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Minneapolis native Amani Hooker is set for as homecoming Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Aside from one 40-mile stretch on the northern portion of the Avenue of the Saints, it’s essentially a straight shot from Iowa City to Minneapolis and back.

The first two hours are due north with a slight lean, as Interstate 380 turns into U.S. Highway 218 right near Waterloo. Next is the small detour — 45 minutes west through the Iowa countryside, from Floyd to Rudd to Clear Lake — before finishing up on I-35. Two more hours straight up the compass, and you’re in Twin Cities territory. Just invert the directions and follow the same route on the return trip.

The Hookers know the journey well.

Three-plus years of having a Hawkeye son will do that. From their home in Brooklyn Park, one of Minneapolis’ northern suburbs, there have been numerous Iowa City recruiting visits and Kinnick Stadium stops. Amani Hooker ventures back to his roots when he can, but a full-fledged college football workload slices down those opportunities.

Which makes Saturday’s endeavor even cooler. Now a junior firmly entrenched as Iowa’s starting strong safety, Hooker is making the trip back north for the first time as an established defensive piece. Family and friends will pile into TCF Bank Stadium for the 2:30 p.m. game, helping splatter Hawkeye gold among the Gophers' maroon.

“We’re just happy he has this opportunity and hope he plays well,” says Ray Hooker, Amani’s father. “And yeah, we hope he shows them up a bit.”

More than three years after Hooker’s recruitment wrapped up with an Iowa commitment on June 16, 2015, questions still linger about how Minnesota let him slip away. Saying there’s any bad blood would be exaggerating a bit, but Hooker’s Twin Cities return provides an avenue to rehash how things unfolded.

Recruiting traction began after Hooker’s junior season, when the Park Center High School standout continued to establish himself as one of the state’s most versatile threats. Hooker thrived at defensive back, quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Schools noticed.

FCS offers from South Dakota and Northern Iowa arrived in early April of 2015, while Northern Illinois and New Mexico jumped in toward the end of 2015.

In between, Iowa made a sizable splash.

Linebackers coach Seth Wallace was in the Minneapolis area and caught wind of an explosive athlete down the road, one whose stock was still a bit undiscovered.

A single workout was enough for an offer.   

“Coach Wallace sat down and his first thing was, 'Why hasn’t Minnesota offered this kid a scholarship?' Because he looks the part,” said former Park Center coach Paul Strong, who led the Pirates during Hooker’s time there. “And I said, ‘I guess he’s not their type.’”

It’s not that Minnesota was completely absent from Hooker’s recruitment; the Gophers just didn’t pounce with the same authority.

They certainly had chances. The third camp Hooker attended was in his figurative backyard — the Gophers’ team camp in July 2014 — and he later attended two more at Minnesota in January and June 2015.

The last camp was about a month after the Hawkeyes offered and less than two weeks removed from an Iowa City unofficial visit. Hooker had even named Iowa his unofficial leader but was still open to seeing what remained.

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If Minnesota was going to make a move, it needed to be soon. The June camp featuring quality area competition seemed like the perfect setting to hop in with an offer.       

“Minnesota still had an opportunity,” Ray recalls. “I remember it was (former Minnesota defensive back) coach Jay Swavel, he was doing most of the recruiting in this area. He asked Amani to make sure he gets to one of the camps, and we did that. He got to the camp — I thought he did a great job — and a lot of other people around thought he did a great job.

“And after the camp end, Swavel came over and spoke to Amani and us. They said he thought he did a great job — thought Amani was a great player and a good kid — but they wanted him to come back to one more camp. And this was after Iowa offered. So Amani and I, we looked at each other. we both said ‘OK, we’ll think about that.’ That was the last I had ever heard from Minnesota.”

Within 10 days, Hooker visited Iowa City again and officially joined Kirk Ferentz’s 2016 class. As is the case with numerous Hawkeye commits, Iowa’s early intrigue and steadfast interest were prevailing factors.

 

Those around Hooker were more than thrilled. But Minnesota’s trepidation was still puzzling. It got to the point where there was no guarantee Hooker would’ve remained in state even if the Gophers had offered. His father said UNI actually had a leg up before any Big Ten interest materialized.     

“We were always shocked,” Strong says. “We were scratching our heads like, ‘Wow.’ And then when Iowa came in, (Minnesota) tried to come in the picture. And Amani was like, ‘Nope, you guys had your opportunity — and I moved on.’

“It was a shock for a lot of people in the community. A lot of my Gopher buddies were not too happy. They couldn’t figure it out, either.”   

The Hookers always felt Iowa was the better fit, anyway, and their son’s trajectory has morphed belief into reality. Much has changed even in the two years since Amani’s freshman trip back to Minnesota in 2016, when he was a special-teams contributor still finding his way.

Since then, Hooker has hung tough with Saquon Barkley and Allen Lazard. He landed the opening blow last season in one of Iowa’s more iconic recent upsets, housing a J.T. Barrett interception on Ohio State’s first offensive snap. Stability and responsibility have headlined Hooker’s transition into upperclassman status.

“You try to carve out a role for a player that's shown some signs (early on),” Ferentz said this week. “And once you can take ownership of that — if he can expand it — that's a good thing.

“Now, we consider him to be a veteran guy.”

Should Hooker continue his early-season ways Saturday, expect some rowdiness from the family contingent. Amani’s parents, Ray and Janice, will be in attendance, along with his older sisters, Chelsia and Brehana. Big brother Quinton, a former North Dakota basketball star who’s now playing professionally in France, will be cheering on from afar.

Many other familiar faces will dot the Iowa crowd as well. Former high school competitors turned college foes — including Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson (Minneapolis North), Kamal Martin (Burnsville), Phillip Howard (Robbinsdale Cooper), Seth Green (East Ridge) and Carter Coughlin (Eden Prairie) — will only add fuel to Hooker’s homecoming.

Maybe in a different universe, Hooker spends this week prepping for Nate Stanley, Noah Fant and Iowa’s suddenly resurgent passing attack. Perhaps he’s made waves in the Minnesota secondary, consistently thriving as one of P. J. Fleck’s early veteran pieces. Maybe the Hookers never learn the trek between Iowa City and Minneapolis.  

But things took a different course. All routes collide Saturday afternoon.  

“This is obviously a little sweeter for me,” Hooker said. “So it should be fun.”          

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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