Rising Notre Dame WR Torii Hunter Jr. formed bond with biggest fan

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Before he smothered a waterlogged football in the corner of the Clemson end zone, before he fought through a broken femur and torn groin in consecutive years, before he accepted a scholarship offer to play football at Notre Dame, Torii Hunter Jr., hugged Tenley Scott.

He did so lovingly, with his whole heart, lifting his high school football coach’s 6-year-old daughter into his arms. He played catch with her, and he played tag with her. And after nearly every game, he held her tight.

This is what Kent Scott wants to tell you about.

The former head football coach at Prosper (Texas) High School could have waxed poetic about any of Hunter Jr.’s many accomplishments. He could have boasted about the wide receiver’s 71 catches, 1,235 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior in 2012. He could have listed all-state selections and recruiting rankings, and all of it would have been true.

Hunter was a transcendent player in high school, just as he’s developing into a standout at Notre Dame.

But while fans know about the player, the Scotts are more enamored with the person.

“My kids and my wife were around the field house quite a bit,” Kent Scott said. “Torii just had a very magnetic personality, very upbeat, very friendly, very well mannered.

“My daughter loves Torii. If I could pause him in time and let her grow up, I think I would have a future son-in-law. He’s a good, good young man.”

Now, he’s also a more visible one, as Hunter has stacked up nine catches, 109 receiving yards and a touchdown in his first consistent stretch of playing time in South Bend.

But though his profile has risen, Torii hasn’t forgotten his biggest fan.

“After the games (Tenley) would always come up and give me a hug,” Hunter said with a grin. “She has grown up so much. I haven’t seen her since I left high school, so that’s been pretty tough. But we just kind of clicked.”

This is the lasting image Kent Scott associates with one of his most decorated players, not a one-handed catch or a touchdown that clinched a win. He sees Hunter holding his daughter, and grinning from ear to ear.

"I remember my wife telling me that she was holding on to him the same way she holds on to me,” said Scott, a proud parent and coach. “As a dad, that's a pretty cool thing."

Notre Dame wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. formed a friendship with Tenley Scott, the daughter of his head football coach at Prosper High School (photo courtesy Kent Scott).

***

Torii Hunter Jr. knows a thing or two about late-game disappointments.

Take the Texas Class 4A Division II regional semifinal in 2012, for example. With a little more than two minutes remaining, Hunter’s Prosper Eagles trailed Lancaster, 36-29. Staring at a fourth-and-goal from the Lancaster 4-yard line, Scott decided to put the game — and the season — into the hands of a chosen few.

In this case, that meant Hunter running a slant and out, working his defender to the inside before abruptly cutting back to the corner. If quarterback Davis Webb — who now plays for Texas Tech — found Hunter’s outside shoulder, the Eagles would have tied the game.

“(The cornerback) just couldn’t really hold me all day, so I knew I was going to win,” Hunter said. “I beat him inside, stayed there for a second and broke out. I had him beat to the outside, and it was just overthrown.”

The football sailed beyond Hunter’s outstretched hands, taking Prosper’s state title hopes along with it.

Still, that play defines him — not because of the result, but the certainty that he would have delivered.

“If I could go back and have a chance to call that game over, that’s the call I would make in that situation,” Scott said. “If there was a guy that was going to get it done, it was going to be him.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly might have been thinking something similar last weekend.

Despite four second-half turnovers and despite entering the fourth quarter in a 21-3 hole, the Irish found themselves on the cusp of Clemson’s goal line, trailing 24-16 with 10 seconds remaining.

Just like last time, Hunter cut inside, before breaking back to the corner. And just like last time, the overmatched cornerback couldn’t keep up.

Quarterback DeShone Kizer lofted a rainbow over defensive back Ryan Carter, and a backpedaling Hunter trapped the rain-drenched football firmly against his chest.

Touchdown. Redemption.

Or, maybe not.

“It felt like it was in the air forever,” said Hunter, who led the Irish with five catches. “We had a great play call. They were in man, Will (Fuller) had the nice pick and I just came off. The ball was in the air for a while, and I just knew I had to catch it.

“I made sure I put every part of my body on that ball, just to make sure that I caught it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.”

The celebration was cruelly extinguished, as Kizer was bottled up short of the goal line on the ensuing two-point conversion try.

In both cases, Hunter’s significant contributions weren’t enough. Even so, the 6-foot, 195-pound wide receiver has both the talent and the work ethic to ultimately change his fortune.

“Torii Hunter is one of the best athletes I know,” Kizer said. “Basketball, baseball, whatever you throw at him, he's amazing at whatever he does. He's a sure-handed guy. He has the quickness of a slot, but the size and the ability of any of the outside receivers.

“He's as elite as they come.”

Added Kelly, on Hunter’s steady surge: “I don't think it's been something over the last couple of weeks. This is something that we really saw in him, and it was coming along even through spring and summer.”

And long before then, too. On an average school day in the fall, Scott remembers, Hunter Jr. would work out with his dad, major league baseball player Torii Hunter Sr., at 4 a.m. He’d arrive at Prosper High School around 6 a.m., where he’d get in another workout and film session before school.

After classes, there would be another round of practice and film, not to mention extra baseball practice, studies and his duties on the team’s peer-elected leadership council.

And somehow, someway, he found time to play with Tenley.

“Not many days go by that I don’t think about him,” Kent Scott said. “He had a profound impact on my family and a profound impact on me.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Torii Hunter Jr. (16) makes a touchdown catch next to Notre Dame’s Torii Hunter Jr. (16) during the Notre Dame-Clemson NCAA football game on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2015, Memorial Stadium at Clemson University in Clemson, SC. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN