ATLANTA – Westlake is like a lot of other high school football programs throughout the state in that it likes to conduct an off-site camp in the preseason. The Lions last summer used that opportunity to attend a Fellow of Christian Athletes (FCA) camp at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.
In addition to whipping these young men into shape during intense heat of the dog days of summer, part of the camp experience is to foster what coaches like to call “team bonding.” It was during one of these exercises that Jaden Hunter found himself bearing his soul in front of his teammates and coaches.
“It was at the end of the night and we just kind of went around the room and just talked and everybody said their piece,” Kareem Reid, his coach at Westlake, shared. “The idea was to tell who they were and why they play football. Jaden told the guys that he uses his father’s death as motivation and that he plays football to honor his father. He told the guys, ‘when I’m down or feel like I’m not going as hard as I can, I think of my father and I remember why I’m doing it.’
“That’s really why he plays football. That’s part of the reason he wants to wear 88 when he gets there.”
“There” is the University of Georgia and 88 is the number of jersey that Brice Hunter, Jaden’s father, wore when he played football for the Bulldogs from 1992-95. The elder Hunter was a record-setting wide receiver at UGA who would go on to play for a short time in the NFL.
Brice Hunter died in 2004 at the age of 29. Jaden wasn’t quite 5 years old.
Fast forward 13 years and Jaden Hunter is heading to Georgia to play football just like his father. Now 17 years and a 6-foot-2, 213-pound linebacker with a 4-star recruiting ranking, Jaden signed with the Bulldogs on Feb. 1. Like his father, Jaden will wear the No. 88.
But even though his father and mother both played sports at Georgia – mom Brandi Decker-Hunter was a key player on two of the Lady Dogs’ Final Four basketball teams – that Jaden would follow his parents’ paths wasn’t the automatic that many people might have thought.
“That wasn’t really part of the equation for me,” he insisted. “I was just trying to figure out what was the best fit for me as a player and a person.”
For a while, Alabama, with Kirby Smart as primary recruiter, was his leader in a process that included more than two dozen major-college offers. But Smart coming to Georgia did much to rectify that.
Said his mother: “Whatever was the best fit for him is where I wanted him to go. It wasn’t about me or his dad.”
But when Jaden did finally settle on the Bulldogs, his mother was “overwhelmed with joy.”
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “For personal reasons and even just for the fact that he’ll be at my alma mater. Some of the people that I shared the experience with will still be there. He’ll be able to see that and experience what I experienced. I’m very excited that he chose Georgia.”
A BLUE-CHIP RECRUIT
To be clear, Jaden is not at Georgia simply because his parents went to Georgia. He is a Bulldog because the Bulldogs believe he can help them on defense.
Hunter is expected to play outside linebacker at Georgia. A consensus 4-star prospect, he actually spent most of his career at Westlake playing defensive end and rushing the passer. But those who have watched and studied believe his skillset in college will translate to playing off the ball on the edge and in space.
“He did a great job for us of rushing the passer,” said Reid, who played college ball at Kentucky and UCF and just arrived at Westlake last year. “When we transitioned to our playoff run and got deeper into the the playoffs, we kind of split him up and he played more at outside ‘backer because he’s so smart and he helped get kids lined up and made a lot of plays and ran things down sideline to sideline. I anticipate they’re going to use him in a similar way at UGA. He’s not big enough to play with his hand in the dirt in the SEC. But he’ll probably be an outside guy covering space and doing some different things.”
The Lions (10-4) made a deep run in the playoffs. They won nine games in a row and reached the Class AAAAAA semifinals before falling to Roswell 28-0.
Hunter was a big part of that success. Though his primary contributions were on defense, they also used him occasionally on offense at tight end.
Hunter’s primary attributes are speed and strength. Reid said his star player is freakishly strong and physically mature. He excels in the weight room but also on the track. He ran both the 100- and 4×100-meter sprints as a junior, and he’s planning on adding the 400 to his repertoire as a senior this year since his season won’t be cut short by spring football practice.
“I’ve gained a lot of speed,” he said. “Last year was my first year running track. My coach has helped me make a lot of improvement since last year. I’m down to 11.5 (seconds) in the 100 from 11.9.”
