The only football being played is CBS at three o’clock. 

I forget who said that to me first, but I heard it over and over when I became a Vol. I was excited about transferring, and I guess I was trying to see what the energy was. And I’d be talking to people, and it’s this one thing they kept bringing up. Tennessee?? It’s great. But you GOTTA win ball games. CBS at three o’clock, that’s what we want. That’s where we want to be. 

And pretty soon I figured out what they meant. The CBS game at 3:30 p.m. — that’s the big SEC game of the week. You know how Alabama is always playing in that game? Exactly. So I got the message: There’s no fooling people in Knoxville. They don’t want to hear about how “Tennessee is back” — they want to see it for themselves. You’re either in that three o’clock game or you’re not. You either matter or you don’t.

We matter now. 

I won’t sit here and pretend this season is ending how I hoped it would end … but I’m still very proud of what we accomplished. And when I try to think of a way to put that in words, we matter now is what I keep coming back to. It’s like: If you’re trying to tell the story of this season, you can’t leave Tennessee out. We weren’t unbeatable — but we were most definitely undeniable.

Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

I remember when I first joined the team, it’s funny, but right off the bat my teammates were skeptical. I think it’s that “SEC confidence” they all had. It’s like they couldn’t imagine how some dude from the ACC could actually ball. But then we’re in my first practice, and on some of the early plays, I made our linebackers kind of touch the ground — just stumble a little bit when I shook them. And we’re in the locker room after, and everyone is just like, “Oh man, Hendon, I didn’t know you could move like that!! You’re fast!!” Or “I didn’t know you had an arm on you!!! You can sling it!!!” And I’m just laughing so hard, and shaking my head, like, “Thanks, y’all. I appreciate it.” But as funny as that was to me, it was also big, for real. Because my main goal when I got here was to gain my teammates’ trust and respect. I knew that had to come first. And everything else would follow.

I felt like in Year One, we started planting the seeds of success, even if we didn’t have the best record. Probably the biggest seed was planted in our game against Bama. Anyone who tells you that’s just another team, they’re lying. Everyone gets up for Bama. And we came closer than people think to winning last season — we definitely felt like we let one get away. But at the same time, “closer than people think” means nothing when you’ve been losing for 15 years. And the way last year went, it really solidified that message for us. We were all sick of these moral victories. We wanted real ones.

And then as far as everything this year … man, I don’t even know what to say. It’s been the year of my life. There’s so many memories that stand out. Beating Pitt in OT when they were higher ranked than us. Beating Florida when we’re both undefeated and with GameDay in town. Beating LSU in Death Valley. And it felt like every week, more people were noticing. More and more people were saying, “Oh, this is the Tennessee we’ve been hearing about. They’re looking like a great program again.”

But we knew if we truly wanted to plant that flag for this program, we had to beat one team. And I didn’t even have to look at what time that game was — I already could tell you.

The only football being played is CBS at three o’clock.

Randy Sartin/USA Today Sports

What’s crazy is, Bama was on my dad’s birthday this year. And usually when I ask him what he wants for a birthday present, he’s just like, “I want y’all to come in and clean my house,” something simple. But this time he didn’t even try it with simple. He just said to me, “I need that W for my birthday. I need that win.”

It’s hard to choose my favorite moment from the Bama game, but one has to be right before our last possession. There’s 15 seconds left, so everyone assumes it’s going to overtime, right?? But Coach Heup, he walks up to me and he says, “Do you want to take it to OT? Or do you want to go for it right now?” And I just give him one of those looks and I tell him, “Let’s go end it right now, Coach. I’m HUNGRY.”

I’ve never felt so proud after a game. As soon as it was over I found my parents, and while they’re hugging me my mom starts crying these big old tears and I’m like, “Hey, Mom, come on now. We can’t be looking ugly on TV. We gotta tighten up.” And of course my dad … I just told him, “Happy birthday.”

Getting to celebrate with my teammates, and share that joy with them, that was also very meaningful. A lot of attention has been on me this season, and I’m grateful for it. But the individual stuff is not what I’m about. And what I had most on my mind that night was how so many other guys on our team stepped up.

Chase’s kick to win it?? Ha, I almost feel bad for Chase. Because he made one of the greatest kicks ever … and none of us were even surprised. That’s how high a standard he’s set. I remember running to the sideline before that play, and I was like, “Oh, Chase is kicking? Cool. It’s game over.” And then I took off my helmet, because I knew I didn’t need it anymore. 

