The Colts and the Patriots sent scouts to Virginia Military Institute at the end of March, about a week after an Eagles scout had visited. And one of the players they were undoubtedly trying to learn more about was linebacker Justin Huggard. A first-team All-Big South selection his senior year, Huggard led the conference with 136 tackles, an average of 12.4 per game. He finished his career ranked second in tackles in Division I-AA.
Ed Thompson recently caught up with Justin and talked about football at VMI and the dream of making the leap to the NFL.
Question: Playing at Virginia Military Institute, I'm sure there are a lot of folks out there who don't know much about you. Give us a little bit of a background on your high school career and why you chose VMI.
Justin Huggard: I went to high school in the state of Virginia and played defensive end all four years. I was All-State in high school, All-District, All-Region. I came into high school my freshman year at a decent size, about the same size I am now, and expected to get bigger. But I never did increase in size or height. So coming out of high school, I was too small to play in any Division I-A big schools. Coach McComb gave me a chance to play here at VMI at Division I-AA level and I decided to take the opportunity and see what I could do with it.
Q: How do you think the experience has been different for you playing at a military institute rather than a regular college?
JH: Actually I think it has helped a lot. Maybe it's not the full things you would get at a normal school, but when it comes to adversity on the field or when things go wrong, you learn to deal with them because you are going through the same things every day at school because you do so much and everything is put on your plate. So at VMI I learn to go through adversity, because if I got hurt on the field there were no excuses. Because if I get hurt in the military, there are no excuses. I still have to do things here, I still have to be in formation, I still have to get up in the morning at 6:55 regardless of what happens. So I think it helped me in that aspect -- no excuses on the field and no excuses off the field.
Q: Tell me about your relationship with your family. I had read about where your mother had surprised you by rounding up about 65 people -- family and friends -- to come support you at one of your games.
JH: My mom loves me and my brother, and we were raised in a single parent household with just my mom. And she has been to all of my games and when my brother went to school she split it up between me and him. She just surprised me. There were a lot of people who helped me out back when I was little because she was working two jobs and she couldn't make it and there were a lot of family members and a lot of friends who picked me up and took me to the games when I was in little league or when I went to baseball tournaments all the way to Alabama or North Carolina to play games. And they took me under their wing and took care of me. She just decided to call them up and just wanted to say thank you and give them an opportunity to see me play some college football and see that they had helped me get to where I am right now. I really appreciate all that they did for me and all my mom's done for me. So I think it was a good experience for me to just let them see that I am doing good and that I appreciate all they have done helping me get to where I am at.
Q: I know you are a very tough football player and I hard hitter, but I read where your nickname was Huggy. Where did that come from?
JH: (laughs) When I played baseball my last name was Huggard and my mom said everyone used to call my dad "Huggy Bear" when he was little. And when I was coming up in little league in baseball she started calling me Huggy. And then all the fans started calling me Huggy. And before you knew it my friends were calling me Huggy, then my teachers were calling me Huggy, and my coaches called me that. And it got to the point where everyone called me Huggy.
Q: Now during your career you ranked second in tackles for I-AA, is that correct?
JH: Yes sir.
Q: Tell me about your strengths you bring to the field that has allowed you to achieve that level of play.
JH: I work hard. I tell myself that no matter how hard I work, there is always somebody else that is working harder than me and I keep that in my mindset that I have to work harder than the next person. And I refuse to quit. I don't like to lose but I know losing is a lesson learned, so I am going to keep fighting regardless. When I was in high school my coach always told me regardless of what is going on you never quit. And that was my best trait. That is what I like to do, keep going
hard as I can, work harder than the next person. And my mom always tells me to keep a positive outlook on things, that if you think negatively that negative things will happen. It's like a waterfall, that if you think negatively everything will go downhill. So I think positive and work as hard as I can.
Q: Now in your junior season, VMI was winless, what did you draw from that experience?
JH: I learned so much from that experience, as a team player and as an individual player. You just go through it and realize you have got to work hard regardless every day in and out. By the tenth or eleventh game of the season, you know things are not going right. You have a lot of injuries, but regardless you've got to wake up and keep playing, keep practicing. I learned that regardless of what happens, things happen for a reason. Every life lesson is built in for us to learn something. And from that lesson alone I learned to keep working hard regardless, eventually things are going to fall into place for you. You can't give up, you have got to keep fighting. And I learned that, I think all the players learned that, from that season. That was my first losing season ever. And to have a winless season, you learn a lot from it.
Q: A quote I saw of yours that I just absolutely loved was "We just got
to play on the edge every play. If we are not playing on the edge we're
taking up too much room." What does that mean to you?
JH: Our coach used to instill that in us, our defensive coach told us that at the beginning of this year. You know you are going to play for every inch, you can't just play on this one play, or you can't just play on this other play. You have got to play every time like it is your last play, you have got to play like it is almost over, like each game is your championship game. If you don't play like that, you're getting in the way; you have got to go all out each play. That's how I see it and that's how our coaches instilled it in me that I am going to go every play regardless. I remember that this past year on the first play of a game I pulled my hamstring and I popped it, and I stayed out for a half of a quarter. And I was like, you might as well wrap it up, this is my senior year. So wrap it up as tight as possible because I have got to play for my team to make sure we win this game, and I am going to do what I can for them. That's how I see it, so in everything I do all the time on and off the field I make sure I do it as hard as I can 100%.