Throughout the history of the San Diego Chargers, the franchise has been blessed with excellent talent at the tight end position. Players like hall-of-famer Kellen Winslow, Pete Holohan, Eric Sievers, Alfred Pupunu, Duane Young, Freddie Jones and future hall-of-famer Antonio Gates have each made key contributions to the success of the team.
As Gates’ fabulous career is coming to a close, it appears the team has landed another talented tight end in Hunter Henry. Selected in the second round of the NFL draft last April, Henry has impressed everyone with his receiving skills and blocking ability along the offensive line. A consensus first team All-American for the Arkansas Razorbacks, Henry was the John Mackey Award winner as the nation’s top tight end in 2015.
MP reporter Art Garcia Jr. sat down with Henry to ask him a few questions as he prepared to face the Atlanta Falcons.
Art Garcia Jr.: You have made quite the impression as a rookie. What are your thoughts about regarding your performance thus far?
Hunter Henry: It’s exciting — definitely very, very exciting. You know, I’ve worked really hard for this, and I’m just trying to get better every week because it’s a long season, and I’m not going to get caught up on (individual stats) early in the season. I want to finish as strong as I started the season.
AG: What were your expectations coming in as a rookie?
HH: I was expecting to have a big year. Like I said, I worked hard for it — worked hard in the offseason, training camp… (I) worked hard in a lot of different areas, and I’m able to be around some of the best to play at their position with Gates and Philip. So it’s pretty easy to get adjusted and comfortable when you have guys like that behind you.
AG: Did you set any goals for yourself?
HH: You know, coming in I just wanted to get on the field as a rookie and play and contribute to help this team win — that was my first goal. And my second goal was to be one of the best, definitely the best rookie tight end. I wanted to prove myself, because I got drafted as the No. 1 guy and it was high (the pick) and all that, so I wanted to prove myself basically. So those were two little goals — I had other goals I had set — but those were two of the main goals I had coming in.
AG: Being ranked the top tight end in the draft, did you feel any pressure to live up to the hype when you joined the team?
HH: I think I’ve had that “big-time guy” since I was in high school. And at the same time, I think I like to pay more attention to those people that doubt me, that don’t believe I’m supposed to be that or that I can’t be that — so I think I focus more on those people to motivate me and really drive me to be the best that I can be. That started in high school and continued on throughout my career.
AG: What is you relationship with Antonio Gates — did he call or text you when you were drafted? Do you remember the first thing he said to you?
HH: I didn’t meet him until he showed up at one of the OTAs (organized team activities) one day. Our relationship continues to build day after day. It’s a lot of fun, and I consider him a great friend and he’s almost like a big brother to me. It’s been a lot of fun to be in that locker room every day and off the field … it’s been a lot of fun in all areas.
AG: Were you intimidated at all once you met him in person?
HH: Oh, probably the first time I saw him, I was kind of like, “Oh my gosh, this is surreal, this is Antonio Gates. He is one of the best to ever play the position.” So definitely at first it was like, “Wow this is crazy,” but he’s just such a laid-back, easy-going guy and awesome to be around. He’s not too big for his britches or anything like that. He’s such a humble dude, a great friend and teammate, and I enjoy every second of it. He’s taught me a lot and he’s been there for me every step of the way.
AG: Did you worry at all that Gates might be the type of veteran player who would view you as a threat to his job and not be willing to welcome you into the fold?
HH: You never know coming in, but I was going to be me. I’m kind of the same way — I’m a laid-back, easy-going guy who wants be a great teammate. I knew this was Gates’ team and he has a couple of more years left, and I’m just excited that I can be a part of that. I knew the tight end room was his, and I was just eager to get in there and learn from him and be around him. I wasn’t coming in saying I’m going to take his spot or anything like that. I was just excited to be in his presence and learn from him.
AG: How much, if anything, did you know about the Chargers before they drafted you?
HH: I watched them when I was growing up. I mean (they had) Philip and Gates obviously, and when Merriman was here with LT and they went on all those runs during those years when I was younger I paid more attention to the NFL. So that’s about all I knew about the Chargers. I didn’t know much, but I knew San Diego was a great place and was very excited to get here.
The Endzone: Henry said his father and his high school football coach had the biggest influence on him as a football player.
“My dad played football, and he kind of instilled in me toughness and what it takes to play this sport,” he said. “He was an offensive lineman, so I was kind of raised in a tough atmosphere — we were playing through injuries when we were younger and learning how to be tough at a young age and I think that really helped me a lot.”
As for his high school coach, Henry said the coach was on his case every day, pushing him and wanting perfection out of him.
“He had a lot of faith in me,” Henry said. “There hasn’t been a coach that has pushed me harder than him. At the time, I hated it because he was on my case every day, but looking back on it he made me the player I am today.”
October has been a big month for Chargers’ rookies as three players were recipients of awards following victories over the defending Super Bowl Champions Denver Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons. Following their 21-13 Thursday night win over the Broncos in week six, linebacker Jatavis Brown was named the PEPSI NFL Rookie of the Week after garnering 14 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. After their 33-30 win over the Falcons in week 7, linebackers’ Joey Bosa and Denzel Perryman were both recipient of awards — Bosa was selected the PEPSI NFL Rookie of the Week after registering five tackles and two sacks and Perryman was voted the CASTROL Edge Clutch Performer of the Week following his fourth quarter interception as well as his fourth-down stop in overtime, which set up the Chargers’ game-winning field goal