This holiday season, Hunter Hickok simultaneously reunited with one family while getting ready to join another.
The former Juneau-Douglas High School football standout signed a national letter of intent to play at University of Texas Permian Basin next season. The Dec. 19 signing, which took place in his Juneau home on the first day of the early signing period for the 2019-2020 enrollment year, completes three-year effort to play top-end college football.
The UTPB Falcons play in the Lone Star Conference, the most competitive NCAA Division II conference in the country, according to Hickok.
“I think anyone that plays football knows that Texas football is something different, or at least that’s what you hear,” Hickok, 20, said. “And then going there and seeing that, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is the real deal.’ We get 15,000 fans at our home games and we only have 5,000 students on campus. That just shows how much they love football there.”
— UTPB Falcon Football (@UTPBFootball) December 19, 2018
Hickok played on both sides of the ball at JDHS, filling in at center, tackle, linebacker and tight end over the course of his four seasons from 2012-2015. He earned Southeast Conference Defensive Player Of The Year honors as a junior and senior.
“He had all those qualities: good student, good athlete, good human being,” former JDHS coach Kevin Hamrick said. “He wasn’t afraid to do the work.”
After high school, he followed another former Crimson Bear, quarterback Phillip Fenumiai, to Western Oregon University. As a redshirt freshman, Hickok recalls feeling an unmistakable urge to play football somewhere other than Monmouth, Oregon.
“I don’t really know how to explain it,” Hickok said. “It was just a gut feeling that it wasn’t really the place.”
Hickok transfered from Western Oregon to Orange Coast College, a small Southern California school in the California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA), for his sophomore year.
In order to get more playing time, Hickok switched from tight end, a player on the outside of the offensive line, to center, the player who snaps the ball in the middle of the offensive line.
“I went in there as the backup center and ended up winning the job,” Hickok said. “And then just in the offseason, I knew, ‘OK, I’m an offensive lineman, I can’t be a college offensive lineman at 250 pounds,’ so I had to gain 50 more pounds or so. Just a lot of eating, a lot of working out.”
Hickok harnessed his social media accounts to get his name out to prospective college programs. Hickok regularly messaged coaches on Twitter, where he posted his highlight clips from hudl.com, an online platform where athletes upload game footage.
“Getting on Twitter and tweeting out your film, tweeting out your accolades and all kinds of stuff, following coaches and coaches follow you back and messaging each other,” Hickok said. “That’s the biggest place that I noticed that recruiting goes on.”
Hickok said he started receiving offers from Division I and II schools shortly after his second year at OCC, including one from UTPB in Odessa, Texas.
Hickok traveled to the west Texas school in December and met with Falcons offensive line coach, Boone Feldt. The two hit off right away, both said, spending over an hour and a half talking football.
“Our personalities are very similar as far as where we want to be,” Feldt said by cellphone Thursday from Odessa. “I want to be the best offensive line coach in the country, and he wants to be one of the best offensive lineman in the country. When a player and coach can relate on those terms, I think we can both see in each other where we can take each other.”
Hickok’s backstory — an Alaska kid that’s undergone several position changes in order to get playing opportunities — caught Feldt’s attention.
“He’s committed to himself that he wants to play,” Feldt said. “And then when you turn on his tape, I see a great football player. Not necessarily just at his position (center), but just a great football player. He plays with intensity and a lot of energy.”
The football program there is in its infancy, having just completed its third season, and is still working out the kinks. The Falcons finished at or near the bottom of the Lone Star Conference standings each year, but could be on the cusp of a turnaround.
“They got a young stud quarterback, they signed the No. 1 junior college offensive tackle,” Hickok said. “They’re bringing in some guys, so we’re pretty excited.”
Hickok will begin attending classes and offseason workouts at UTPB this spring. The 2019 season begins around September.
• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Empire Sports on Twitter at @akempiresports.