Notre Dame WR Torii Hunter Jr. steps out of the shadow of a legacy

The Son Also Rises

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Torii Hunter Jr. was given a name.

The 6-foot, 195-pound senior wasn’t given a scholarship to play football at Notre Dame. He wasn’t given a spot on the baseball team, either. He wasn’t given a starting job or a free ride or a handout he didn’t deserve. He wasn’t given a 3.0 GPA. He wasn’t given the respect of his teammates. He wasn’t given the first locker or a responsibility to lead.

He was given a name, a few favorable genes, an opportunity, an example.

He has earned everything else.

On a breezy Friday in May, Notre Dame’s only combined IT management major, wide receiver and outfielder leans forward on a bench down the left field line at Eck Stadium in South Bend. A faded blue hat is pulled on backwards, a cross necklace dangling from his familiarly athletic frame. A line of black facial hair curves from ear to ear underneath his ever-present grin. He doesn’t have to be here this early.

But he’s here. He’s always here.

In a few hours, Hunter Jr.’s Irish will host Clemson in the final homestand of the 2016 baseball season. Then it’s on to summer workouts, and fall camp, and the start of classes, and football season, and more classes, and baseball season and more classes. And on and on and on.

This march, this marathon — this unending parade of practices — this is what Hunter Jr. chose. It’s a prize, not a punishment.

It’s a lifelong quest to make his name his own.

“There’s this hunger inside me that most people think I wouldn’t have, because they probably felt I’ve always been given everything,” Hunter Jr. says. “I really just want to make a name for myself and become my own person and not live in the shadow of my father.”

***

Torii Hunter Jr.’s father sits a few rows back from home plate during batting practice an hour later. His wife, Katrina, is a staple at his side.

A 40-year-old recently retired major league veteran, Torii Hunter’s bald head, muscular build and wide, approachable smile are all recognizable. He looks like the same guy that rattled off nine consecutive Gold Gloves as a member of the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels, that appeared in five All-Star Games in 19 major league seasons, that kept rising — up, up, up — to rob Barry Bonds of a homer in an immortal All-Star game moment in July 2002.

He looks at his oldest son and recognizes everything. The instincts. The speed. The work ethic. The grin.

Torii Jr. wiggles his bat over the plate, dragging bunts down the third base line.

Torii Sr. smiles and starts from the beginning.

“Her mom was my fifth grade teacher,” Hunter Sr. says, motioning to Katrina. “I pointed at her picture (in class) and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to marry your daughter one day.’

“She pinched my ear and said, ‘Don’t ever touch my daughter. I know your daddy.’”

Hunter Sr. was not deterred. He and Katrina started dating while both attended Pine Bluff High School in Arkansas, where Torii excelled in baseball and football and Katrina turned heads — most notably, her future husband’s — on the track.

“I saw her running the 100-yard dash, and she was burning everybody,” Hunter Sr. recalls with a grin. “I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s my wife. I’m going to make children with her.’”

More than two decades later, the Hunters are here. Torii Sr. fulfilled his promise.

Torii Jr. is living proof.

“I guess we bred a stallion,” Katrina says with a laugh.

***

Katrina Hunter gave her son a tee.

He didn’t need it.

“Even as a toddler, he was one year old and we bought the little tee – the Fisher Price little tee,” Katrina recalls, “and he was hitting the ball so hard I was like, ‘I’m going to take this back to the store because he has already advanced past that.’”

“The tee was over with,” Torii Sr. interjects.

Torii Jr. played baseball, and he was good. He played football, and he was good. He played basketball: same story. He roamed the house with a baseball bat, cracking balls off walls and ceilings. The Hunters sit in the near-empty stadium and laugh, even now, rattling off tall tales of improbable athletic achievements.

Growing up in Texas, Torii Hunter Jr. excelled at every sport he tried (photo courtesy Katrina Hunter).

“He told me to come to the basketball court and he grabbed the basketball and jumped up and dunked it with no shoes on,” Hunter Sr. says, his words dripping with disbelief, raising his esteemed right arm to demonstrate.

Torii Jr. was 13 years old and 5-foot-9 at the time.

