Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets defensive lineman Jabari Hunt (32) gets double coverage by Alcorn State Braves wide receiver Jalen Walker (left) and Alcorn State Braves offensive lineman Toto'a Leilua (right) in the first half of the Georgia Tech season opener against the Alcorn State Braves in Bobby Dodd Stadium on Thursday, September 3, 2015. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Faith, family part of Jabari Hunt’s comeback

Everything you need to know about Jabari Hunt’s road back to Georgia Tech’s defensive line can be summed up in the message on his Facebook page: “Hold on to God and everything will be alright.”

When he was declared academically ineligible last year, the 21-year-old senior from Hillgrove High relied heavily on his faith and family to get through the most disappointing and frustrating time in his life.

Hunt places the blame on himself for the lack of focus that led to the loss of his scholarship at his dream school. Having played since he was 5 years old, football was his life.

“We sent him Bible verses and tried to stay in contact with him to make sure he got through this period,” said Paul Hunt, his grandfather, who lives in Panama City, Fla. “We were trying to get him to stay focused and to remember who is in charge of your life.”

The elder Hunt told his grandson that even though he had people in his life who supported him, “once you get to a certain age, you have to help yourself.”

That’s a message that Jabari Hunt, who now goes by his mother’s maiden name, has taken to heart. He clawed his way and rejoined his team by doubling up on study time, working with a tutor and staying close to his coaches, teammates and family.

“It was mandatory for me to come here to study each day and just to get caught up on my work and to do more than what I had been doing,” he said. “Really more than anything, it taught me to be a man because not only was I dealing with school, I was dealing with a lot of personal issues as well.”

He expects to be drafted into the NFL, but won’t be devastated if that doesn’t happen. “I kind of anticipate being drafted, if it’s in God’s will. If it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

Losing his focus, and ultimately his scholarship, prepared him for a bigger battle. “I had to put away a lot of childish stuff that I was doing and get focused. I was not being a full student, not being a full-time student-athlete.”

Mike Pelton, Tech’s defensive line coach, can see the changes in Hunt. When everything you have is taken away, it solidifies your resolve.

“He has a purpose,” Pelton said. “You can tell that he wants to make right what happened to him last year. He’s trying to develop a work ethic. By no means is he where he wants to be but every day he is trying.”

After practice last week, Hunt’s excitement about Tech’s season opener (a 69-6 victory against Alcorn State on Thursday) was palpable. He’s anxious to prove himself on the field this season.

“I’m definitely hungry. You see your teammates go to the Orange Bowl and you see them going 11-3 and you see that you had to sit out for a year and a half,” he said. “I love football. That’s what I came here for. That’s what really hurt me the most.”

At his lowest point, he considered leaving Tech to play for a smaller school, said Paul Hunt, who helped raised him.

“He went to all of his coaches and apologized. He was more embarrassed than anything because they were so high on him. First when he told me about it, he said, ‘Dad, I’m just going to leave school.’ I said, ‘Jabari, that’s saying, I’m defeated and you don’t want to have that attitude. That’s saying Satan has won. You lost the battle, but it’s not over.’ ”

After a while, Jabari Hunt said, “I was really OK. I didn’t feel like I had to go in the corner or just ball up and cry. I said, ‘You’re a man, you made mistakes, you move on.’ I wasn’t really that far behind academically. I just needed a certain grade in a certain class.”

He read Bible verses daily and made up his mind to fight his way back. Proverbs 3:5 and I Corinthians 13:11 were two of his favorites. I Corinthians 13:11 reads: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

“I knew what the scriptures meant. I kept reading, and I started seeing some blessings,” he said.

Tech fans and friends played a huge role in encouraging Hunt to regain his footing. He’s been overwhelmed and humbled by the hundreds of encouraging messages he’s received from the Tech faithful.

Steve Fitzgerald has known Hunt since he was in eighth grade. He lives next door to Calvin and Paula Days, Hunt’s aunt and uncle who helped raise him, and remembers seeing Jabari and his cousin Synjyn Days, the former Yellow Jackets B-back, doing early-morning rope drills with Calvin Days in the family’s backyard.

“I’ve let him know how well he has handled (the suspension). He could have cut and run to a smaller conference. But he stayed, without the scholarship,” Fitzgerald said. “He really took responsibility for it and made it right. The measure of a man is not in the falling down but in the getting up.”

When Hunt lost his scholarship, Days was very critical publicly of his nephew’s actions, further straining their relationship.

Days said Saturday that he has no public comment on the matter.

Hunt expects to graduate in December with a degree in science, technology and culture. Given his own journey, he’d like to become a life coach so he can encourage others who fall down to get back up.

“We are just still on Cloud 9,” Paul Hunt said. “Even if he doesn’t play another day of football, it’s just great to see where he’d come from.”

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