Remembering Jonathan Hooker
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Remembering Jonathan Hooker

Tyler Johnsonover 8 years

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Article written by:Tyler JohnsonTyler Johnson
HookerBaseball   The world of sports has always provided an outlet for those of us who are just the average human with average athletic ability. We have always looked at the giants and the demi-gods among us who are faster, stronger and seem to be naturally gifted with amazement and wonder while they entertain us with their feats: throwing a football 70 yards, a baseball 95 MPH, or jumping above a ten foot basketball rim to throw down a thunderous dunk. Every now and then, however, an athlete comes along who displays those skills but doesn’t let it define them–the type of person who stays humble, kind and compassionate to each and every person they encounter no matter what walk of life they may come from. These athletes are an even rarer breed because they have the ability to supersede any physical abilities they may possess and leave a lasting impression because of their capacity to see the best in every person in the world. Jonathan Hooker was that type of athlete.   Jonathan Walton Hooker was born December 18th, 1978 to Cecil and Kim Hooker. Jonathan’s father passed away due to a car accident when he was 12 and his younger brother Adam credits his mother for being such a strong lady following that time. “She really just put me, my sister Candice  and Jonathan first for the next 20 or so years, made sure we were taken care of and had anything we needed. She is a very special lady,” Adam recalls. Even at a young age, Jonathan was an exceptional athlete, playing basketball and baseball throughout his childhood; as an 8th grader, he was starting varsity baseball games as a pitcher. “He was always a little bit ahead of his age group as far as maturity and talent level,” childhood friend Rusty Ray explains.   The talent and ability of Jonathan only blossomed from there and as a 1997 senior at North Laurel High School in London, KY, he was attracting colleges from all over the area–and even major league scouts–to his baseball games. Adam recounts that the normal slew of Kentucky schools and some out of state schools like Vanderbilt all pursued Jonathan. It was all over, Adam said, when his dream school, the University of Kentucky, offered Jonathan. “When UK offered him a scholarship, it was over from there on out. No other school had a chance. He had always dreamed of playing for UK and he was able to reach that dream.” Jonathan soon formed a close bond at UK with a pitching teammate of his, former Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb. While originally not roommates, the two requested to be partnered together shortly after arriving at UK, where they remained roommates throughout their junior year before Webb left for the majors. One game involving the close friends sticks out in both Rusty Ray and Adam Hooker’s minds. It was May 17, 2000, in the opening round of the SEC tournament and the Wildcats were pitted against not only the SEC’s top ranked team but also the nation’s #1 team in the form of the South Carolina Gamecocks. After it was all said and done, UK upset top-ranked Carolina 6-4 in a game where Webb became the all-time single season strikeout leader in UK history with 123 and Jonathan pitched 1.1 innings to capture the save and preserve the ecstatic win for his best friend. “That was pretty neat to watch because they were such a good team and he came in and got the save,” Adam said. “There was an at-bat where Jon hit 94 on the radar gun. The (South Carolina) player swung his guts out and if had made contact he would have killed it. I remember the announcer at the time saying, ‘Well, we know two things–Jonathan Hooker throws hard and the (South Carolina player) swings hard!’”   Younger brother Adam also feels that Jonathan was robbed of another career highlight due to strange circumstances during another game. The Wildcats were facing Florida at home, a team, Adam recounted, Kentucky had always struggled with. “They could never compete (with Florida) and it was on a Sunday; it was really close and Jon came in with guys on base, game tied and got the side out. He just exploded off the mound when that happened.” It was the 8th inning and UK didn’t manage to score in their next turn up at the plate. It was then that the Florida players walked off the field to get onto the bus; it had been agreed upon before the game that it would end at a certain time no matter the score or inning due to the travel plans for the Gators. “We can laugh about it now, but at the time we all were pretty torn up,” Adam said. “Jon was ready to go out and beat them and they left.”   