And we obviously don’t get to Chase’s kick without Jalin Hyatt being the best receiver in the country. That’s a legendary game — five touchdowns in a win against Bama. My guy did his thing. But with Jalin it runs even deeper than that. A lot of people had a lot of opinions about Jalin last year, and I know it was a disappointing season for him. But to me the way you measure someone, it’s in how they respond from disappointment. And Jalin responded with nothing but hard work and growth. Changed his attitude, improved his craft, made those sacrifices. And to see it pay off so big … it’s a cool moment. That’s my brother.

But the most satisfying part with Bama probably wasn’t even football. It was seeing our whole stadium rush the field, and seeing the happiness on everyone’s faces, you know what I mean?? And having it fully sink in what that win meant for us — I’m talking about us not just as a team but beyond that. Like, how it’s the kind of win we might look back on in 5, 10, 25 years and say, Alright … I can tell you the exact moment when everything changed for this program. The EXACT moment. 

It was perfect.

Carlos M. Saavedra/SI/Getty Images

Unfortunately, it’s not all as perfect as the Bama game. 

When I went down against South Carolina, I was just like, I hope it’s a sprained knee. That was the thought I had as I was coming off the field. But then they took me to the injury tent, and they said, “Hey. We don’t usually tell players what’s going on like this. But it’s your ACL.” I was about to cry right then, and I asked them, “Is it torn?” They were like, “It looks that way.” As they were telling me this, I guess a replay was being shown for everyone in slow motion. So I’m hearing about my injury right as a stadium full of people are going “OOOOOHHHH” while they watch it back. It was overwhelming, to be honest, and at that point I started bawling my eyes out.

I’m never going to hide my emotions — that’s just the way I’m built. But I also take pride in being strong-willed. So I gave myself one moment, and I let myself cry in the tent. I didn’t try not to. After that, though? I picked myself up, and I was like: Okay. Now you’re walking off this field with your head held high. Not just for my own strength, but for my teammates’ strength. I didn’t want them to worry about me when they had football left to play.

And that’s how I still feel right now. It’s been incredibly tough … it was a devastating injury. But my mentality from the jump has been 1. I’m going to handle my business with surgery and then rehab, and 2. I’m going to get back to my team, and be the leader they need.

As much as I’ve been there for my teammates, though, they’ve really been there for me as well. My roommate is Joe Milton III, and I’ve been talking to him a lot this season about how badly I want to win a bowl game for the first time. I’d be like, “Man … ALL THESE YEARS I’ve been in college!! And I’ve never won a bowl.” So Joe knew better than anyone how much frustration I was feeling inside, not getting that chance to finally win one. And the first thing he said to me, after my surgery — he looks at me and he goes, “We’re about to get you that bowl win, Hook.” This last part of the season hasn’t been easy, but that meant a lot.

Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

I’m gonna wrap up this article now, because y’all have heard enough from me and it’s time to focus on the Orange Bowl. But thank you for taking the time to read what I had to say. And also thank you for taking the time to watch me play, and to have my back, and to welcome me into the Tennessee family with open arms.

This isn’t where I started my football career — that’s Virginia Tech, and I’ll always have love for them.

And this isn’t where I’m ending my football career — that’s the NFL, I hope, and I can’t wait to show them I’m the best player in this draft.

But I think this is where I figured out my football career. That’s what Tennessee will always be to me. It’s the place where I realized I don’t have to dream crazy to be in a lineage of greatness that includes Condredge Holloway, who was the SEC’s first Black starting quarterback. Or Reggie White, who has such an important legacy as a Christian athlete. Or Peyton Manning, who might be the best quarterback to ever play. I’d never put myself in that group, of course. But Tennessee really opened my eyes to the idea that I can strive to get there — that I can try to build a legacy of my own. As a Black quarterback, as a Christian athlete, as an NFL player, as a leader, and as anything else.

It’s funny — on the way to the stadium for the Bama game, we were walking down the Vol Walk. And while I’ve been down the Walk before, I’d never experienced it at that level of hype: 50,000 people out there, showing us love, just ready to go into BATTLE with us. It was an amazing sight. And I won’t even lie: walking through that crowd … I wanted to smile so bad. But I’m also trying to show that killer instinct, right?? I’m trying to look a little hard. So I’m telling myself that whole time, you know — Hendon, don’t you dare smile. This is Bama. It’s business. Do not crack. And I didn’t crack!! Haha. But I figured now it’s okay to tell the truth.

And as special as that game was … I’d almost say the walk before was just as special. Because it was that feeling of, Whatever happens next??? We’re Vols. We’re in this together.

For two years, y’all made me feel that way.

It’s been an honor to wear the Power T.

—Hendon

#Tennessee #Hendon #Hooker

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