Team Henry

WORDS Will Whitson
IMAGES courtesy Hunter Henry

Sep 1, 2023 | Featured, People

It started off as a dream for Hunter Henry. Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Hunter watched every Arkansas Football game, but little did he know the impact and the legacy he’d leave on the state. Arguably the greatest tight end in Razorback program history, Hunter led the Football Bowl Subdivision (the top half of Division I college football) in almost every statistic as a junior (2015-16), leading him to All-American honors from every national media outlet. Hunter also won the John Mackey Award as a junior, an award given to the nation’s best collegiate tight end. The six-foot-five tight end hauled in sixty-nine percent of his targets and averaged almost ten yards per reception in 2015, a stat remarkable for his position. Hunter also caught at least one pass in twenty-three straight games, a Razorback program record among tight ends.

Football was always a priority in the Henry household, and Hunter, the oldest of four, was always determined to be where he is now. “When I was in elementary school, I wrote that I wanted to be a professional athlete. I had teachers tell me to shoot for something more realistic, so I thrived on people not believing in me,” he said. He gives credit to his family. “From a young age we were competitive, and we worked hard in everything we did. That gave me a drive to want to be the best.”

When you think of Hunter, you may think of the miraculous “Hunter Heave,” one of the greatest miracles in college football history. The play started on a fourth and twenty-five in overtime, with the game on the line. Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen threw the ball to Hunter on a twenty-yard crossing route on the Ole Miss twenty-five-yard line. Hunter brought two defenders after the reception, and instead of trying to shake them and head towards the end zone, he threw the ball back ten yards over his head. After it bounced off the ground once, Arkansas running back Alex Collins picked the ball up, got behind a few blockers, and picked up the first down. Two plays later, the Hogs won the game off a Drew Morgan touchdown reception and a Brandon Allen two-point conversion draw.

Many fans believe the miracle in Oxford that Saturday night was planned, but Hunter says that’s not the case. “The funny thing about the whole play is that no one told me to do what I did. I was actually in the huddle before the play and I was mad, I didn’t want to run an underneath route on the play and be short of the sticks. Once we got to the line of scrimmage, I just thought to myself that if Brandon throws this ball to me and I cannot make the first guy miss, I’m going to make sure to keep the ball alive. It happened just like I thought it would and everything worked out perfectly, almost like we drew it.” Hunter’s instincts and football IQ engraved an everlasting memory in Hog and college football fans everywhere.

After an incredible three years of college football, Hunter declared for the 2016 NFL Draft, fulfilling his childhood dream. He was drafted thirty-fifth overall by the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers were expected to draft a tight end and selected Hunter, as Hall of Famer Antonio Gates’ career was coming to a close. Hunter’s rookie season put the NFL on notice, scoring the second-most touchdowns by a rookie tight end in the last decade. He scored the Chargers’ last touchdown in San Diego, as the team now resides in Los Angeles.

Twenty-eighteen was panning out to be a huge year for Hunter, after two great seasons. However, he was sidelined by an ACL tear during spring practice, forcing him to miss the entire 2018-19 season. Recovery from his injury wasn’t easy, but it came with a few unforgettable lessons and memories. “That was one of the toughest years I have ever had to go through,” he said. “I got football ripped away from me, but I learned perspective. God truly opened my eyes, showing me that dependence on him is the only thing that can satisfy me. I was just rehabbing that year, so I got to spend a lot of time with my wife (Parker), a huge blessing that we both still think about. It was a tough year physically, but I was able to learn a lot about myself and come back better.”

After fully recovering from his knee injury, Hunter returned in 2019 with another career high season. He performed seemingly unphased by his injury, adding ten more receptions and eighty more yards than his previous season, in two fewer games. He finished the season with 652 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

COVID-19 had the world in a chokehold in 2020, but one thing sports fans could look forward to was football. The NFL continued to play, and Hunter showed he could be consistent regardless of circumstances. Bringing in 613 yards and four touchdowns, he set himself up for a big deal in free agency. In the spring of 2021, his free agency gave him the option to sign with a new team. His time in Los Angeles came to a close after he signed a three-year, thirty-seven-and-a-half million-dollar contract with the New England Patriots.

Just shortly after signing the deal, Hunter erupted for the best season of his career, after he more than doubled his touchdowns from the previous year with nine. For two straight seasons, Hunter played all seventeen games, a feat uncommon for his position. He now enters the final year of his contract and looks to take New England to the promised land once again. “I am excited for this year. We have a lot of potential, but we are going to have to work to earn everything.”

Bill Belichick will go down as one of the best, if not the best, coaches of all time, and for Hunter, it’s an honor to play for him. “I love Coach Belichick. It’s pretty unreal that I get to be coached by arguably the greatest coach ever. He is brilliant and holds every player to a high standard. He is what you want in a coach.” The Henry-Belichick combination seems to be a good one, as Hunter fits perfectly in the Patriots system on and off the field. “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard enough,” is a quote Hunter lives by, and is a prime example of the “Patriot Way.”

This season marks Hunter’s eighth year in the NFL, his third year with New England. Hunter, now twenty-eight-years-old, lives in Boston with his wife Parker and year-old son, John Ace. The couple are expecting a baby girl in September.

Do South Magazine

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