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How Hendon Hooker’s secret basketball life led to his Tennessee football success

Dudley High basketball player Hendon Hooker (1) had potential as a college basketball prospect years before playing quarterback for Tennessee.
Adam Sparks
Knoxville News Sentinel

Almost a decade before he was Tennessee’s quarterback, eighth-grade basketball player Hendon Hooker saw a wide-open path to the rim if you could steal an opponent’s bounce pass.

Sure, a dunk wouldn’t be easy. 

The tile floor didn’t allow for much grip in the gym at Southwest Guilford Middle School in High Point, North Carolina. And the 6-foot-2 Hooker hadn’t attempted a dunk in a game before.

But Hooker swiped the pass, got his footing and flushed a hard one-hander. Then he jogged up the court with a sly grin on his face as the middle school crowd’s collective jaw dropped.

“I was stunned, but I kept my arms folded because I didn’t want him to know how excited I was,” Hendon’s dad, Alan Hooker, said. “Hendon acted like it was no big deal.

“But when we got home, he was so happy. He loves basketball.”

Fast-forward to summer 2021.

Vols quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle strolled into Pratt Pavilion on Tennessee’s campus and caught a glimpse of Hooker and his football teammates playing a pickup basketball game. 

There was that same smile across Hooker’s face and the subtle swagger that Tennessee football coaches had not seen since he transferred from Virginia Tech a few months earlier.

“Nobody could guard him,” Halzle said. “So I told him, ‘I want you to play football like you play basketball.’ Because when he plays basketball, he knows he’s the best player on the court.”

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Halzle had no idea how deep that advice reached. But it was key to unlocking Hooker’s football confidence en route to his record-breaking 2021 season and perhaps a dark-horse Heisman Trophy campaign this season.

From sunrise shootarounds to low-key pickup games at Virginia Tech, Hooker’s basketball life has been in the shadows of his football success. You just have to know where to look.

Why Hooker couldn’t play loose at Virginia Tech

Hooker takes football seriously, sometimes too much.

His high school football coach wanted complete focus. And that helped Hooker guide Dudley High to two North Carolina state titles and become the school’s all-time passer.

But Hooker became more robotic at Virginia Tech, where coach Justin Fuente drove a business-like approach that required seriousness in practice and silence in the locker room before games.

Sure, it centered undisciplined players. But it also tightened already intense players like Hooker.

His respite was the basketball court, where he held his own against Virginia Tech basketball players in pickup games during the offseason. 

Dudley High basketball player Hendon Hooker was a 1,000-point scorer years before playing quarterback for Tennessee.

In 2021, Hooker transferred to Tennessee and competed for the starting quarterback job. Coaches thought Hooker was tight and surprisingly unathletic, and Michigan transfer Joe Milton beat him out.

“Maybe it was my fault. I was raised in a different era when football had to be serious, like it’s war,” said Hooker’s dad, a former All-American quarterback at North Carolina A&T.

“I give Halzle and (coach Josh Heupel) credit because all these years we’ve tried to get Hendon to relax. But it took the Heupel effect to finally do it — just be yourself and have fun playing football.”

Halzle’s “play football like you play basketball” advice wasn’t the only reason Hooker regained his confidence and had one of the best seasons in Tennessee history.

But it clearly played a part. That story has its roots in secret basketball workouts before Hooker had a driver’s license.

Hooker’s secret basketball life before sunrise 

During Hooker’s freshman season in high school, he backed up quarterback Emmanuel Mosely, who later played cornerback for Tennessee and now the San Francisco 49ers. Hooker also started for the varsity basketball team and looked like a college hoops prospect.

Hooker became the starting quarterback as a sophomore, and his football coach didn’t want a basketball in his hands in the fall. But not wanting his basketball skills to diminish, Hooker started a secret regimen.

At 5 a.m. each school day, Hooker’s mom drove him 30 minutes away to an elementary school gym, where a family friend had loaned him a key. He worked on his basketball skills in private before sunrise, then hurried home for a shower before arriving at school as what appeared to be fully-focused football player.

