Nov. 18, 2016
By Todd Burlage
Perhaps, the bye weekend away from football might finally provide some welcome rest and relaxation?
Or, better yet, maybe a little free time might be the perfect chance to enjoy mom's home-cooking and get a head start on some early prep for the homestretch of a football season and maybe a college career?
Or, how about using some down time for the simple joy of catching up with a few buddies back home in Prosper, Texas?
So, how exactly did Notre Dame wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. spend his bye weekend late last month between the Stanford and Miami games?
Well, Hunter's "off" weekend involved friends and family, for sure, but not in the traditional relaxing kind of way.
Instead, the Irish senior tied the knot with his high school sweetheart, Selina Bell, at a church in McKinney, Texas.
As a two-sport Notre Dame student-athlete, Hunter is used to multitasking. But scheduling a wedding in the middle of a busy football season?
"We haven't been able to be together a lot over the last couple of weeks," Hunter says of his long-distance relationship with Selina. "So we're just ready to be together. And that's why we did it over the bye week. And also, it was just some downtime for me."
"Downtime," over a wedding weekend?
Fortunately, as Hunter admits with a smile, his commitments to classes and football back at Notre Dame steered him clear from much of the prenuptial planning and meant that his bride handled almost all of the extra matrimonial details. Dress well and show up on time were Torii's two primary charges on the morning of Oct. 22.
"I didn't really have to do much," Hunter said jokingly upon his return to campus as a married man. "I just kind of said my two cents every once in awhile. But for the most part, Selina let me focus on the season and what I needed to do while she took care of most of the planning stuff."
Sounds like Torii Hunter is one lucky young man.
"We talked about (getting married) at the beginning of the season, when it was less hectic," Hunter says. "But she just kind of executed everything and she made it happen. So, I'm thankful for her."And as far as finally celebrating this magical day sometime soon?
"We're going to play a couple of football games first, and worry about the honeymoon later," Hunter said with a laugh.
Interestingly, Hunter admits to feeling more butterflies before his Irish football games than he did prior to his wedding--perhaps a revelation he should've kept to himself and not made public.
But when you're a team captain during a stretch of games that hasn't always stayed on script, it's understandable and respectable when a proud player such as Hunter takes this year's fortunes personally, emphasized by his commitment to finish this season strong and to make next season even stronger for the wave of players behind him.
"We still have a lot to accomplish, a lot to learn and a lot to teach," Hunter says. "There is still much to play for."
Hunter's responsibilities for this season were expanded months before the first game even kicked off when teammates and classmates Will Fuller (NFL) and Corey Robinson (retirement) left the Irish roster a year earlier than expected to pursue other future plans. Almost overnight, Hunter went from No. 3 to No. 1 on the team's preseason production hierarchy list among returning receivers.
Hunter entered the 2016 season with 35 career catches and three touchdowns. The rest of his position group brought a combined two catches and no scores.
Fortunately for Hunter and the rest of the inexperienced Irish wide receiving corps, Robinson became a student assistant coach and remains deeply entrenched as a strong leader within this position group.
"It was hard trying to maintain the culture that was there last year because most of the guys didn't play last year," Hunter said of the growth felt by the Irish wide-outs this season. "So Corey and I tried to explain to them and show them the way that it's supposed to be. But obviously it's probably been kind of tough because they've never been out there. They're just inexperienced."
And, according to Irish head coach Brian Kelly, his naming Hunter a team captain to bring a mature presence within this position group was essential on a unit that lost its four most prolific and productive members after the 2015 season.
"Torii is a guy that walks the walk and talks the talk and backs it up both on and off the field," Kelly said upon naming Hunter a captain.
"Definitely an honor I didn't expect," Hunter says when asked to describe earning the “C” on his chest. "I was always a guy that was quieter, somebody who kind of led by example, teammates kind of gravitate toward me. I try to do everything right and make sure that everything is always taken care of. Maybe Coach Kelly made his decision to make me captain because I always tried my best to give everything I had in everything I was involved with."
As a two-sport athlete juggling duties as an outfielder on the Irish baseball team and a wide receiver on the football team, Hunter was pulled in many different directions during the last two spring semesters, trying to juggle his two sports and a heavy academic load.
Hunter admitted that taking 16 credit hours for classwork while trying to satisfy the demands of both Kelly and Notre Dame baseball coach Mik Aoki was far from routine, but "all-in" is the only way to survive as student-athlete at Notre Dame.
"Communication was the biggest thing that helped me get through the semester," Hunter says.
"Just communicating with everybody about everything that was going on and then just putting everything I had into all of it, no matter how much I had left in the tank. I hope that commitment is what impressed both coaches, just the fact that I would come out and try to give it my all no matter how I was feeling."
With only 23 total games played as a member of the Irish baseball team during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Hunter was more spot player than All-American. But through athleticism, upside and perhaps, in some part, from the legacy of his famous father and former Major League Baseball star Torii Hunter Sr., Junior was rewarded last June with status as a 23rd-round draft pick and a contract from the Los Angeles Angels.
Hunter could've played minor league ball last summer for the Angels in the same way Pat Connaughton split time a year earlier between the Notre Dame basketball program and as a starting pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles farm system. Instead, Hunter put all of his emphasis on his senior football season, saying he'll put his future plans on hold … and his options are many.
Hunter could follow in the footsteps of his father and choose professional baseball. Or, as a lock to be selected in the NFL Draft when the time comes, professional football is a solid option. His most productive football game in terms of numbers came earlier this month when he made a career-high eight receptions against Navy for a career-best 104 yards, including a 26-yard TD catch.
And, after sitting out as a freshman in 2013, Hunter also has a year of college eligibility remaining if he decides to return for another season at Notre Dame. And, in the unlikely event athletics doesn't end up Hunter's first career option, he'll leave school with a degree in information technology management from the Mendoza College of Business.
"It's definitely exciting. I am looking forward to making a decision at the end of the season," Hunter says. "That's when I'm going to get all the feedback and see where I stand as far as draft stock and then make a decision off that."
That Hunter enjoys such an impressive catalog of future options is amazing in and of itself considering how his Notre Dame career began. A broken leg kept the 6-0, 195-pound speedster off the field his entire freshman season, and a groin injury delayed the start of his football career even further, keeping him out of the first three games of his sophomore year in 2014.
"It was definitely frustrating being out with an injury because of how much work you put in and you just want to be out there with your boys," Hunter says in retrospect. "But as frustrating as it was, that time also taught me a lot of things as far as being supportive of the team in other ways and being a better teammate."
And that's an important leadership trait that Hunter said was easily absorbed while growing up and watching his father--a future MLB Hall of Famer known as much for his kindness and approachability as his long home runs and acrobatic catches in the outfield--interact with others during a long career with the Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers.
"I was always able to see how my dad handled himself as an athlete, and as a professional," Hunter Jr. says. "I was always observant as to how he treated people, if it was his coaches, his manager, the fans. I always carried that with me and it has helped during my time here on this stage at Notre Dame and for the rest of my life."
Todd Burlage is a freelance writer from South Bend.