Jon would end his college career in 2001 and sign a non-drafted free agent contract with the Chicago White Sox. He was assigned to the Bristol White Sox his rookie season, where he played for one year before being picked up by the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks; he was part of their 2003 league championship team and subsequently traded in the summer of 2004. He retired from baseball in 2005 and received his degree from EKU, moving back to London to become a drug counselor for Comp Care, located in Manchester, Ky. It was during these years that Jonathan also helped close friend Rusty with coaching local basketball for his alma mater, the North Laurel Jaguars. Jon and Rusty would coach 6th grade basketball together in 2001 before Rusty moved on to coach the freshmen team and Jon would become the official 6th grade coach. “We coached in (former NL coach) Ken Woods’ system together for 3 years,” Rusty said. “We both would go to each other practices and help out and he would come sit on the bench and help us coach the JV and varsity games, too.”   It was also during this time that the stories about Jonathan’s athletic ability began to take shape. Not only could he pitch at unbelievable speeds, his basketball skill was at the same level. Rusty recounted stories of him and Jonathan playing in a church league in London where the competition was no match for Jon. He could take one step over half court and shoot from anywhere on the court; his range was virtually unlimited. Add that to his Division 1 conditioning and they would blow teams out. “They were no match for him,” Rusty said. “Jonathan was really good at anything he tried–ping pong, baseball, basketball, etc. I would go into those games knowing I didn’t have to shoot because we had Jon on our team.”   Following his college and professional baseball careers, Jonathan settled down in his hometown of London and made plans to marry his future wife, Scarlett Parsley. The couple’s wedding was held on Saturday, August 26th, 2006. It would be hours later when the unthinkable would happen.   JonHookerWedding Flight 5191   By all recorded accounts, the wedding between Jonathan and Scarlett was akin to a fairy tale. The wedding, held at the Headley-Whitney Museum in Lexington, was described at the time as a “storybook wedding, perfect for two perfect children.” The bride, a Laurel County native and North Laurel alumni as well, was brought in on a horse-drawn carriage, where the couple exchanged vows in front of 250 friends and family members and enjoyed a string quartet. According to a 2006 Herald-Leader article, they stayed at their reception until around 11 p.m., when they were driven off in a 1958 Bentley to rest before their 6 a.m. flight to California for their planned honeymoon.   The flight they were on, Comair Flight 5191, would tragically crash shortly after takeoff from Lexington’s Bluegrass Airport in a field adjacent to airport property. 49 of the 50 people onboard perished in the crash, with the lone survivor being the plane’s co-pilot, who would need extreme rehabilitation in the following years after the accident. The ultimate cause of the accident would be contributed to pilot error, with the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report concluding that,  
“the probable cause of this accident was the flight crewmembers’ failure to use available cues and aids to identify the airplane’s location on the airport surface during taxi and their failure to cross-check and verify that the airplane was on the correct runway before takeoff.”
  Another London resident, prominent businessman Mike Finley was also aboard Flight 5191, and for a close-knit town the size (population 7,500) of London, the accident shocked the community. It was the story of the newlywed Hookers, married a mere 12 hours before the tragedy, that would grab the nation’s attention. How could such an unimaginable horror happen after one of the most perfect days of the young couple’s lives? Rusty Ray recalls The Today Show began calling and leaving him messages following the accident, requesting him on their morning program to discuss his good friend. “I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I wasn’t sure if I should talk to them, anyway. I finally called them back and they said they wanted to do an interview the next morning but before I committed to anything I checked with his family first. They felt confident that I would be able to talk about the person he was, not just athletically but his virtues.” The farm’s owner would find Jonathan’s wedding ring days after the crash; it was given to Jon’s mother who keeps it on a necklace in memory of her son.   While the pain still remains to this day for his family and friends, the healing process would begin sooner rather than later, in the form of Jonathan’s favorite sport and former high school baseball team. It would happen to a group of athletes who mirrored Jonathan’s athleticism, determination and success as they ultimately began to try and fill a massive void left by the tragic circumstances.   