Hunter Hillenmeyer: Born and Raised to Make a Difference
By Andrew Derr
At the age of two, his older brothers would dump him in the family laundry
basket and shoot him down the stairs for fun.
At the age of three, he taught himself to ride a two-wheel bicycle, no matter
how many times he fell off flying down the street.
When he was five, because his older brother played little league, he scoffed
at tee-ball and played with the big boys.
These are just a few of the things that describe Vanderbilt senior Hunter
Hillenmeyer's life as a child. At almost every turn, with four older brothers
there to pound him, there was a choice: shut up or grow up.
Fast-forward to his college years, and there is no denying it: the tenacious,
hard-hitting 6-4, 240 pound middle linebacker is all grown up.
Hillenmeyer anchors a 2002 Vanderbilt defense that is improving every week.
Through the first five games, Hillenmeyer leads the Southeastern Conference
with 49 solo tackles, and he ranks fifth nationally with 68 total tackles.
Throw in a 3.8 grade point average and an upcoming nomination for Academic
All-American, and the former Montgomery Bell Academy standout is certainly
living the "local boy makes good" life.
Even more remarkable is that due to the off-season coaching change, Hillenmeyer's
2002 success comes after not only learning a whole new system, but making
the switch from outside to middle linebacker, as well.
"He had to learn an awful lot of stuff, and Hunter has done an outstanding
job," new defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler said of his senior leader.
"He has gotten better and better each week."
"Hunter has carried himself very well, and he has represented our program
very well," Hillenmeyer's linebacker coach Warren Belin said. "He
never had to call signals before, never had to make the adjustments at the
line before. I consider our middle linebacker to be the quarterback on defense,
and Hunter has done everything we have asked him to do."
The role as senior leader and the switch to middle linebacker, while rough
at first, has been a good fit for Hillenmeyer.
"During the spring, I was really frustrated with myself," Hillenmeyer
admitted. "The coaches probably won't admit it, but I think they were
frustrated with me as well. It took a lot of adjusting, because you have to
react in different ways as middle linebacker.
"But I have learned to enjoy the more central role," the senior
added quickly. "I think it helps having a senior, a leader being in the
middle calling defense. I would almost rather have that burden put on me.
It keeps you focused, keeps you in the game all the time."
Coaches and Commodore fans alike have seen that focus pay dividends on the
field this season.
"Hunter's not a real vocal 'rah-rah' leader, but he's a very strong
competitor and he's done a great job of leading by example," Fowler said.
"The mental approach he takes is excellent," Belin added. "Hunter
never rests on his laurels, and he is constantly asking me what he can do
to get better."
EARLY DETERMINATION & INFLUENCES
Hillenmeyer's focus and determination stem from his youth, growing up in
a house full of older brothers.
"I was always competitive, with whatever stupid game we made up around
the house," Hillenmeyer recalled. "Having big brothers, they were
always stronger than me growing up, beating up on me when I was a kid. I didn't
Hillenmeyer's mother, Sally, was there for it all.
"He probably should have been born with a helmet, having all those brothers,"
Sally Hillenmeyer said recently. "They did all sorts of terrible things
to Hunter, threw him over the edge of the steps to see if they could catch
"One time, they were playing a war game or something, and Hunter was
trying to hide, so he shoved his arms towards this door to open it,"
Hillenmeyer's mother recalled. "Both his arms went through the glass
door, and his brothers just carried him down to me. There was this child of
mine, with blood all over the place. It's amazing Hunter can still write his
name. He had ten stitches in his hand, ten stitches in his wrist."
Of course, it was probably inevitable that fights would occur as the boys
"I actually broke my pinkie on my brother's head when we got in a fight
one time," Hillenmeyer said. "That was a good lesson to learn about
fighting, though. I was so mad at him, but then about ten minutes later, when
we realized how stupid the fight was, all I had was this big swollen knuckle.
That was about the end of my fighting days with my brother."
Dogged determination mixed with brains - that is Hunter Hillenmeyer, and
as his mother pointed out with a story from his toddler days, it was evident
"When he was three, Hunter would not get in the 'big boy' bed,"
Sally said, laughing as she recalled the story. "He would raise hell,
but we had set rules of where you slept.
"Eventually, he would quiet down, and my husband and I would look over
to his room," she continued. "Hunter's finger would be sticking
out from underneath the door. He would fall asleep on the floor, and he did
this for a whole year. He was telling us, 'you only think you are the boss
of me.' He was just a little stubborn bull."
When Hillenmeyer is asked about what drove him early in life to succeed,
it is clear his parents played a huge role.
"It's just the way my parents raised all of us. Do your best in everything
you do," the senior commented about his youth. "They always pushed
us in the right direction regarding academics, as well, and I think that has
always been important to them."
