That’s something that the guys in our Bible study and in our community here at Tennessee, it’s something that we pride ourselves in … trying to play for an audience of One and not letting anything else — any outside obstacles — get in the way.”

Hooker will seek to continue to keep his eyes focused on God even as all the attention, adulation and expectations come his way. The No. 3-ranked Volunteers (6-0) take on UT-Martin (4-2) at 12 p.m. ET Saturday.

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