Hal Hunter enjoys San Diego homecoming
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Hal Hunter enjoys San Diego homecoming

Navy linebacker from Cathedral Catholic faces San Diego State

Photo: Hal Hunter

Everyone associated with college football knows San Diego is a gold mine for recruiters, and the level of talent ranges from four-star prospects to a plethora of tweeners and overachievers that prove scouts wrong.

So it's common for a San Diego high school alum to return home to face San Diego State, play in the Poinsettia or Holiday bowl games or to face the Chargers at the NFL level .

But when an athlete from one of the military academies returns to San Diego, their return should be measured by more than playing time or whether they hold star status.

Navy's Hal Hunter is a junior reserve outside linebacker from Cathedral Catholic enjoying a homecoming against the Aztecs when the Midshipmen (9-3) face San Diego State (8-4) in the San Diego Country Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23 at Qualcomm Stadium.

Hunter hasn't yet cracked Navy's depth chart, but Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo wasn't searching for words or cursory praise to offer a sportswriter.

"The Naval Academy is about producing leaders for our country, and Hal is one of the best leaders on our team," Niumatalolo said. "People gravitate to Hal. He's a reserve linebacker and on our scout team, but he's still a big leader that guys on the team respect. He comes to practice every day with a great attitude. I'm glad he's on our team. His father taught him well."

Hunter's father is Hal Hunter Sr., who is an offensive line coach for the Chargers. The last time Navy played in the Poinsettia Bowl, a 2007 loss to Utah, Hal Jr. attended the game with his father.

"Navy wasn't recruiting me yet when we went to the game, so it kind of came out of left field when I heard from them," Hunter said. "The next thing I knew I was making a recruiting trip and they were presenting me with some great opportunities. The guys that I was on the recruiting trip with were great and the coaching staff is great. The trip was awesome.

"In San Diego, there also was so much influence from people I knew that had been to the academy or knew someone that had been to the academy. I heard so many good things, I almost couldn't go anywhere else."

Hunter also was drawn to Navy by John Feinstein's book "A Civil War" that came out after Feinstein followed Army and Navy with complete access to both teams in the 1995 season.

Hunter said he remembered seeing his father with the book at home when it was first published. He was 6-years-old at the time, but he eventually read it. That Navy team featured such prominent players from San Diego's Morse High as Gervy Alota, John Moe and LaBron Butts.

Alota was an under-sized safety at Morse with no other scholarship offers, but he developed into a starter and team captain at Navy. He said after his career that attending Navy gave him time and opportunities to develop that another college couldn't afforded to provide for him.

Hunter, a 6-foot-1, 215-pounder, is one of three San Diegans on Navy's roster. Dylan Porlas (5-10, 175) is a sophomore safety also from Cathedral Catholic and Brynmor Hughes is a freshman kicker from St. Augustine.

When Hunter arrived as a freshman, he shattered his thumb the following spring and has been trying to climb the depth chart ever since then.

"Things haven't gone the way I wanted because of injuries," Hunter said. "But I'm part of the team and part of the brotherhood that is this football team. Everyday is a gift to be able to go out there, put on the pads and run around and be part of the football team. There are so many guys that can't play anymore because of injuries or their career is over. I still have the opportunity."

The starter at Hunter's position, Jerry Hauburger, is a senior, but Hunter would still have to vault a junior and sophomore to earn a starting role.

But if he's not a starter, there remains a backup role and special teams. Hunter says when you measure your college experience at a place like the Naval Academy, there's more to add up than playing time.

"You just have to keep working and keep things in perspective," he said. "It will be wide open in the spring. I'm glad I'm here and made the decision to come here. Some days it's hard -- I'm going 100 mph from 6:30 in the morning until 10 at night. Time management is important, because school and football can be overwhelming. But I'd rather be here than anywhere else."

The dedication of players such as Hunter is also a reason why SDSU head coach Brady Hoke likes to play the military academies. At SDSU, the Aztecs face Air Force every year as Mountain West Conference rivals.

But since Hoke arrived at SDSU, he's scheduled a series with Army that starts next year at West Point. And when he was at Ball State, he played a two-game series with Navy. He also scheduled a series with Army while at Ball State, but he was gone to SDSU by the time the games were played.

"I have the utmost respect for those kids and their dedication for what they're trying to do for our country," Hoke said. "We're a military town, and that's one of the great things about living in San Diego. It's an important connection to have and it's an opportunity for us to play them. They're a disciplined and focused football team. They're a tough-minded football team, and that's what we aspire to be.
Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and Chargers.com. He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer, MLB.com, Rivals.com and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."