Mike Hooker needed just 12 seconds to end his first wrestling match.
Unfortunately, he would have preferred it to last longer. Same for his father, who doubled as his coach.
“I got head-locked and pinned in 12 seconds. He started yelling at me, so it was kind of funny,” Hooker said laughing. “It wasn’t funny at the time.”
“I chewed him pretty bad,” Mike Hooker Sr. recalls. “He didn’t listen to me. He just went out and did what he wanted to and got crushed.”
That was eight years ago, when the younger Hooker was in fourth grade. Since then, he has been the one doling out the takedowns and picking up the wins. Lots of them, too.
Now in his senior year at Father Ryan, he set the Tennessee state record for wins last month, eclipsing the old mark of 229. Hooker, 19, is up to 235 career wins — including 112 straight — as he heads into this weekend’s Division II state tournament in Franklin. Carrying a 62-0 mark this season, he eyes his second straight state title and third overall.
“The only thing that would stop him is if he were to get sick, because right now there is not a wrestler ... I would say he could probably win state almost all the way up to 220 [pounds]. That’s how good he is,” Father Ryan coach Pat Simpson said of the young man who wrestles mostly at 160 pounds. “It is kind of an honor to get to coach what some people consider to be maybe the, if he’s not the best, he’s one of the best to ever wrestle in Tennessee in high school. It is definitely an honor.”
Simpson puts Hooker on an elite pedestal after just one year of coaching him.
Hooker arrived at Father Ryan last February, just days after winning the Division II championship in the 145-pound weight class for McCallie School. He spent four years at the Chattanooga boarding school wrestling for Gordon Connell, who actually coached Simpson in the 1970s at Middle Tennessee State University.
Hooker’s dominance began when he captured his first state championship in eighth grade. He then lost in the finals each of the next two years.
His decorated high school career would have continued at McCallie if not for a death in the family. Mike Hooker Sr.’s father, John, died of a heart attack in November 2010. So the younger Hooker moved to Nashville to help his 88-year-old grandmother and his mother, who was battling an illness.
It was a big move for the young man. His family originally is from Nashville, but his father and two younger brothers remain in Maryville, Tenn. Easing the transition is that three of his six older sisters live in Nashville, along with grandparents on both sides and several aunts and uncles. In fact, his cousin, Jim Wilson, just broke one of Mike Hooker Sr.’s track records at Father Ryan.
The elder Hooker was a three-sport athlete. He wrestled with Simpson as the two helped the Fighting Irish to a state championship in 1974. He was also captain of the football team and his future wife, Mary, was a cheerleader for the Irish.
“It‘s really great,” said the son. “All of my relatives show up for the wrestling matches, and I never really had that happen before. And it is great for my dad. He loves it because he gets to see his old buddies in high school coming back to watch the wrestling matches.”
As the owner of Redemption Marketing, a product fundraising company for schools in Tennessee and Alabama, the elder Hooker hasn’t let the distance keep him from watching his son wrestle. He has missed just two matches this year and was at the Atlanta Champions tournament last month to see his son break the state record.
“His dad obviously played a big role in his development as a wrestler,” Simpson said. “His dad was as tough as his son, mentally.”
His dad has witnessed the close calls, though they have been rare. The younger Hooker hasn’t lost since the state finals in 2010.
“Last year was kind of a surprise,” Mike Hooker Sr. said. “We knew if we could get through the tournament in Atlanta, that’s a really tough tournament … last year we kind of breathed a sigh of relief when he got through that one. And this year the same way. Of course, he still has the state tournament. He has to keep his eye on the ball.”
That hasn’t been a problem for Hooker. He shrugs off the pressure of being undefeated over the past two years and credits an overseas mission trip for making him better.
The past two summers he spent three weeks in the Ukraine on a journey organized by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter out of Georgia. Along with sharing their faith, the wrestlers compete on a daily basis against some of the best in the world, including from Russia, Poland and the Ukraine.
It was an eye-opener for Hooker.
“I got killed,” he said. “I always think, ‘Well, I am not going to wrestle anybody as good as them.’ Ever since I’ve gone on the mission trip I haven’t lost.”
Hooker hopes to take the momentum of the past two years into the Naval Academy. Though the wrestling program might not be as prestigious as others, Navy head coach Bruce Burnett and assistant coach Brian Antonelli have coached on Olympic teams. Plus, the Navy’s reputation in the classroom impressed Hooker.
“I really wanted to go to a school with good academics because you never know when you might blow out a knee. Then what do you have?” he said. “Wrestling is not the end-all and be-all of life. Because if it is, then it is a pretty lame life.”
Even so, Hooker still wants to win championships. He targets a national title, which is easier said than done.
Though he is small in stature at just 5-foot-8, he makes up for it in muscle and determination.
“He is so strong,” Simpson said. “People just don’t understand how strong he is. He usually pins them in the first period. He usually doesn’t have to wrestle very long.”
And now, it is his choice when the matches end.