By JERAMY STOVER, Staff Reporter
The worst nightmare for an athlete is knowing his or her competitive playing days are coming to an end. Realizing team bus trips, conference championships, and the dire need to win every game is over are the worst thoughts for an athlete.
Then the inevitable thought hits: how do I stay close to the game I love?
During Justin Hunter’s senior year at Gibraltar Carlson High School in 2011, he gave up the sport he loved, soccer, for an opportunity only a few receive: a chance to play college football. The decision, while tough, was a double-edged sword. While Hunter was excited about playing football at the next level, he deeply missed the game he fell in love with growing up.
It didn’t take long to find the perfect solution: coaching.
Now an assistant coach for the University of Michigan-Dearborn men’s soccer team, he has grown to love the role that helps keep him in touch with the game he grew up playing.
It was a family friend who helped Hunter find another way to love the game: Mike Hatfield, who has coached at many local schools and club teams, including UM-Dearborn.
“During my senior year when I quit soccer to focus on football, he could see that I really missed soccer,” Hunter said. “I was kind of complaining about it a lot so he said, ‘Why not come be my assistant coach at Gabriel Richard?’ So I did that and I had a blast. It was almost as good as playing.”
Hatfield noticed Hunter had been feeling something he was very familiar with.
“He just talked about choosing football over soccer and how he missed it, I know the feeling all too well,” Hatfield said. “So I thought, he is professional, he pays attention to detail and is very driven, so let’s give him a chance.”
Hunter is entering his second season coaching soccer. A two-sport athlete in high school, he was the kicker on Carlson’s team and even attended a University of Michigan football camp. It was an invitation-only camp that gave then-head coach Rich Rodriguez a chance to check out local talent to find a kicker for the program. Many of the top kickers in the state of Michigan attended the camp, including Notre Dame’s Kyle Brindza.
“They just invited a bunch of local recruits and said, ‘Hey let’s see what you got,'” Hunter recalled. “And I think for most of us, it was just a camp thing. There were only like five or six (kickers) they were really looking at but they invited like 50 of us to check it out, so it was pretty cool.”
Hunter landed at Albion College after graduating high school. He was a kicker on the Briton football team and was dealing with a tough decision on whether or not to continue playing.
“I realized I liked football; I didn’t love it,” Hunter said. “I mean we won — we won our conference and everything — so it wasn’t a lack of production or anything. Football just wasn’t my thing.”
He would return home after just one year at Albion. Hunter enrolled at Henry Ford Community College, still trying to decide what his major would be. He had another problem that was he was trying to resolve: the issue of not playing or coaching a sport.
“When I came back, I wasn’t playing any sports, I wasn’t coaching any sports. I just felt a little lost for probably six or seven months,” Hunter said. “Then a job came up and again, Mike Hatfield helped me out. One of his buddies needed a JV coach at a high school he was coaching at and he suggested me. I haven’t really looked back since. It’s been a blast.”
Hatfield has been a key figure in Hunter’s coaching career. He has helped Hunter get each coaching job Hunter has had, which includes stops at Allen Park High School, Gabriel Richard High School, UM-Dearborn, and Michigan Rush soccer club. Hatfield knows Hunter very well and believes the connection he makes with players is one thing that makes him a good coach.
“He connects with his players. That’s something that coaches tend to forget connecting with your players,” Hatfield said. “If the connection is good the work atmosphere is better, which makes better development.”
Hatfield was the head coach at UM-Dearborn until he resigned at the end of the 2013 season. When Matt Quirk took over as coach of the Wolverines, he kept Hunter as part of his staff.
The decision has paid off well. The Wolverines players like having Hunter as their coach. He was a big help with recruiting, bringing in freshman Brody Hall to the program. Hall spoke of Hunter’s knowledge and how his kind spirit sold him on coming to UM-Dearborn.
“He was very, very friendly and relatable. I made my decision to come to UM-D after he personally gave me a tour of campus,” Hall said. “He’s a very knowledgeable coach and I definitely respect his opinions. Overall he does a really good job.”
With coaching at the high school and college level, he has experienced the good and bad of both levels. He prefers the college level because it’s more of a challenge.
“In college, (coaches) are doing this for a career. It’s so much more fun because when you win it’s so much more rewarding,” Hunter said.
Hunter continues to play soccer in recreational leagues and hopes to continue playing for a while. He wants to be like Oliver Kahn and Edwin van dar Sar and still playing at a high level in his 40s.
“It’s eventually something I want, to be…40-something years old and people come to play against me and be like, damn that guy can still play,” Hunter said.