He started with baseball but kept talking of football. “He was always asking us if he could sign up for a football league. His dad was reluctant for fear it would interfere with his baseball skills, but one week-end in his fourth grade year, while Tom was out of town,” Brenda admits with a sly smile, “I signed him up for a local league.” The rest, as they say, is history.
And being the good son he obviously is, Hunter has thanked his mom many times over she says. “He never fails to say thanks in Mother’s Day cards and birthday cards.”
Thanks for what? Well, most recently for the opportunity which this year led him to a Most Valuable Player trophy in the 2006 Gator Bowl, which looms large in the Cantwells’ dining room. But let’s not get ahead of the game plan.
The Cantwells arrived in Paducah Hunter’s sophomore year of high school, and that fall he became the starting quarterback for the Tilghman Tornadoes. Although Hunter had seen himself as a quarterback all his young life, others were not as convinced.
In his earliest football days in the Atlanta area, University of Louisville quarterback Hunter Cantwell’s grade school coaches used him at center and nose guard.
He changed teams, but the next coach put him at center, too—until one day the coach got angry, threw down his clipboard and asked in frustration: “Does any- body think they can quarterback this football team?”
According to Hunter’s father, Tom, “Hunter shot up his hand.” He’s been a quarterback ever since.
But after a highly successful career at Paducah Tilghman, the collegiate offers did not come as many thought they would. Tilghman Coach Perry Thomas was dumbfounded by some of the schools’ position on Hunter.
“They all loved him, but nobody wanted to offer,” he said. “At first, I was surprised and actually hurt for him because he was so good. Then I was downright mad because there were nearby schools that needed a quarterback.”
The excuses ranged far and wide, Thomas said. Some thought he couldn’t step in right away and start. Others loved his accuracy but thought his release was too slow. And in the end, no scholarship offer arrived in his mailbox.
“Quite honestly, we prayed a lot about it,” Brenda Cantwell says. “We hoped that God would open the right door.” That door led onto the football field of the University of Louisville.
Ironically, it was the last place on Hunter Cantwell’s list. “There was a dynasty in place there with the Brohm brothers,” Tom Cantwell explains. Brian Brohm was to be the starting quarterback. His two brothers are part of the coaching staff. “I felt that there was a network there that might be difficult to infiltrate,” Hunter says. But Louisville invited him to be a preferred walk-on, so the day after graduation from PTHS, Hunter began summer practice with one of the best quarterback coaches in the country, Bobby Petrino. The amazing thing was, Hunter loved the coaches and staff and
found that Brian Brohm was a gracious teammate. “We became friends almost immediately,” says Hunter. And the budding back- up flourished under the instruction and support of the team’s lead- ership. “The coaches do a really good job of making sure you’re ready to step into that spot if the time comes,” Hunter comments. “They are so reliable at making the calls and planning the plays that I just had to execute them.”
That preparedness became vital to both Hunter and the U of L football team when late in the 2005 season, Brohm injured his knee and all eyes were on Paducah Tilghman’s Hunter Cantwell. The question became, was he up to the task?
Two people answered that question with conviction. In a Paducah Sun interview, Coach Perry Thomas said, “I’m excited for him, but I’m not nervous because I know he is well-prepared. He is a tough kid that leads with his presence.” Thomas spoke from experience having counted on Hunter’s innate ability for three years and 70 touchdowns.
“I think we have a capable backup in Hunter Cantwell,” Coach Petrino said. “He’s shown that he can do it, he’s just inexperienced at this point. More importantly, the players have confidence in him.”
Adding to that show of support was, of course, Hunter’s dad, Tom. “I don’t know if he pays attention to all the magnitude of the attention he’s going to get, but he loves the game and he believes in himself. He’s not arrogant, but he is very confident.”
Hunter completed 16 of 25 passes for 271 yards in the game against the UConn Huskies. A crowd of more than 40,000 watched as the 16th ranked Cardinals, under the leadership of Hunter Cantwell, rolled to a 30-20 win over the Big East team, leaving UConn one game short of bowl eligibility and sending the red birds to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida.
“To say I wasn’t a little nervous would be lying,” Hunter com- ments. “I was looking forward to the game. Obviously, it’s been something I’ve been working towards my whole life. So it was good to get in there and get my feet wet. Get out there and then get to the Gator Bowl.”
Again more questions about his ability. In an ESPN report, a national sports writer asked the question everyone had on their minds. Can a red-shirt freshman walk-on backup quarterback survive (much less thrive) against the No. 1 total defense in America?
The proof was in the playing. Off to the Gator Bowl Hunter went, along with an estimated 20,000 Louisville fans as well as his mother, who was undergoing chemotherapy following surgery for breast cancer.
Brenda Cantwell was diagnosed with cancer the summer before Hunter began pre-season workouts with the team. So not only did this courageous young man face the uncertainty of his first year of collegiate football, he also faced a constant concern for his mother’s health. But Hunter’s quick entry on the post-season scene gave both Hunter and his family reason to celebrate and to turn their attentions away from the devastating disease and toward an exciting diversion—the 2006 Gator Bowl.
And exciting it was. Courier-Journal sports editor Rick Bozich opened his morning-after newspaper story with the following comment: “People are going to talk about this Gator Bowl. Talk this morning. Talk tomorrow morning. Talk next season. Talk years from now . . . talk about the way U of L quarterback Hunter Cantwell ignored the persistent taste of blood in his mouth and the smell of defensive players in his grill to pass for more touchdowns (three) than any quarterback had thrown against Tech all season.”
Although Hunter Cantwell, and his teammates, didn’t take home a win from the 2006 Gator Bowl, he did bring back some- thing very special. First, there was the game’s MVP honor for the University of Louisville. But perhaps more importantly, Hunter left the field that day with the knowledge that despite years of being told that he wasn’t the man for the job, on this day, he proved to the world that he was, indeed, the quarterback he’d always dreamed of being.