"Hunter has been very inspired by his father," Sally added. "There
have been several business crises that he watched his Dad endure and prevail
over, and even a physical one as well. Henry almost died once from a fall,
where he fractured his skull.
"So the traits of 'Just do it' really came from his Dad. The goals,
his attitude, his integrity - Hunter and his Dad are very close because of
these things. His heart comes from his Dad."
From MBA to VANDERBILT
Hillenmeyer's football and academic talents made him a star at Nashville's
Montgomery Bell Academy. Ex-MBA coach Ricky Bowers has fond memories of his
former two-way standout.
"Hunter was tall and he was very instinctive about the game. He had
soft hands and good feet. When he was young, my first inclination was to move
him to quarterback," Bowers admitted recently from his home.
But for Hillenmeyer, who ended up playing tight end and defensive end for
the Big Red Machine, there was always a preference.
"I have always had the defensive mindset," Hillenmeyer said. "It
was always defensive end that made my mouth water. Would you rather dish out
the punishment or take it? It's as simple as that."
As Hillenmeyer finished his career at MBA, Bowers knew he had something special.
"Hunter was unique. Off the field, he was always a strong student, always
disciplined," Hillenmeyer's former coach said. "On the field, he
had this great ability to close, he had just great closing speed. Hunter could
run running backs down from behind, and he did so often."
Hillenmeyer's experience at MBA and with Coach Bowers was indeed a positive
"I was blessed to have gone to such a great high school, and I think
Coach Bowers is a tremendous coach," he said. "I have kept in touch
with a lot of the guys over there. Most of them are teachers, too, and they
really care. The ability to balance sports and classes at MBA really prepared
When it came time to decide on college, the choice for this lifelong Commodore
fan was an easy one.
"Midway through my senior season, I knew if I was going to go to a scholarship
school, I would go to Vanderbilt," Hillenmeyer recalled. "It's a
great academic school, it was in the SEC, and I had always been a fan."
Of course, within the family, there was this small problem: once a Mom
always a Mom.
"As a mother, I was just nervous about SEC football," Sally Hillenmeyer
recalled of her youngest son's decision. "I thought it was a gigantic
hurdle. But Hunter didn't bat an eye. He didn't change his mind for one second.
He said, 'I want to play here, I want to go to Vanderbilt, and I want to play
Fortunately for Commodore fans, Hillenmeyer stuck to his guns and never looked
back. While the jump from successful high school player to productive college
athlete is a tough one, Hillenmeyer's coach at MBA has watched his former
player make the leap through hard work.
"I see him as a much more physical, intense player now," Bowers
said. "That is his maturity. His level of intensity doesn't wane. He
tries to win every single snap, every single play, and he has grown into that
Off the field, Hillenmeyer has achieved academic excellence, as well. After
scoring 1460 on his SATs, he entered Vanderbilt with some college credit already
gained via AP exams in high schools. Four years later, Hillenmeyer is set
to graduate with a double major in Economics and Human & Organizational
Development. His cumulative GPA is just two tenths of a point shy of the perfect
Admittedly, it has not been an easy chore for the senior linebacker.
"It's a tough job. We're out here playing with the best football players
in the country on Saturday, and then we're competing against the best students
Monday through Friday," he said. "It takes a lot of discipline and
even if you look at my grades, they are a lot better during the spring semester
than they are during the season."
Hillenmeyer credits the teachers and the University's support of athletics
for making academic success at Vanderbilt possible.
"When it gets to be game week, come Thursday and Friday, it's really
hard to concentrate," Hillenmeyer admitted. "Teachers here are willing
to work with you, however, because they know you will miss a lot of Friday
classes. If you show them you are willing to do what it takes to stay on it,
if you show them that you are really trying to learn and get the most out
of the class, they will reward you for that effort."
His coaches could not be prouder of the example Hillenmeyer sets off the
"It really takes someone special to do it," Coach Belin said. "We
are out there recruiting good kids who do very, very well academically, but
at the same time, we want that same football player who is going to help Vanderbilt
be a success on the field. Hunter has done a great job of representing what
our true student-athletes need to do to be successful here."
Coach Fowler agreed, and the idea of having an Academic All-American associated
with the Vanderbilt program is an exciting one.
"We're trying to stress excellence in both areas," Fowler said,
"and the more academic all-Americans we have, the more the beacon shines
on this program."
THE SOUTH CAROLINA GAME
Hillenmeyer's intensity and passion for the game was never more evident than
in the Commodore's game against South Carolina, September 28th of this season.
The middle linebacker posted a career-high 18 tackles and in a game that was
won and lost in the trenches playing hard-nosed football, Hillenmeyer squared
off against South Carolina's bruising 250-pound fullback Andrew Pinnock.
