How Hendon Hooker will calm his nerves before Tennessee football plays Florida

Adam Sparks
Knoxville News Sentinel
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Neyland Stadium will be rocking before Tennessee football plays Florida on Saturday, but Hendon Hooker will go into slow-jam mode and lean on his faith.

ESPN’s College Gameday will rev up the crowd. Checker Neyland will create quite a scene. And the sellout crowd will shake the stadium moments before the Vols run through the Power T.

But Hooker, the 24-year-old quarterback, will try to slow his pulse and position his priorities before No. 12 Tennessee (3-0) plays No. 22 Florida at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS.

“I just go into meditation mode and put my gospel playlist on,” Hooker said Monday. “I really just listen to a lot of slow jams and really just relax. I kind of go through the locker room and dap up everyone, just to make sure that I’m ready to roll.

“And they give me the reassurance back by the look in their eyes that they’re ready to roll too.”

Hooker’s playlist always includes Kiki Sheard, a Grammy nominated gospel singer, as well as Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond.

And when Tennessee’s quarterbacks know the game plan inside and out, they turn their attention to a different playbook.

“Me and (backup quarterback Joe Milton), we have a devotional book that we read every day,” Hooker said. “So before the game, we’ll read one or two pages.”

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It’s not surprising that faith has a role in Hooker’s pregame ritual.

One of his first forays into the name, image and likeness space was done to create a faith-based children’s book called “The ABCs of Scripture for Athletes.”

What Hooker thought of his first game vs. Florida

Hooker will need to calm his nerves before playing the Gators.

Tennessee has lost 16 of the last 17 games against Florida, including the last four by double-digit margins.

“We’re going to approach this the same way we have any other game,” Hooker said. “The outside noise doesn’t really matter to us.”

Last season, Hooker, a Virginia Tech transfer, made his first start in an SEC game at Florida. He played a solid game, passing for 221 yards and two touchdowns.

In fact, Hooker was only the fifth Tennessee quarterback to throw more TD passes than interceptions during this 17-game skid against Florida. One of those, Joshua Dobbs, won the 2016 game.

But the Vols lost 38-14 with Hooker starting against Florida, so he considered his performance a failure.

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) before Tennessee’s home football game against Akron in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.

“I would give myself a D,” Hooker said. “I hold myself to extremely high standards to almost be perfect in a sense, even though that’s not possible.

“I judge it off of, ‘Are we winning? Am I doing my job in order for us to win?’ If I’m not, then it’s not a good game.”

Hooker has his priorities right, putting wins above his personal stats. Perhaps the gospel music and pregame devotional has helped his mindset. He’ll need that to deal with the pressure-packed atmosphere against the Gators.

“I keep a smile on my face and enjoy my teammates,” Hooker said. “Me and Joe always remind each other to stay loose on the sideline and enjoy the whole gameday experience. I want to soak it all in.”

Reach Adam Sparks at adam.sparks@knoxnews.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.

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