Now eight years older and three inches taller, his athleticism defies limitation. Torii Jr. plays all three wide receiver positions, capably juggling routes and schemes. Last season, he rushed five times and completed a 35-yard pass to tight end Alize Jones in the win over USC. He caught a touchdown and played several defensive snaps at nickelback in the road win over Pittsburgh, becoming Notre Dame’s first two-way player since Tom Zbikowski in 2007.

In spring 2015, he joined the Irish baseball team as well. In two abbreviated seasons, Torii Jr. has hit .167 with nine runs scored, two stolen bases, one RBI and one highlight reel catch lunging over the right field railing, a bumpy flight that invited comparisons to his father and cracked SportsCenter's top 10 plays.

☘Year in Review: #NDTop10 Plays

#5 - Torii Hunter Jr.'s wild catch makes @SportsCenter's Top-10 list

@THunterJrpic.twitter.com/tanQCxMWUK

— The Fighting Irish (@FightingIrish) June 27, 2016

Last month, Torii Jr. was drafted in the 23rd round of the 2016 Major League Baseball Draft by the Los Angeles Angels. He signed a professional contract with the team a few weeks later.

You name it, he can do it. No training wheels. No tee.

Torii Hunter Jr. was drafted in the 23rd round of the 2016 Major League Baseball Draft on Saturday (photo courtesy Notre Dame).

“He could play quarterback,” says Kent Scott, Torii Jr.’s high school football coach. “He could play receiver. He could play either slot or outside. He could play safety. He could play corner. And I’m sure if we asked him to put his hand in the dirt and play defensive end, he would have gone in there and done that, too.”

His Swiss army knife versatility is only partially a product of strength and speed. Teach him something, and Torii Jr. digests it, processes it, applies it.

“He’s definitely a computer,” Torii Sr. says. “You program it and it does what it does.”

Of course, that begs the as-of-yet unanswered question:

What can’t he do?

***

In the north Dallas suburb of Prosper, Texas, the Hunter boys beat the sun.

“It’s a learned behavior,” Torii Hunter Sr. explains. “Me working the way I did, I’d get up at 5 in the morning, and I wanted to show my kids what I did. This is how I survived. You stay around a long time from hard work.”

And so, even in high school, Torii Jr. and his brothers, Monshadrik (more commonly known as “Money”) and Darius, woke daily at 5 a.m. They drove 30 minutes to a performance center in Frisco and went through a full workout, then went to school. They took classes, watched film, lifted weights and attended practices.

Torii Hunter Jr. was a two-sport star at Prosper High School (photo courtesy Katrina Hunter).

Torii Jr. didn’t whine. He woke early and worked late – from sport to sport, from season to season.

“We all were kind of pushing each other at that time,” Torii Jr. says. “We were trying to get better and give ourselves an opportunity.”

Years have passed, but little has changed. Last spring, when Notre Dame’s football practices and baseball season overlapped, Torii Jr. attended football practice on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday mornings. He went to class and baseball practice after football on Monday and Wednesday, and played in a baseball game on Friday night after attending football practice on Friday morning.

He woke early and worked late.

Learned behaviors are hard to break.

“That’s probably why I’m out here right now, because I’m a busybody,” Hunter Jr. says, surrounded by empty seats. “I like to go out there and do something. I can’t do nothing.

“When there’s a time to rest, there’s a time to rest…which is at the end of the day.”

Torii Jr. fills long days with football, with baseball, with class, with video games, with meals, with treatment, with an occasional scrap of sleep.

With the limited time he’s given, look how much he’s earned.

“The work volume that he's put in while he's going to school, while he's playing baseball, has been an incredible commitment,” Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly says. “Look, he could have taken the easy way out, right? He could have said, ‘Hey, I'm playing baseball, I can't make it this weekend. I've got a doubleheader.’

“But no, he would go to practice and then he would go into a phone booth and throw on his Superman cape and head on over to the baseball field. It's amazing what he does in terms of the intensity in which he practices and how hard he goes, and then he does the same thing for (head baseball coach) Mik (Aoki).

“He's a unique young man in that he can focus and give that kind of intensity to both sports.”

***

Torii Hunter Jr. knew he wanted to visit Notre Dame.

He didn't know that meant visiting northern Indiana.