That speed that can translate well on the football field. Hunter feels like he’s similar as a football player to his good friend Natrez Patrick. Patrick, a rising junior, arrived at Georgia as an outside linebacker before transitioning inside. He started nine of the 10 games in which he played and finished second on the team in tackles despite missing three games with injuries.
Hunter would not be surprised if a similar transition awaits him.
“They said it’s wherever I come in at and flourish,” Jaden said. “You know, be the best player wherever I can be.”
The obvious question is why he didn’t consider playing wide receiver, the position at which his father made such an incredible impact at Valdosta and Georgia.
“I played wide receiver from like the sixth grade to eighth grade,” Jaden said. “The summer before my ninth grade year, my coach said, ‘you should try linebacker.’ I was like, ‘all right.’ In the eighth grade, I wasn’t really fast. I had great speed for a linebacker but not really a receiver. So I did that and I kind of liked it. So I’ve stuck with it ever since.”
LIVING WITH DEATH
Because it happened so long ago and when Jaden was so young, his personal memories of his father remain childlike in nature. He never knew the strapping, tall receiver from Valdosta who established a single-season receiving record with 76 catches for the Bulldogs in 1993 and ended his career as the second-leading receiver of all time. He just knew him as Daddy, the man who would praise him or scold him, whichever was required.
Jaden recalls a little of both when asked to share some of the memories he had of his father.
“One time I had gotten a bad report from my teacher and he saw it,” Hunter said. “Next thing I know, my dad says, ‘so you’re acting up in class, are you?’ You know that thing dads do: He took me in my room and gave me a spanking. I was just crying like crazy. That’s one of the main memories I’ve got. That one will stick with me forever.”
But Jaden also remembers his dad waking him up very early some mornings to take him to work. Brice Hunter worked in construction and also worked as a personal trainer.
And Jaden will always recall the races they had. They weren’t the kind you might think.
“We used to race to eat our bowls of cereal,” Jaden says with a snicker. “He used to let me win every time. I thought I was the best cereal-eater there was.”
Unfortunately, Jaden also remembers getting the news from his mother that his father had passed.
“We were on the way to daycare, me and my brothers,” Jaden said during an interview at the school last week. “I was sitting in the backseat and she said it. We were sitting at a red light. I didn’t even know what to do or to say. When you’re young you don’t really know how to react to things. I don’t remember what she said, I just remember the moment of her telling us.”
The circumstances of Brice Hunter’s death are something neither Jaden nor anybody in his family cares to discuss. Though there has been years of healing, it’s the type of thing from which nobody ever heals.
Nevertheless, the details of the tragedy are always just a click away on the Internet. Hunter died on April 19, 2004, after being shot during an early-morning argument with a neighbor in Chicago. The argument reportedly started after Hunter went to confront a man who was complaining about loud music coming from their party. An altercation ensued just inside the other man’s apartment.
Hunter was shot in the forearm, stomach and chest. He died two days shy of his 30th birthday. Thomas Williams, the neighbor, was charged only with failing to register a weapon but nothing more.
Now that he’s pretty much a grown man, everybody says Jaden looks exactly like his father.
“He’s the spitting image,” Decker-Hunter says. “He really is. And it goes further than that. He talks like him, he acts like him, everything.”
“I hear that all the time,” Jaden says with a roll of his eyes.
Those traits extend to athletic ability as well. In fact, it wasn’t until the family moved to Atlanta in 2006 that it became evident to Jaden the athletic status that his father carried.
Before they left Chicago, Jaden had not been involved in organized team sports. But he signed up for football soon after coming to Georgia. And it was then they he first encountered his father’s football legacy.
“I hadn’t really played many sports before that,” Jaden said. “My first year my mom said I had to get number 88. I was like, ‘why 88?’ She said your dad wore it. So I wore it. I remember I got to the first game late. We were already warming up. People were saying, ‘look, he’s wearing 88 like his father. They were talking about how good he was. I didn’t really know much about it before that.”
