Tobijah Hughley came to the University of Louisville football program as a walk-on. He will leave as one of the Cardinals’ captains this coming season.
“That’s outstanding,” offensive line coach Chris Klenakis said of Hughley’s journey. “That’s the beauty of sports, isn’t it? That’s what this country is built on: Having a dream.”
Hughley, who played for Lexington’s Lafayette High School before coming to Louisville, had to make it happen. When asked at U of L’s Media Day on Saturday why this journey from walk-on to captain happened, he said, “I would say, persistence. It all wasn’t pretty.”
Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino cited that persistence as a reason the players voted Hughley one of the captains for the 2016 season.
“All the other players respect (Hughley) because of his work ethic,” Petrino said, “and how much it means to him. He’s a guy that’s in the huddle and on the field that you know is giving you everything he has, and every player respects that.”
As his football days at Lafayette High wound down, Hughley was not a coveted prospect. Kentucky, the athletic entity he grew up rooting for, did not show interest.
“Of course, you’ve got to be more of a Kentucky basketball fan . . . ,” Hughley said of his childhood days rooting for UK. “I feel like growing up in Lexington, they kind of brainwash you a little bit. You have to be a UK fan. All you see is blue.”
Western Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky invited him to walk on.
“But I didn’t want to walk on at a smaller school such as that,” he said Saturday. “If I was going to walk on, I wanted it to be at a big school. Just go all out.”
Before settling on that course, Hughley faced a familiar crossroads. He signed a scholarship offer with Georgetown College. Then he faced a sobering choice: try to be the big man on a small campus or risk not playing much as a walk-on at a more prominent program.
“My whole thought process at the time was just go with no regrets,” Hughley said. “I didn’t want to be that guy to be like, ‘Hey, I could have went here’ (or) ‘I feel I could have done this’ or ‘I should have did this.’
“I just want to go do it. Not have any regrets, no second thoughts. And it’s working out.”
Yes, Hughley said, he had doubts at the beginning. He credited his parents, Tina and Thomas Hughley, for believing in him. “They just inspired me to chase my dreams,” he said.
Hughley also took inspiration from his faith in God. Coincidentally, the name Tobijah means the Lord is good and comes from what Christians call the Bible’s Old Testament.
Charlie Strong was U of L’s coach when Hughley arrived at Louisville. Petrino’s first spring practice, in 2014, saw a “struggling” offense and the new coach taking a flyer by moving the walk-on to center with the first-team offensive line and moving four-year starting center Jake Smith to guard.
“We felt like that might give us a better chance,” Petrino said of moving Hughley, a two-year walk-on, to the first unit. “We started executing better, and he has now been voted a team captain.”
Hughley has started 25 games over the last two seasons.
Klenakis, a co-offensive coordinator as well as offensive line coach, said Hughley has improved through trial and error.
“He’s had a lot of things thrown at him in pressure situations,” Klenakis said of Hughley’s improvement. “He’s learned from mistakes. But he also knows how to handle things. Just the pride in being the leader and doing things right.
“Being a master of his craft is real important to him.”
Like many, if not all football players, Hughley aspires to play in the NFL. Meanwhile, he takes satisfaction in his success at one of the sport’s less-celebrated positions.
“You’ve definitely got to be a blue-collar guy,” he said of being an offensive lineman. “You’ve got to come to work every day. There’s nothing pretty about being an O-lineman. We’re the biggest guys. We sweat the most. You’ve got to work the hardest. You’ve got to lift the most.
“It’s definitely rewarding at the end of the day.”
Charlotte at Louisville
When: Sept. 1, 7 p.m.