Clemson sophomore linebacker Stanley Hunter still feels a rush of excitement, a swell of pride, when a public-address announcer calls out his number after a play.
Even though it's not for him.
It's for a teammate wearing his jersey.
Hunter quit football before this season when his epileptic seizures became more frequent and more severe. That prompted the Tigers, defensive and offensive players alike, to look for a way to honor Hunter's commitment and passion for the game. Now one of them dons his No. 17 for each regular-season game.
"It's hard watching my buddies playing ball and knowing I could be out there helping them and contributing, especially with how well we've been doing this year," said Hunter, who remains involved as a student coach.
"But seeing these guys want to represent me by wearing my number and being around this community where people still treat me like I'm somebody important even though I'm not in pads on the field, it means a lot to me; more than words can express."
In a way, it's meant a lot to the whole team, which won the Atlantic Division for the first time and will play Coastal Division champ Georgia Tech in Saturday's ACC title game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
"Stanley is a good microcosm of our team," coach Dabo Swinney said. "That's one little, small example of how close this group is. … I just felt that was a really good thing by this team, just showing that they cared for each other."
Hunter was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2004 and had been dealing with seizures with little trouble.
"It just came out of the blue, but it wasn't really a big deal," he said. "I'd take my medication (to control the convulsions), see my doctor regularly, eat right, drink right."
The 5-foot-11, 225-pound Hunter, a SuperPrep All-American and the state defensive player of year as a senior at Byrnes (S.C.) High, was a solid contributor as a freshman last season. He had 37 tackles in just 158 plays, including a career-high eight against Georgia Tech.
"He just made plays," said then-Clemson coach Tommy Bowden. "He was a very intense player, and you knew playing football meant a lot to him."
But the seizures gradually worsened, and last summer, he had two seizures in a short time frame that were, he said, as bad as "you can possibly have next to, of course, dying."
After seeking several opinions, he and his family reached the tough conclusion that continuing to play football posed too much of a risk in the long term.
He prayed about what to do, and finally realized he really had no choice.
Hunter, 20, had endured harsher lessons in his life. When he was just 10, his mother, Mabel Lee-Bey, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for repeated drug-trafficking convictions.
"I've been dealing with setbacks my whole life," said Hunter, who lived with his father, Stanley Hunter Sr., and found far more stability after his mother's arrest. "Every time an obstacle comes my way, I've learned to deal with it. I stay as positive as I can."
He keeps a picture of his mom on the wall near his bed.
"Some days, I do wake up and I feel so down, but I see the achievements I've already done, I see the fans back home and in the Clemson community looking up to me, telling me, 'You motivate me every day.' That keeps me up and keeps me motivated to better myself every day," he said. "It always could be worse. I could be on the streets selling drugs."
He wants to one day be a football coach, and this setback has given him the chance to fast-track that. He's at meetings and practices, studying how the coaches set up practice, relate to players and put together a game plan. He also talks to the players, at practice and at games.
"He's always out there encouraging us," star running back C.J. Spiller said. "To have a guy like that on the sidelines encouraging you, you can't do nothing but go out there and play your best."
It's probably not a coincidence that the players who have worn Hunter's number during the year have had big games. Linebacker Brandon Maye traded his No. 20 for 17 in the opener against Middle Tennessee, and he had 14 tackles and his first career interception. Safety DeAndre McDaniel had one of his ACC-leading eight interceptions when he honored Hunter in the Wake Forest game.
"It meant a lot," the Tallahassee native said. "I know it's hard for him knowing that he can't play with the team anymore. … Everybody really just wanted to dedicate it to him and make sure we're playing our heart out when we've got that 17 on."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.