It’s good to be home.
Those were the first words out of the mouth of former Marquette Catholic All-American Craig Hentrich when he addressed the crowd at Public School Stadium in Alton on Sept. 3. It was Hentrich’s first time inside the stadium in nearly 30 years.
The Explorers honored Hentrich at halftime of their home opener vs. Mater Dei, retiring his No. 15 jersey. It was a long time coming for the standout kicker and punter who went on to star at the University of Notre Dame and enjoy a 17-year NFL career with the Green Bay Packers and Tennessee Titans. He was a two-time Pro Bowl punter and played in three Super Bowls, including a championship with Green Bay in 1997.
But his return to Alton brought it full circle, remembering where it all began.
“This is my first time setting foot on this field in almost 30 years,” Hentrich said. “It’s exciting to be back; it’s bringing back a lot of memories. I got a chance to see most of the guys I played with, who most of them I haven’t seen since we played here last. To be able to catch up with those guys, to be honored like this, it’s pretty amazing.”
His head coach at Marquette, John Waters, and his assistant coach and current Marquette High principal Mike Slaughter, introduced him with kind and heartfelt words during the ceremony.
Waters enjoys fond memories of Hentrich. Most high school coaches don’t have the pleasure of coaching a player of Hentrich’s talent and Waters is well aware of that.
“It meant a lot to see all these guys,” Waters said. “Craig played at a period of time at Marquette where we were awfully good and had a lot of good people surrounding him, but he was a unique talent. He nearly didn’t come out for football. He almost played soccer. He’s a great young man and it’s great to see his teammates here. For me being an old man now, it’s a lot of fun.”
Standing on the grass at Public School Stadium, Hentrich admitted not much has changed.
“Well, the grass is still long,” he joked.
It brought back fond game memories, too.
“Coach Slaughter and I were just talking about a game in the rain here against Decatur St. Teresa and I had the opportunity to kick a 55 and a 53-yarder in the rain,” Hentrich said. “That was probably the highlight of my high school career.”
Hentrich got emotional, choking back tears a few times when thinking how he went on to become the first and only kicker and punter to earn a full scholarship to Notre Dame and then enjoy a long NFL career. When he thought about where it all began, it was pretty surreal.
“This is football at its best,” he said. “It’s so simple and so pure and after being where I’ve been for so long in college and the pros, it’s nice to come back to the simple life here and see kids playing for the love of the game.”
He admitted he reflects on what life and football has given him and how the halls of Marquette and the streets of Alton started it all.
“Quite often I do that and coming back here has triggered so many of those memories again. God has blessed me so much,” he said, fighting back tears.
He played for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame and is still high on the records lists there. He finished second on the career scoring list for the Irish with 294 points, the most ever by a kicker. His 39 field goals rank second to John Carney (51). His 44.1-yard punting average is a school record.
Hentrich was drafted in the eighth round of the 1993 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, but never played there. He signed with the Packers and began his pro career in ‘94. He played in his first Super Bowl in ‘97, following the ‘96 season, helping Green Bay top the New England Patriots. He then played in the ‘98 Super Bowl with the Packers and the ‘00 one with the Titans, losing both.
Hentrich said there was no comparison to winning the Super Bowl.
“It’s almost like the whole world is off your shoulders,” he said. “There’s a point of time where you’re out here kicking footballs and putting yourself in that situation where you want to kick the game-winning field goal in the Super Bowl and then you make it and you win the Super Bowl and it’s like you’re out here all by yourself. To have that come to fruition in real life was pretty amazing.
“I got spoiled early, I played in three Super Bowls in my first five years and then never went back.”
Waters followed the college and pro career of his prize pupil, watching him play as often as possible.
“I went to about a dozen games at Notre Dame, saw some games on the road,” Waters said. “It’s been a great, great run.”
Football is in the rearview mirror for Hentrich now. He owns a furniture store in Franklin, Tenn., outside of Nashville. He worked with youth football for a while after his retirement in ‘09, but now he focuses on refurbishing old furniture. He’s gone from kicker to picker.
“I build reclaimed wood furniture and I go picking and have all kinds of fun,” Hentrich said. “I decided when I retired that I was going to retire. I’m not going to stick around and do a lot of coaching. I had my fill. When I first retired, I had given back a couple years trying to teach some young kids kicking and now it’s on to bigger and better things.
“It had been 25 years of straight football. I was ready for something new.”
If he has any advice for the current crop of Marquette gridders, it’s just to enjoy their time on the field. The time playing the game is fleeting.
“These kids need to know to enjoy their time because it doesn’t last long,” Hentrich said. “These are the best years of your life. These are the guys you’re going to remember for the rest of your life. You go to college and pros and don’t remember those guys, but these are the guys — I remember every one of these guys’ names and I haven’t seen them in 25 years. These are the good memories.”
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