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Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker speaks during NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Thursday, July 21, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

For several years now, Red Bank Baptist Church has hosted one of the best Christian speaking events for young people anywhere.

Billed as a "Night of Champions," it's brought former Tennessee football coach and athletic director Phil Fulmer to town, as well as former Big Orange quarterback Josh Dobbs and former Auburn and Alabama QBs Patrick Nix and Greg McElroy, respectively, who actually shared the same stage on the same night without a discouraging word aimed at each other.

But deciding to shake up the formula this past weekend, Red Bank Baptist pastor Dr. Sam Greer held a variation of the event during the church's 10:45 service on Sunday morning, bringing in current UT quarterback Hendon Hooker to speak to a capacity crowd of 997.

"We've always staged a Night of Champions on a Friday night," said Greer on Tuesday afternoon. "But we decided to move it Sunday morning this year. It looked like an Easter service. Every single seat was filled."

What they heard was a heartfelt talk from Hooker, who brought along his parents, Alan and Wendy, his big sister Nile, who helps with his Name, Image and Likeness opportunities, and his younger brother Alston, who's a quarterback at North Carolina A&T.

"I knew Hendon was a Christian," said Jackson Burns, the former McCallie School football and track star who recently transferred from Tennessee Tech to Middle Tennessee in order to run track for the Blue Raiders.

"But what impressed me most is how he's kept his faith in Jesus despite all the distractions around him. He's a very humble, Christian guy."

Hooker spent most of last football season humbling opposing Southeastern Conference defenses after transferring to UT from Virginia Tech. He finished the season with a preposterous 31 touchdown passes, three interceptions _ THREE!!!! _ and 2,945 total passing yards while hitting 68.2 percent of this throws.

The Vols scored so much all season — consider the 45 points they rang up on Kentucky in less than 14 total minutes of possession time — that Hooker told the SEC Network during last week's Media Days in Atlanta that the defense would occasionally tell him, "Hey, slow down, Hen."

Hooker said he'd respond, "I'm like, 'I'm sorry, guys, but we had to (score)."

And no one would expect that offense to score any less this coming season than it did in Josh Heupel's first season on the job, when the Vols were lighting up the scoreboard to the tune of over 38 points a game.

But his football stories were not what most impressed Greer during Hooker's time at Red Bank Baptist.

"Hendon got COVID during the peak of COVID," said Greer. "And while they were monitoring him during that, they found something irregular with his heart. He recalled lying in his hospital bed and potentially facing open-heart surgery. Obviously, he was scared to death.

"Then his mother told him that if you'll just have faith as small as a mustard seed in Christ, you can overcome great problems. Hendon wound up being fine. He gave a very strong testimony about how Jesus has changed his life."

Indeed, in Matthew 17:20, Jesus said, "If you have faith as a small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, move from here to there and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."

Here's possible: Hendon, Alston and younger cousin Landon have written a children's book together called "The ABCs of Scripture for Athletes." The book uses a sports-themed alphabet to help children learn scripture. Hendon has said of the endeavor that he wants the book to have a "positive influence on the lives of kids in his community."

Said Greer: "You can tell the three most important things in his life are, in order, his faith, his family and football."

In case anyone is interested, Greer is not a Tennessee football fan.

"I grew up in Mississippi," he said. "I went to Southern Miss, just like my father did. I'll probably never become a Tennessee fan."

Yet when it comes to one particular Volunteer, he's already making an exception.

"I'll be a Hendon Hooker fan," he said, "from now on."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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