“I had to look up where it was because we were trying to set up flights,” the Texas native says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I have no idea where Notre Dame is.’”

In July 2012, he found out what his father already knew.

“I was a Notre Dame fan first,” boasts Torii Sr., who played quarterback and safety on his high school football team. “Tony Rice was the quarterback. He was my favorite. I tried to be him.”

A consensus four-star wide receiver, Torii Jr. went on a vacation full of unofficial visits, from Princeton to West Virginia to Notre Dame to Nebraska to Arizona State and Arizona.

One stood out — that prestigious little school from the town he had never heard of.

“That’s when I started thinking about Notre Dame and having serious inquiries about what they had to offer,” Hunter Jr. says. “I put them at the top right after that visit, because it seemed like a lot of genuine people. You don’t meet a lot of genuine coaches during recruiting.”

Hunter Jr. returned for an official visit on Sept. 22, 2012, watching as Notre Dame squeaked out a narrow 13-6 win over rival Michigan.

On the west coast, Torii Hunter Sr. — then with the Los Angeles Angels — had a game at 7 p.m.

At 6:30, he got a call.

“I saw, ‘Torii Jr.’ (on the caller ID) and I ran to the back to answer the phone,” Hunter Sr. recalls. “He said, ‘Dad, I’m signing with Notre Dame.’”

Torii Sr. crafted the responsible response. He told his son to take a night and sleep on it. “If you feel the same way when you wake up in the morning,” he said, “then that’s the school for you.”

Wouldn’t you know it, the next morning he got a call.

“I feel the same,” said Torii Jr. “I’m signing with Notre Dame.”

After taking an official visit for a home win against Michigan in 2012, Torii Hunter Jr. decided to commit to Notre Dame (photo courtesy Katrina Hunter).

***

But before he could sign, Hunter Jr. stumbled.

On the heels of a senior season at Prosper High School in which he caught 71 passes for 1,235 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns, Torii Jr. accepted an invitation to play in the 2013 U.S. Army All-American Game in San Antonio.

During a practice on New Year’s Day, he took a few quick steps off the line, before planting hard and cutting left towards the sideline. He stumbled, then tried to recover. His left leg landed, bent and buckled.

He fractured his femur and his future all at once.

“When I rolled over, I didn’t have any control over that leg,” Hunter recalls, dropping his hand onto the affected limb. “It just kind of flopped over. I knew that it was bad.”

Torii Jr. grabbed his leg, which erupted in streaks of pain. Waves of shock swept over him. Questions flooded his senses, visions of fragile futures rolling like credits through his mind.

Will Notre Dame honor my scholarship? If I get there, will I be able to play?

What about baseball? My senior season? The draft?

As trainers descended on Torii Jr., one of the team’s parents called his father, who had planned to arrive in San Antonio with Katrina later in the week.

“They were standing over Torii and I was talking to the guy on the phone,” Hunter Sr. recalls, “and I could hear Torii in the background screaming.”

Torii and Katrina rushed to the airport and boarded a flight to San Antonio. They arrived at the hospital that night to comfort their broken son.

“It was tough to see him, his leg lifted up,” Hunter Sr. says. “Any kind of movement, he cried.”

For the first time in his life, Torii Jr. was grounded. His wings were clipped, his spirit crushed. But before the night was out, then-Notre Dame running backs coach Tony Alford called and assured him that regardless of the injury, his scholarship remained intact.

“That kind of calmed me down,” Torii Jr. says, “because I still had that Notre Dame degree.”

What he didn’t have was a senior baseball season. After hitting .393 with six home runs, 27 RBI and 13 stolen bases in his junior year, Torii Jr. was forced to watch his teammates play without him. He was selected in the 36th round of the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft by the Detroit Tigers, but the prospect of playing professional baseball out of high school, as his father did, had faded away.

Five months after the fall, Torii Jr. was told that a section of his femur had unexpectedly stopped growing. And after the ensuing recovery sidelined him for his freshman football season at Notre Dame, Torii Jr. returned for fall camp in 2014, only to tear his groin.

Notre Dame wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. battled injuries early in his Irish career. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ

He wasn’t given an easy road. No straight shot to the top of the Irish depth chart.

