Notre Dame alum Torii Hunter Jr. has no regrets about choosing baseball over football

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

That Torii Hunter Jr., was pinch-running for American League MVP Mike Trout on Sunday in a spring training game and not working on timing routes with quarterback DeShone Kizer pivoted on a single play in his Notre Dame football career.

Up until the moment that Texas safety DeShon Elliott delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit in the end zone Sept. 4 at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, the wide receiver/outfielder was open to pursuing a professional career in football.

In fact, both head coach Brian Kelly and then-ND wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock believed a strong senior season would eventually coax a more lucrative financial future from the NFL than Major League baseball.

But the brief stretch of unconsciousness and the concussion that followed during ND’s 50-47 double-overtime, season-opening loss at Texas pushed baseball onto the front burner. And a knee injury that essentially lopped off the final three games of the 2016 season sort of sealed the deal.

“My thinking, with the hit in Texas, was that it could happen again,” Hunter said in a telephone interview from the Angels spring training complex in Tempe, Ariz. “And it was just a scary moment in my career.

“I had to not only think about myself, but my family and my wife-to-be at the time. I wouldn’t want to not be able to function later in life because I continued to play football. That doesn’t mean that would happen for sure, but there’s always that possibility. And in my mind, it was a high possibility.”

Targeting was not called on the play, a pass from Kizer into the end zone with the ball coming loose after Elliott’s blind-side hit. Many — including Kelly — said it should have been ruled targeting. Hunter said that Elliott later did message him to apologize for the hit.

“Getting hurt every weekend, getting hit, I don’t miss that part of football,” Hunter said. “But I miss being around the guys, being around the atmosphere, just having that adrenaline pump. There’s nothing like that.”

So immersed in trying to jump-start a baseball career in which his last sustained stretch of playing time came five years ago during his junior season at Prospect (Texas) High School, Hunter didn’t even realize his Pro Day — ND’s NFL Combine-style audition for scouts — would be this Thursday had he stayed on the football trajectory.

Kizer and eight other Irish NFL Draft hopefuls will participate in all or parts of the physical testing and drill work at ND’s Loftus Center.

Hunter, though, did follow the NFL Combine itself earlier this month, well sort of.

Economics, and not lack of interest, had him resorting to updates on his phone rather than watching the NFL Network’s coverage.

“I didn’t have the right TV package to watch it,” he said. “In the minor leagues, you don’t really make that much money. I’ve got to learn how to live and be an adult now. You don’t have a university that covers your back now. You kind of have to grow up and learn how to do things.”

Baseball is actually on the learning list, too. Or relearning list.

Hunter had just 12 official at-bats between his junior year at Prosper High and his first spring training game at-bats last Thursday.

A broken leg suffered in January of 2013 in a football high school all-star game practice wiped out his senior high school season, after which he was drafted in the 36th round by the Detroit Tigers.

Hunter passed on baseball his freshman season at ND, but went out in both 2015 and 2016, working practices and games around his spring football commitment both seasons.

His college career stats totaled seven strikeouts in his 12 at-bats, spread over 23 games played and one start. The pinch runner and defensive replacement batted .167 and scored nine runs, with one RBI and two stolen bases.

Still, the Angels drafted him in the 23rd round last June, and he signed later in the month, fully intending to keep his football options open.

In fact, Hunter, who earned his ND degree in IT Management in December, also had the option of returning to Notre Dame to play football in 2017 since he redshirted as a freshman.

The baseball signing felt like a safety net at the time, but evolved into Hunter’s No. 1 option, even though he was much more accomplished on the football field. Even with missing one game with the concussion and three more with the knee injury, Hunter amassed 38 catches for 521 yards and three TDs in 2016.

“I knew I had a lot of catching up to do with baseball,” Hunter said. “I didn’t think it was going to come easy. It’s just a matter of repetitions and doing it every day. That’s what I’ve been doing the last month, month and a half.

“Once I find that rhythm, I think I’ll be in good shape.”

Hunter played three minor-league games last week, before the Angels decided to plop him in a big-league game on Sunday. His father, former Major League outfielder, Torii Hunter Sr., his mother and a handful of other relatives just happened to be in Tempe that day to take it in.

Carlos Rodon started on the mound for the Chicago White Sox but was long gone by the time Hunter entered the game, an 11-2 Angels loss.

Hunter came on as a pinch runner for Trout in bottom of the sixth inning after Trout had singled. After two walks, Hunter was on third with one out, but a strikeout and a groundout stranded him there.

He then went in to play center field in top of the seventh. Jake Dunning, a 28-year-old pitcher who spent last season at AAA, struck out Hunter in the bottom of the eighth. Matt Cooper, a 25-year-old right-hander likely designated for the minors, fanned Hunter in the bottom of the ninth to end the game.

“Even with the strikeouts, it was a fun experience,” Hunter said.

He’ll have two more weeks to cast an impression, then he’ll get assigned. Staying in Tempe with the Arizona League rookie team is a possibility as is the advanced rookie affiliate in Orem, Utah, or the low-Class A team in Burlington, Iowa.

Wife Selina Bell Hunter, a model, will follow Torii Hunter Jr., wherever baseball takes him. The two got married in October.

“She leaves every once in a while to do photo shoots, but it’s great to have her with me,” he said. “She’s a big emotional support. Whenever I’ve had a bad day — and there have been more than a few — she helps out a lot.

“I have no idea where my next step will be. I haven’t heard any rumors. Whatever baseball looks like for me at the end of spring training — even if it’s not the way I think it should — my goal is to continue to work to get better.

“That’s got to be the focus. I know at some point, I’m going to catch up. It’s tough, but it’s time to learn how to be a professional and be an adult.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Former Notre Dame wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. (16) has no regrets about choosing a professional baseball career over football. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA