Hunter Joyer a rock for family, Gators

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- During one of Florida's first full-contact practices in August, freshman fullback Hunter Joyer raced into a hole at the line of scrimmage to try and clear some space for the running back.

Linebacker Jon Bostic, a 6-foot-1, 243-pound junior, came up to fill the hole, saw Joyer heading right for him and got excited. His thought: All right, freshman, here's your welcome to big-boy football.

The collision was violent. When it was over, Bostic watched the running back scoot right by him.

He walked back to the defensive huddle and sought out linebacker Jelani Jenkins.

"I said, 'You hit Hunter Joyer yet?' " Bostic remembered. "He's like, 'No.'

"I said, 'He didn't move.' "

No matter how many times Bostic or anyone hit him, the 5-10, 242-pound Joyer -- who is one of only four UF freshmen to play in every game this season -- always held his ground. He never budged nor gave an inch.

Then again, he didn't off the field, either.

Not when his mother, Kirsten, nearly died from an aneurysm. Not when he helped nurse her back to health. Not when he had to take over household chores and the responsibility of making sure his younger brother got to and from school, because his father was traveling with his sales job.

Or when he had to leave Tampa Catholic after his senior football season because his family no longer could afford the tuition at the private school after his mother had to go on disability from her job as a school administrator.

Joyer handled all that with an inner strength that rivals his considerable achievements in the weight room.

"He is my rock, and I can always count on him," Kirsten Joyer said.

'Hunter never missed a beat'

There was nothing special about the day in January 2010 at Weightman Middle School in Wesley Chapel, Fla., a small community near Tampa. Kirsten, an assistant principal, was finishing her routine duties after the school day ended.

According to multiple reports, she heard a small popping sound.

Moments later, Kirsten couldn't see out of her right eye.

She was rushed to a Tampa hospital, where doctors discovered a blood vessel had burst in her brain. They caught it in time, but several days later she needed further brain surgery. The traumatic brain injury forever changed Kirsten's life. She couldn't do everyday tasks, such as getting dressed or tying her shoes. She couldn't walk, because she had trouble with her balance. She had to relearn many of the things her middle school students took for granted.

She obviously couldn't work, so she went on disability. Her husband, Jack, had to keep working to support the family financially. His sales job kept him on the road, so there was a need for someone to help with the day-to-day duties around the Joyer home and to help Kirsten with her rehab.

Hunter took on that task as eagerly as he does a blitzing linebacker.

"My illness completely rocked our world, but Hunter never missed a beat, never faltered," Kirsten said. "He continued to deliver at home, in the classroom and on the field. Not many adults would be able to pull that off ... nevermind asking a kid to do it. But he did do it, and he did an excellent job."

Hunter Joyer -- who was not allowed to comment for this story because Florida does not allow freshmen to speak to the media -- pretty much did everything. He cleaned the house. He cooked meals. He went grocery shopping. He took his mother to balance therapy. He made sure his younger brother got home from elementary school.

And he did all that while maintaining his grades and playing his senior season at Tampa Catholic, where he rushed for nearly 500 yards and six touchdowns.

Tampa Catholic coach Bob Henriquez said Joyer never made an issue of what his family was going through and never asked for any breaks, either.

"To be honest with you, I don't know we understood the full extent to what his mother was facing," Henriquez said. "We knew his mother had a serious health issue, and she was on disability. I don't think any of us knew the full extent of what she had faced.

"To his credit he kept doing what he was doing, and there was never an issue with him that he could have used to skirt responsibility with schoolwork or miss practice. There was never any of that. Over the years I've had players who faced a lot less but used that as an excuse to miss those things."

Joyer didn't complain even when he had to leave Tampa Catholic after the fall semester ended because his family could no longer afford the tuition. He returned to Wesley Chapel High School, which he had attended as a freshman and sophomore, and earned a hardship waiver from the Florida High School Athletic Association so he could compete in spring sports.

"Very impressive [the way he has handled things]," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "But he's that kind of young man. He walks in the building and he impresses you."

Appreciated by coaches, teammates

Kirsten still battles the effects of her brain injury.

She has good days and bad. Her memory falters. She sometimes gets so dizzy she can't get out of bed, and she still has issues with her balance. Her husband is juggling his career and being the major caregiver at home now that their son is gone. Recovery from this type of injury is a long, arduous process that can take a toll on everyone involved.

But she is getting better, and she and Jack enjoy seeing their son play a key role in Florida's offense.

Hunter has played in every game this season and has helped tailbacks Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey rush for a combined 1,295 yards and eight touchdowns. Joyer has carried the ball sparingly, mainly in short-yardage situations, and has rushed for 52 yards and two touchdowns.

His teammates love him, and not only because he eliminates would-be tacklers. They love his work ethic, and they especially like watching him work out in the weight room. As a freshman at Wesley Chapel, Joyer benched 415 pounds. Between his junior and senior seasons at Tampa Catholic, Henriquez watched Joyer bench press 435 pounds during a lift-a-thon fundraising event.

"I think the year he has had this season has been somewhat unnoticed maybe outside the building, but in the building he's as appreciated a football player [as there is] on the football team," Muschamp said. "For what he's accomplished as a freshman to come in and block and carry and catch and do the things he's done ...

"He's a good football player right now, but his best football is ahead of him."

There's no doubt he'll be able to handle himself. He's already proven that.

Michael DiRocco covers University of Florida sports for GatorNation. He can be reached at espndirocco@gmail.com or on Twitter @ESPNdirocco.