Former ELHS star Jeep Hunter now coaching at University of South Carolina
By Tyson C. Leonhardt
Twenty-five years after playing his last high-school football game, Johnson “Jeep” Hunter, a 1985 graduate of East Lincoln High School, will be recognized for his contribution to the sport at this year’s induction into the Lincoln County Sports Hall of Fame.
Hunter, 42, currently serves as a tight ends coach and an assistant special teams coordinator for the University of South Carolina’s football program. He is this year’s only inductee from East Lincoln. Hunter will join the six other inductees at 6 p.m. Saturday, June 26 for the ceremonies, which will take place at the James W. Warren Citizen Center in Lincolnton.
Hunter, along with his entire family, grew up in the Denver community, and has fond memories of playing football for Optimist leagues and East Lincoln Middle School before becoming a standout star for the ELHS Mustangs.
“As a player, I loved the competition; there wasn’t a day that went by I didn’t want to play football,” he reflected. He recalled countless days of family fun where family games of roughhousing transformed into practice hitting on the football field.
The player-turned-coach said during his days as a Mustang he played a number of positions including quarterback, running back and defensive back. Hunter, who donned number 11 for ELHS, played on the varsity team for three years where he quickly gained momentum and recognition.
As a student, Hunter lived off North Little Egypt Road, an optimal address for a football player as it allowed him to be close to the football stadium.
Although Hunter said the team never trumped the competition in conference tournaments, he explained they were a consistent team that tended to place second or third.
“We were a six-seven-eight win team,” he said.
Football, however, was not the only sport Hunter was involved in during high school. He also played on the varsity basketball, baseball and track teams. Hunter said his considerable involvement in high-school athletics built a strong foundation of brotherhood, taught him the powerful nature of team unity and instilled a competitive drive inside of him to always strive for the best.
Hunter described his love for football as a “burning desire” that began during his childhood days of playing in youth football leagues. He expressed gratitude for his coaches, who he said deserve all the credit for pushing him to put in long hours on the practice field.
After graduating from ELHS, Hunter attended Catawba College in Salisbury where he played NAIA Division II football before suffering a debilitating knee injury that forced him to end his playing career.
“I had a bad knee injury, that actually first started troubling me in high school. Back then medicine wasn’t as modern as it is today, and it just never got back to 100 percent.”
He explained that although he tried to play through the pain, in the end the injury was too great.
Hunter graduated from Catawba College in 1990 with degrees in business administration and physical education. He also has compiled 66 additional credit of graduate-level courses at North Carolina A&T State University and Clemson University. He plans to eventually complete his graduate education and earn a master’s degree in student affairs and business administration.
The tight-ends coach lives in Columbia with his wife, Sue, and two children, 5-year-old Sophia, and 3-year-old Joshua. He spends as much time as possible with his family, and said he is lucky to have such a supportive wife, as he acknowledged being a coach’s wife is not an easy job.
Hunter said he is humbled he will be inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame, and expressed excitement to return to his home county and see the faces of past teammates and opponents at the event. He explained that fellow inductee Mike Powell, a former long-time sports reporter for the Lincoln Times-News, actually covered the story when he signed to play college ball many years ago.
“It’s really came full circle,” he said.
“It’s a blessing to be recognized by my peers and elders and inducted into such a unique group,” he continued.
Hunter wanted to advise young players aspiring to play college ball to persevere through difficult times and always strive for improvement in all aspects of life.
“It takes a tremendous amount of hard work both on and off the field. Off the field, you have to be of good character, and on the field you’ve got to challenge yourself.”
Hunter’s coaching resume is quite extensive; he has held positions at numerous institutions, all of which he said have brought greater clarity to his understanding of the game and have refined his coaching skills.
Hunter first got his start in coaching while still a student at Catawba. After his knee injury forced him to retire as a player he continued to remain a part of the team as a student assistant coach from 1987 to 1990.
“Once I hurt my knee, my desire for football was fueled into my coaching,” Hunter said.
In 1991 he moved back home to Denver to take an assistant head coaching position at Bandys High School. During his three-year stay at the school Hunter gained extensive experience in coordinating defense and special teams.
After leaving Bandys in 1993, Hunter spent two years at North Carolina A&T State University, where he enjoyed an assistant coaching position that focused on working with wide receivers and outside linebackers.
Hunter then found himself as a graduate assistant at South Carolina’s Clemson University for two years before spending one year as the assistant athletic director for football management. While at Clemson, Hunter served under the leadership of Head Coach Tommy West, a prominent NCAA football coach, and focused on coaching defense.
After his brief stint at Clemson, Hunter spent the 2000 season at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coaching defensive-backs before spending the following summer in a NFL minority internship with the St. Louis Rams.
Hunter spent a few seasons at Eastern Kentucky University following the completion of his internship where he coached the secondary. In his first season there he helped the EKU Colonels’ defense rank in the NCAA Division I-AA top ten.
He then rejoined Tommy West’s coaching team in 2003 when West became head football coach for the University of Memphis. While at Memphis, Hunter worked with running backs, most notably DeAngelo Williams, who was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in 2006 after an All-American 2005 season at Memphis.
Williams isn’t the only future-NFL player that Hunter coached, however. After three seasons at Memphis, he joined the coaching team at Georgia Tech where he spent time mentoring Michael Matthews. Matthews signed with the New York Giants in 2007, and earned a ring when the Giants came out on top at the 2007 Super Bowl.
Now coaching tight ends at USC, Hunter has already compiled a lengthy coaching history, which includes a total of eight bowl games at four different schools. In addition to Matthews and Williams, Hunter has coached four other athletes who became NFL pros, including Yeremiah Bell, safety for the Miami Dolphins.
As for the future, Hunter says he hopes to get back to coaching defense, and sees himself one day as head coach for a reputable football program at a well-known school.
“My ideal job would be head coach at a SEC or ACC school; it’s realistic now that society is more accepting of minority coaches.”
Hunter, the son of Johnson and Mary Hunter, said he wants to eventually plant his feet in the ground, but trusts that his future is safe in the hands of God.
The former Mustang said in the future he hopes to return to Denver and help give back to ELHS and the community that helped shape him into the man he is today.