To say the least, it was a battle. On numerous occasions, Hillenmeyer and
Pinnock met pad-to-pad, helmet-to-helmet.
"We hit each other a few times, and it would be so hard, we'd just start
laughing. All we could do was pat each other on the back and go back to the
huddle," Hillenmeyer said. "He's a big, tough back and a great football
player and I think we rung each other's bell a few times."
When it was all said and done, Hillenmeyer took stock of the damage Pinnock
"I tell you what, the off week came at the right time: half our defense
was in that training room all last week trying to get healthy because of things
he'd done," Hillenmeyer said while shaking his head.
For one fan, a certain ex-coach, the effort did not go unnoticed.
"I was at the South Carolina game, and I have been watching Hunter play
for 7-8 years now," Bowers said. "That was his best performance
ever. He played a complete game, sideline-to-sideline. He never took a play
"He was fiercely competitive every time the ball was snapped, and that
is extremely hard to do, especially when you have a 250-pound guy running
it down your throat," Hillenmeyer's former coach added. "But Hunter
seemed to get stronger as the game went on. One time in the fourth quarter,
he just stood up Pinnock at the line and stopped him cold. It was just a great
It was an effort fans have come to expect from their senior leader, an effort
that seems to say, "come on, give me your best shot."
"Hunter will give 100% all the time, even if he is leaving a leg lying
on the bench," his mother said when asked about the South Carolina game.
"He would go back in with his eyeball on the field. I just know he'll
In an ironic way, Hillenmeyer's game against the Gamecocks was a microcosm
of his life as a Vanderbilt football player: work so hard, but end up losing
more games than you win.
"Nobody wants to lose, and I'm not going to say it hasn't been one of
the hardest things I've ever had to deal with," he admitted, when asked
about playing out a senior season that follows three consecutive losing seasons.
"It's so hard to sell out like that year after year, and week after week,
and not get the results, and not get what you are looking for."
Displaying a perspective rooted in the integrity and hard work that defines
him, though, Vanderbilt's tough middle linebacker believes the positives of
the Vanderbilt experience far out-weigh the negatives.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's been an amazing experience,"
Hillenmeyer said. "We've had some moments, and hopefully we will have
more coming down the stretch here. Making the friends I have made, getting
to play in front of my family each week, that can't be compared to anything."
The Future for Double-H: Playing on Sundays?
As Hillenmeyer sees the end of his Commodore career in the not-so-distant
future, there remains some unfinished business.
When he arrived on campus four years ago, like almost all players, he set
a few goals. When asked recently to name the one thing he would like to accomplish
before he ends his Commodore career, Hillenmeyer didn't hesitate.
"Beat UT, hands down," the senior said. "The two things I
told myself when I came to school was that we needed to go to a bowl game,
and absolutely above all else, I had to beat Tennessee at least once."
That chance will come November 23rd at The Coliseum here in Nashville. After
that game, his career at Vanderbilt will be over. Hillenmeyer can then turn
his attention to the next great challenge: a possible professional career
in the NFL.
His linebacker coach sees the potential is there.
"Hunter has the athletic ability and mental approach that is needed,"
Belin said. "When Hunter started being productive, I pulled him aside
and said 'look, it's just like us as college coaches when we go out and recruit
high school players. If you are productive, the college coaches will find
"I said to Hunter, 'if you go out and you are prepared, if you know
the defense inside and out, and you are productive, the pro scouts will find
While Hillenmeyer would love to further his career and play on Sundays, he
knows he has several options.
"I'll wait to see what happens in the draft or as a free agent, see
if anything happens there," he said. "If it doesn't, I think the
hard work I have put in during college, that keeps a lot of doors open. That
is the value of a Vanderbilt education."
There is one other option, one he has not probably thought of in a long time,
and one about which his mother can not help but think. According to Sally
Hillenmeyer, it began with a gift years ago to the family.
"Someone gave us a piano, so I took Hunter when he was little for piano
lessons," his mother recalled. "It wasn't more than three weeks
before his teacher called me and said, 'You know, Sally, I think we need to
get this one a ball.' He just wasn't interested."
After all these years, and with the choices that lie ahead for her son, Mama
H hasn't forgotten.
"We are so proud of him, and I have told Hunter since he was five or
six years old that he was meant to do great things. I used to say to him,
'You can use all these gifts and do something good with them, or you can do
nothing with them'", Sally said.
"He is one of the lucky ones in that he has a lot of choices. He has
both worlds going, and we're going to support him whatever he decides,"
she added. "Of course, as a Mother, I wouldn't be upset if he wanted
to give those piano lessons just one more try."