Nov. 3, 2006
By Sanford Rogers
For most travelers, a move from first-class seating to coach on an airplane is akin to going from a vacation at the beach to an appointment at the dentist’s office. For Clemson tight end Thomas Hunter, the trip 10 rows back on a charter flight last October led to a revelation of what he would be doing during the next 15 months.
When Hunter, a fifth-year senior, prepared to take his seat on the charter flight bound for the N.C. State game in Raleigh last October, there was a different seating assignment in place than when the Tigers had traveled to Maryland earlier in the year. Instead of sitting in first-class with the seniors, he had been moved back to the coach section, where the underclassmen occupy a smaller space.
“I had a red-shirt year available since I had not played during my first year as a walk-on,” recalled Hunter. “As long as the coaches wanted me back and thought I could contribute, I wanted to be back. In the back of mind, I had always hoped that I could be here for a fifth year. I knew this team had a chance to be a special one, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
For Hunter to have such an opportunity is a story almost too good to be true. The Marion, SC native, who has been spending Saturdays in Clemson since he was too young to remember, may appreciate being a Tiger gridiron player more than anyone else on the entire squad.
“Sometimes I almost get too excited about playing football at Clemson,” admitted #89. “I may be the biggest Clemson fan in the world. I can remember running around on the field at Death Valley after games when I was growing up. I was either sliding down the Hill on a cardboard box, or trying to get an autograph from Raymond Priester or Brian Dawkins. To have the opportunity to play for a school I love is something that I will look back on 10 or 15 year from now, and I will appreciate it even more.”
While there are numerous youngsters who have had the same dream that Hunter had, there are few that have the work ethic and determination that he has displayed during the past five years. He arrived at Clemson as just another walk-on with no promise of making the team, much less playing time. Through hard work and determination, he has progressed from a little-known member of the team to a starter at tight end for the Tigers.
Director of Strength & Conditioning Joey Batson has enjoyed Hunter’s hard work first-hand. In fact, he would be pleased to have a team full of players with Hunter’s desire. Following 2006 spring practice, Hunter was named most improved in the strength training room among tight ends. Batson does not believe there is any mystery to the success that Hunter has enjoyed.
“Thomas is a guy with a tremendous work ethic,” said Batson. “Since he came here as a walk-on, he has added 40 to 50 pounds of muscle to his frame. That says a great deal about his grit and determination. He took advantage of strength training to get bigger, faster, and stronger.”
Hunter can still vividly remember his first few practices at Clemson. There were times when he wondered if he had made too big of a leap from football at Pee Dee Academy to Clemson.
“Before I came to Clemson as a walk-on, my dad and I met with Coach (Brad) Scott,” remembered Hunter. “He told me to work hard and to never quit. There were times when I doubted myself, but I knew if hard work was the answer, I would get it done. When I got here, all I wanted was to be able to wear that helmet with the Tiger Paw on it and to run down the Hill. To have been able to accomplish what I have is something that I’m proud of.”
While Hunter’s work ethic is obvious to everyone associated with the program, he was also fortunate to be at Clemson during a time when the tight-end position has emerged as a vital cog in the Tigers’ potent offense.
“Coach (Rob) Spence came in before last season and said that the tight end was going to be a key to our offense,” said Hunter. “That really excited me and all the other guys at that position. It is really fun to be out there when plays are designed for us. We pride ourselves in being able to block, but the tight ends feel like we are able to make plays in the passing game as well.”
Hunter’s statistics have shown the value of the tight end. Through nine games (he has only played eight games due to missing the Virginia Tech game with an injury), he leads the tight ends with eight catches for 176 yards. His best contest of the year from a receiving standpoint came against North Carolina when he hauled down two catches for 71 yards. That was the most reception yards in a game by a Tiger tight end since Ben Hall had 73 at Virginia in 2004.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Will Proctor has noticed the hard work that Hunter has logged, both as a blocker and as a receiver. “Thomas came in as an invited walk-on and has worked his way into a starter,” said Proctor. “There are not too many guys playing football at this level that can say that. He has become our best tight end for the last couple of years. He really has a knack for getting open.”
During the 2006 campaign, Hunter has had the opportunity to learn under Assistant Coach Billy Napier, his position coach who joined the Clemson staff in March. He believes that Napier’s style has had a positive effect on the team.
“It has been great to play for Coach Napier,” stated Hunter. “He brings a great deal of energy and enthusiasm. I’m a better player because of him. To have a young coach that is excited and running around out there with us is pretty special.”