“Oh, yeah, I knew about that,” Hooker’s former basketball coach, Brian Seagraves, said with a chuckle. “Hendon had to keep that hidden because his football coaches wanted him for football only.

“But you’ve got to understand that Hendon wants to be good at everything, and he could’ve gotten a scholarship in basketball.”

Those workouts explain why Tennessee coaches routinely arrive at the football complex early in the morning to see Hooker already deep into his workout.

Hooker followed Globetrotter, NBA great in high school

Dudley has a rich basketball history. It was the high school of famed Harlem Globetrotter Curly Neal, former NBA great “Sweet Lou” Hudson, former North Carolina great and NBA veteran Brendon Haywood and former Tar Heel Will Graves.

Hooker idolized Graves, even wearing his No. 1 on his basketball jersey. They’re cousins, and Graves also played quarterback while flourishing in basketball.

Hooker was a 1,000-point scorer at Dudley. It’s the mark of a standout high school player, but even more impressive because Hooker never played a full season.

He led Dudley football deep into the playoffs, so he didn’t turn to basketball until December. And his senior season was cut even shorter because he enrolled at Virginia Tech in January 2017.

Dudley High School basketball player Hendon Hooker, right, elevates over a Smith High defender during a game at Greensboro, North Carolina, in 2016.

Hooker was a 6-3 slasher, point forward and lockdown defender. He could knock down a 3-pointer if needed. But Hooker preferred to attack the paint, where he could maneuver through traffic and collide with defenders.

“His style of play came from football,” Seagraves said. “He wanted to go to the hole. He loved the physical stuff.”

Hooker plays better when he’s hit. Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said he didn’t realize that a year ago, when Hooker initially lost the quarterback competition, because he wore a non-contact red jersey in practice.

Once Hooker played in games, his physical toughness and poise were on display. He rushed for 620 rushing yards, third-most by a quarterback in Vols history.

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And Hooker stood tall in the pocket and delivered with accuracy in the face of a pass rush. Center Cooper Mays told the “Off the Hook Sports” podcast that Hooker lost four teeth against Alabama, but he finished the game.

Hooker posted the best passer rating (181.41) in Tennessee history. His 31 TD passes to three interceptions was the best ratio in FBS among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts.

A dunk, a poem and a recruiting coincidence

Tennessee fans know Hooker as the quarterback with a quiet demeanor who makes noise with jaw-dropping plays. That contrast was evident in the most memorable dunk of Hooker’s high school career.

With Dudley trailing rival Smith High amid a frenzied standing-room only crowd, Hooker glided down the right side of the lane. Then he quickly elevated and hammered a dunk over the opposing team’s best player.

Fans energized by the out-of-nowhere play spilled onto the court, which stopped the game. The public address announcer told them the gym would be cleared if it happened again.

“Hendon dunking over that guy was one of the greatest highlights of my coaching career,” Seagraves said.

It’s no wonder Hooker thinks fondly of basketball. But his love for football ultimately took over, which he described in a poem he wrote from a Virginia hospital bed during a medical scare in 2020.

In the poem, Hooker promised to never take a practice or game for granted if he ever got another opportunity to play football. The next morning, doctors reexamined Hooker and didn’t find the heart abnormality they had initially detected.

Hooker said his love of football was reinvigorated — “just playing football, every game is my favorite game” — but his approach needed tweaking.

Fortunately, Halzle already knew which buttons to push, even before that day he wandered into Pratt Pavilion.

When Halzle was a Missouri offensive analyst under Heupel in 2016, he saw a video of Hooker’s high school basketball highlights while evaluating him as a football recruit.

Halzle was impressed, but he stored that away until they were reunited at Tennessee.

“I noticed that being serious every single moment of his life didn’t work for (Hooker),” Halzle said. “But when I watched him messing around playing basketball, he’d get a big smile on his face.

“This is football. This is fun. And when he started loosening up, that’s when you saw the growth in Hendon.”

Reach Adam Sparks at adam.sparks@knoxnews.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.