2007 Jaguars Baseball Being from such a small town meant that almost anyone in London, and especially those playing for North Laurel’s baseball team, knew whom Jonathan Hooker was. Shortly after the crash, the Jaguars dedicated their season to the former pitcher. The team for the entire season could be described as mediocre at best; all that matters in the end, however, is how you perform when it is elimination time, and when that time came for North Laurel, they did the impossible.   After winning the 49th District, the Jags were pitted against the region’s top team and favorite to win the tournament, the Corbin Redhounds. Remember the time Jonathan’s Wildcats team upset the top-ranked team in the first round of the SEC tournament? It would be déjà vu, as North Laurel would go on to beat Corbin 3-2. They would defeat Harlan in the second round and Middlesboro in the finals, 8-6, to win the 13th Region title for the first time in school history. For a team that hadn’t been over .500 until that region win over Middlesboro, the victory was a beautiful ending and a reminder that they had agreed to play for more than just the trophy that season. Coach Darren McWhorter would tell the Harlan Daily Enterprise following the game, “It could be the “Hooker phenomenon" - I don't know what it is - but I can say that I 100 percent believe in divine intervention… We talked about Jon Hooker being a part of this the other day, and this is proof standing right here.”   7 Years Later   It has been exactly 7 years to the day since Jonathan Hooker was taken from those who loved him. Close friend Brandon Webb would pitch his Diamondbacks to a win the day after the accident; Webb would go on that season to win the National League Cy Young Award, the highest honor a pitcher can win in the MLB. He would finish twice in the voting following winning the award, before surgery would hamper his career in Arizona. He signed a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers in 2010, where he wore number 33, Jonathan’s college number, in honor and memory of his close friend and former teammate. Webb announced his retirement from baseball in February of 2013.   Rusty Ray now works for PNC Bank, where he travels throughout the Eastern Kentucky region. He described what he will always remember, and hopes others remember, about his friend. “Jonathan was a competitor and just a fun loving guy. He always wanted to compete in something, whether it was H-O-R-S-E in the driveway or a homerun derby or video games. We were always doing something involving competing. That was the Jon I knew when we were little boys. He was also the most honest and forthright person you would ever know. He treated everyone the same no matter their background and treated everyone with respect, the way you would want your own kids to treat people. Just as good a person as he was an athlete.”     Adam Hooker, now the finance director of the Laurel County Public Schools, echoed that sentiment about his brother. “He was able to treat everyone the same and he was a successful athlete and cared about everyone. Seeing a big brother do that meant a whole lot. There was nobody that he didn’t treat kind or good. That’s what made him special to me.”   Jonathan Hooker lived life to the fullest. He ventured into the world to chase his dreams, came home seeking to help others and found the love of his life. What made him extraordinary was that he did all of those things while staying humble and with a belief that you should treat everyone with genuine kindness. In a world where successful athletes sometimes take advantage of their talent and think they are larger than life, Jon embodied the notion that you can be remembered for your off the field accomplishments with equal or more emphasis than what you have accomplished on the field.   Nowadays, Jon is remembered through the shared memories and stories from those that knew him so well. His baseball accomplishments adorn his young nephew’s room, including his signed baseball card that has been placed in a plaque. Jon’s two nephews also shares another important distinction with Jonathan–his name (Candice's son, Cooper Jonathan Robinson and Adam's son, Jonathan Campbell Hooker). It’s something that Adam appreciates and doesn’t take for granted. “It means a lot to see my boy named Jon. We just hope he gets Big Jon’s arm,” Adam half-seriously jokes. When Adam and his wife announced to the family that they were having a baby boy, his aunt immediately suggested they name the child after Jonathan. Adam wholeheartedly agreed, but asked his aunt where the idea came from? Her answer sums up the life and legacy of Jonathan Walton Hooker–son, husband, brother, friend and athlete–better than anything else. “Because,” she said, “the world has to have another Jonathan Hooker.”   @TylerJohnsonKSR   Special thanks to Rusty Ray and Adam Hooker. Game recaps and recorded information taken from The Sentinel-Echo, Lexington Herald-Leader, Courier-Journal, Harlan Daily Enterprise and UKAthletics.com 

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