Napier, who played quarterback at Furman before a graduate-assistant-coaching stint at Clemson and a full-time coaching position at S.C. State, has been fortunate to have an experienced starter like Hunter.
“I can’t say enough good things about Thomas Hunter,” stated Napier. “He is everything you are looking for in a senior leader. Thomas has worked hard to be in the position he is in. They will be talking about him around here for a long time.”
Hunter, along with the entire 2006 senior class, will be remembered by Tiger fans for many years to come. In his playing career, Clemson has notched nine wins over top-25 teams, with bowl wins over #6 Tennessee in the 2004 Peach Bowl and Colorado in the 2005 Champs Sports Bowl. The current seniors are just one top-25 win away from tying the school record for top-25 wins by a senior class.
In 2006, Clemson became the first ACC team to win three of four games over Florida State. They have also posted a perfect record against South Carolina, with wins over future Hall of Fame Coaches Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier.
Any top-25 road victory is special but for Hunter, who has loved Clemson since before he could walk, but the South Carolina contest is huge, regardless of ranking.
“Beating Florida State and Miami (FL) is big, but the South Carolina game has special meaning for me,” said Hunter. “If you live and work in this state, the South Carolina game is the one people will talk about all year long. It has been nice to go back home during the summer after a win over the Gamecocks. I hope to have that good feeling one more time.”
When giving out credit for the success this current team has enjoyed, Hunter believes that the togetherness of the squad, from seniors to freshmen, has made a huge difference.
“This is the closest team I have been a part of,” noted Hunter. “We are always spending time together. It makes a difference to know that the person next to you is as dedicated as you are. That has been a real key to how we have played.
“I feel like this senior class has laid a foundation for great things to come. With the coaches we have here and the commitment our program has made to the WestZone, I really believe this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are great things that are going to happen here in the next few years. I’m just happy to have been a part of it.”
When Hunter returns to the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, he is just one of several current Tigers that call that area home. Anthony Waters (Lake View), Michael Hamlin (Timmonsville), and Jamarcus Grant (Mullins) are all from an area best known for tobacco farms and its close proximity to the beach. His ties with all of his teammates are great, but having so many players from that area of the state is extra special.
“When I was at Pee Dee Academy, I would watch the sports news on Friday nights and see the highlights, especially of Anthony (Waters) and Michael (Hamlin). I knew they were great players, and I’ve seen that up close since I have been here.”
On a typical trip to Marion, located 235 miles from Clemson, it is not uncommon for Hunter to visit Pee Dee Academy. The school, located between Marion and Mullins, has 480 students, grades kindergarten through 12th grade. In a prominent place outside of the main office is a picture of Hunter in his Tiger uniform. The pride in what he has accomplished at Clemson starts at the top at PDA.
“Thomas Hunter has really made us all very proud with his accomplishments on the field and in the classroom,” said Headmaster Hal Townsend. “Thomas could have gone to some smaller schools (he had offers from Wofford and The Citadel), but his dream was to play football at Clemson. I’m thrilled that he has been able to do that. We were proud of Thomas when he walked on at Clemson, and are just as proud of him now that he is starter. He has given our young men and women an example of what hard work can accomplish.”
Hunter has obviously taken advantage of the solid education background that Pee Dee Academy provided. The biological science major, who is scheduled to graduate in December, was the only Tiger starter to make the Dean’s List in both semesters during the 2005-06 academic year. He is considering attending medical school, but also has thought of going into hospital administration.
“When you are playing football and going to school, there is not much time to think about what will happen after football. I’m not really sure what I will do. After I graduate in December, I plan on staying in Clemson for a while to decide which direction to go in.”
Hunter may not be ready to hang up his cleats and helmet just yet. With his sure hands, solid blocking, and football intelligence, there is a possibility that professional football could be an option. While the dream of playing in the NFL is something almost every youngster thinks about, Hunter does not have it at the top of priority list.
“The NFL is not something I think about,” said Hunter. “But if that opportunity did present itself, I would give it everything I had.”
As the 2006 season heads towards the homestretch, Hunter is close to completing his dream of donning the orange and purple on Saturdays. After a move to coach on the Tigers’ charter flight some 12 months ago, all Clemson fans should be happy that there was a change in the seating chart. He has shown how high hard work and determination can take you.
Sanford Rogers worked in the Clemson Sports Information Office from 1989-93 and now works in sales in Greenville, SC.
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