As the years passed, Hunter would hear more and more about his father. Between YouTube and the UGA Vault, Jaden was able to call up videos of his father and witness some of his performances in games. Brice Hunter was a team captain in 1995 and a favorite target of quarterbacks Eric Zeier and Mike Bobo. He finished his career with 182 receptions. Tops in school history at the time, his record was overtaken by Terrence Edwards (204) seven years later.
It took a while longer before Jaden encountered the sports legacy that belongs to his mother. As he and his brothers were being raised, she was simply “Mom,” the iron-fisted ruler of the household and great provider for the family.
It was after moving to Atlanta in 2006 that Decker-Hunter embarked on a career in real estate and began to flourish in that business. Today she is owner and operator of Brandi Hunter and Associates, a real estate brokerage firm that specializes in luxury homes. She has provided greatly for her family.
“It wasn’t easy at all, but I was pretty focused on doing what I had to do to provide for them,” said Decker-Hunter, who is now engaged to be married to Ryan Lewis. “I tried to make their situation as normal as possible. It just took a lot of hard work and sacrifice.”
But Jaden and his younger brothers would soon learn that the athletic prowess in their family was not limited to their late father. They began to make regular trips to Athens and Stegeman Coliseum where they saw their mother honored alongside her former teammates at Lady Bulldogs’ basketball games. Coach Andy Landers made sure they knew what a valuable member their mother was of those teams, which would claim two SEC titles and make two runs at a national championship. For a long while, their 6-foot-tall mother’s name remained on the top 10 list of career blocked shots.
“The first time I went to Athens was for her,” Jaden says. “She went back for a game or something and they were honoring her. It was a long time ago. That was the first time I realized she was a big deal, in elementary school.”
But it is as a single mother raising three boys in Atlanta while carving out a professional career in which Decker-Hunter takes the most pride. Both Jaden’s younger brothers are standouts in basketball like their mom. Chase, 15, is already a college basketball prospect as a sophomore, with offers from Auburn and Miss. State. He’s 6-foot-3 and one of his recent dunks landed on ESPN’s Top Ten plays of the day. Dillon, 13, has grown about three inches in the last year and also shows a proficiency in that sport.
“All my boys are doing very well in their own respective pursuits,” Decker-Hunter said. “My other sons that are doing very well in basketball. Jaden’s about to graduate this year. I’m really proud of what’s about to become of our transition here and what we’ve been able to accomplish as a family.”
Jaden also has an older half-brother, Tyler Hunter, who is currently playing football in the CFL. A native of Valdosta, he started at safety at FSU and continues to pursue pro football.
So for the Hunters, this athletics thing comes quite naturally.
CONTRADICTION OF LEGACY
When it comes to his football career, Jaden has a ritual in which he writes “RIP 88” on each wrist band before every game. He also includes that on his Twitter bio.
All that represents a bit of a contradiction for Jaden. On the one hand he embraces the death of his father and seeks to honor him through ritual and testimony. On the other hand, he sometimes grows fatigued of the narrative and seeks to escape it.
He decided not to wear the number 88 in high school in part because he wanted to make his own identity. So he wore 40 when he played his first two seasons at Riverwood High, and then the number 9 at Westlake.
Now that he has pledged his services to the University of Georgia, where both his late father and his mother starred in athletics, and has been granted the request to wear his father’s number 88 for the Bulldogs, there really is nowhere for Hunter to hide from it. His only hope now is that his actions on the football field will soon overshadow his unavoidable legacy.
“It’s kind of a motivational thing for me now,” he said. “I’m just somebody who has to be motivated. Like, if I’m not motivated to do something, I’m not going to give it my best effort. That’s just how it is for me. I’ve just dealt with it I guess.”
It’s something that his mother will continue to monitor closely.
“It is a fine line because Jaden, of course, wants to create his own legacy separate from anything his father has done,” Decker-Hunter said. “The fact that he’s double legacy, there is always going to be a lot of attention given to that. But he ended up choosing Georgia not because of the fact that he is a double legacy. I always encouraged him throughout the recruiting process that I wanted it to be his decision and not to be too influenced by the fact that he had two parents that attended Georgia. Now we’re all just looking forward to seeing what the future holds. Like I said, Jaden will create his own legacy.”