He woke early and worked late, and eventually, he found his footing.

“As a man, I respect that guy. That’s my son,” Hunter Sr. says, seated a few rows behind home plate, pointing at Torii Jr. “I’ve been through a lot of rehabs, a lot of pain, a lot of surgeries, but I respect the way he fought back as an 18-year-old kid.”

“It was definitely tough going through that,” adds Torii Jr., “but I made it through. I can make it through anything.”

***

Hours later, Torii Hunter Sr. is still seething.

The Hunters don’t like to lose.

Especially against other Hunters.

“He beat me on golf on the Xbox,” Hunter Sr. admits, stewing publicly in his shame.

Torii Hunter Sr. may be retired from professional baseball, but not from competition. If he isn’t working out, he’s playing golf. If he isn’t playing golf, he’s playing video games.

If he isn’t winning, he’s stewing.

“I’m better at army games and sports games,” Torii Jr. says with a grin. “He’s pretty good at the story mode games, solving mysteries and stuff like that. I don’t like doing that. He likes that kind of stuff. He likes games that make him think.”

The Hunters also like to win, perhaps as much as they hate to lose. That’s why Hunter Sr. wakes up at 5 a.m. That’s why Torii Jr., "Money" (Arkansas State) and Darius (Riverside City College) all reside on college football rosters. That’s why Katrina led a high school football cheering group called “The Scream Team” that made shirts, arrived early and more than lived up to its name.

“We’re intense and competitive,” Katrina says, turning suddenly serious. “I’d bring all the energy to the game and make sure, ‘Hey, let’s cheer the boys on so they can go out there and win.’ I like to win. I’m very competitive. I do not like to lose.”

“The first year there was five people, but by senior year she had the whole stadium going crazy,” Hunter Sr. adds with a grin. “It was amazing to see the transformation.”

The Hunter family’s collective athletic success should come as no surprise when one considers A.) their favorable genetics, and B.) their competitive drive. The two go together like a match and a spark.

“You know that thing where everybody gets a ribbon? Participation trophies? That is so far the polar opposite of that family,” coach Scott jokes. “They are uber competitive.”

Today, that’s Torii Sr. Uber competitive. Uber unsatisfied.

“We were just sitting there playing golf, and he beat me,” Hunter Sr. concedes. “Yeah, I didn’t like that too much. It sucks. I’ve been sore about that for about four hours.”

***

A few hours before first pitch in South Bend, the Clemson team bus pulls up and parks beside the stadium. Its players flood out, one after another, gathering gloves and bats before turning towards the field.

Most of them don’t make it.

They form a happy huddle around Hunter Sr. instead.

The two-time Silver Slugger smiles, because he’s always smiling. He takes photographs and signs baseballs, as accommodating as he is friendly. Katrina waits patiently behind him, a veteran of the whole routine.

Such is the shadow Torii Jr. aims to transcend. He’s grateful for it, of course: for the All-Star Game elevator he shared with Derek Jeter and the family vacation to the Dominican Republic with David Ortiz. For the countless days he spent as a kid in major league clubhouses, absorbing as much as he could. For his father, who he loves and respects and occasionally beats at video games.

But isn’t it harder to make your own name when you share it with an all-time great?

“Yeah, but Ken Griffey Jr. did it,” he points out forcefully. “They don’t call him the son of Ken Griffey. I want to be known as Torii Hunter Jr., not the son of Torii Hunter. I just want my name to be my own.”

Torii Hunter Jr. is on his way. Notre Dame’s chameleonic senior piled up career-highs in catches (28), receiving yards (363) and yards per catch (13) in 2015. Last spring, he excelled as a receiver, grew as a leader and claimed the locker closest to the front of the room, reserved for the most experienced returning player at each position.

“There’s incredible chemistry with him and the whole quarterback group,” offensive coordinator Mike Sanford says. “He’s just playing at an unbelievable level.”

But where will he play next? The NFL? The minor leagues?

Torii Hunter Jr. smiles and shrugs.

Wherever he ends up, better believe he will have earned it.

Notre Dame junior Torii Hunter Jr. (16) played offense and a little bit of defense against Pitt Saturday at Heinz Field (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)

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