Mike Strange: Olympic dream over, but Justin Hunter content with football

Mike Strange
University of Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter addresses members of the media at Neyland Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012. Fall practice for the Vols begins Friday and the team opens the season Aug. 31 against North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. (AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS/NEWS SENTINEL STAFF)

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess, ©KNS

University of Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter addresses members of the media at Neyland Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012. Fall practice for the Vols begins Friday and the team opens the season Aug. 31 against North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. (AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS/NEWS SENTINEL STAFF)

Justin Hunter talks about rehab and recovering from his knee injury

Justin Hunter talks about new wide receivers and young QBs

What if?

Two summers ago, Justin Hunter won the long jump at the USA Junior Nationals. All of a sudden, a third dream crept into his head, beside the NFL and NBA dreams:

Standing on a podium at the Olympic Games.

"My (track) coach started talking to me about it,'' Hunter said Thursday, "like, 'Justin you're doing some pretty amazing things.'

"So I thought it was actually a goal I was going to achieve. Then I got hurt.''

Then he got hurt. At Florida Field last September. Every Tennessee football fan can picture the play.

No contact, just a funny twist on a pass route and down he went clutching his left knee. Torn ACL. End of season.

The good news is Hunter is healthy again, ready to fulfill his promise in a new football season.

But the Olympic dream died for good that day. So, what if?

It's a pretty good stretch to say Hunter would have been in London long-jumping instead of opening fall camp with the Vols.

His best mark, in January 2011, during his freshman indoor season, was 26 feet, 1.5 inches.

It took 26-11.5 to make the U.S. Olympic team. That was the mark of third-place finisher George Kitchens at the trials. Could Hunter have extended himself 10 inches in a year and a half?

"I think so,'' he said. "Some of my best days I probably scratched at 27 feet. I did at a meet at Vanderbilt. So I think I would have made a good attempt.''

Football and track are not mutually exclusive. Marquise Goodwin, who won the U.S. trials at 27-4.25, will report to the Texas Longhorns when he gets back from London.

Goodwin's long-jumping was so promising he redshirted in football last fall with the blessing of coach Mack Brown. Like Hunter, Goodwin will be running routes this fall.

In the 1980s, Willie Gault excelled at both

football and track at UT. Sam Graddy, a gold-medal sprinter, played a little football for the Vols.

But the knee injury makes it too risky for Hunter to resume jumping. And he's good with that.

"When I got hurt, I was just thinking about football,'' he said. "Track wasn't even in my mind.

"I thought about farther down the road, that I probably won't go to the NFL. I never had an injury like that so all the bad thoughts were in my head.''

Time heals. A knee and a mind. The thoughts in his head are virtually all good as the 2012 season beckons.

He's still fast. His vertical leap is back to 40.5 inches, a mere inch short of where it was before the injury.

"Oh, yeah,'' said safety Brian Randolph. "I think he's actually gotten better.

"He can get any DB he wants to get any time.''

Flanked by Da'Rick Rogers and newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson, plus tight end Mychal Rivera, Hunter anticipates an entertaining season running down Tyler Bray's passes.

"(Bray) doesn't have to force anything now,'' Hunter said. "He'll always have a target to throw to.

"I don't know what (opposing defenses) can do. Their coaches are gonna be mad all season.''

So football looks fun again. Football is the future, the only future.

Still, he will watch on TV when the Olympians soar through the air and land in the sand. And he'll wonder what if?

"Everything happens for a reason,'' he said. "I think God's plan meant for me to be here playing football.''

A few minutes later, Hunter pulled up his orange Vol-gear jacket to reveal what was underneath:

A white shirt, with "USA" and an American flag. The track uniform from his national title.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 5

Timbo_Slice writes:

Great story! Good luck to you, Justin Hunter for the 2012 season and beyond! I hope your attitude is contagious throughout the receiving corp!

hueypilot writes:

Good luck kid. We're all waiting to see what you can do with a full season and some help in the receiving corps.

frblalack writes:

If we don't have the BEST wide receivers in college football, then I don't know who has!

Great news to hear Justin's healthy!!!

All Vols - It's almost "Football Time In Tennessee" - Go Big Orange! - Vol for Life!

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

in response to frblalack:

If we don't have the BEST wide receivers in college football, then I don't know who has!

Great news to hear Justin's healthy!!!

All Vols - It's almost "Football Time In Tennessee" - Go Big Orange! - Vol for Life!

Totally agree..I still say UT wins at UF if Hunter stayed injury free..That injury took the life of the team and coaches out for a whole half and really put too much pressure on DaRick and company to fill the void..GBO!!

mocsandvolsfan writes:

NBA?? uhh Coach Martin...dual sports?

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