Former Marquette Catholic star Craig Hentrich, who went on to play college football at Notre Dame before a long career as a punter in the NFL, addresses the crowd during a ceremony retiring his jersey No. 15 on Saturday nightat Public School Stadium in Alton. At right is Marquette principal Mike Slaughter.
ALTON — Craig Hentrich stood on the sidelines of the football field at Public School Stadium on Saturday evening and took a good, hard look around.
Plenty of memories came flooding back.
“The grass is still long,” Hentrich joked. “I look over here at the facade, I used to try and kick balls over in pregame and tried to hit that scoreboard over there.”
Hentrich, a 1989 Marquette Catholic graduate, also couldn’t help but shed a tear. It would be the first time in nearly 30 years setting foot on the field that would begin a journey and take Hentrich to one of the storied college football programs in the country before playing 17 seasons in the NFL.
The Explorers retired Hentrich’s No. 15 in a ceremony at halftime of the Explorers’ game against Breese Mater Dei. His football jersey is the first to be retired by the Explorers.
It would be an emotional night for Hentrich, who was a high school All-American punter/kicker for the Explorers before moving on to play for Lou Holtz on a full scholarship at Notre Dame that culminated with an NFL career with the New York Jets, Green Bay Packers (where he won a Super Bowl) and Tennessee Titans.
Hentrich was introduced by current Marquette principal and an assistant coach at the time, Mike Slaughter, along with Hentrich’s head coach at Marquette, John Waters.
“Obviously coming back here has triggered a lot of those memories,” the 45-year-old Hentrich said. “… It’s exciting for me to be back, bringing back a lot of memories. I got a chance to go see guys I used to play with and most of them I haven’t seen since we last played here. To be able to catch up with those guys and to be honored like this is pretty amazing. … This is a special night for me.”
Hentrich, who owns a furniture store in Franklin, Tenn., which is just south of Nashville, was accompanied by his wife Lisa and two sons Nate and Sam, his parents Tom and Shirley Hentrich and sister Lisa. He retired from the NFL in 2009. He won the Super Bowl with the Packers in 1996. Hentrich, who was the first punter/kicker to be offered a full scholarship at Notre Dame, is the most successful punter and place kicker in Fighting Irish history; he holds the school record with a career 44.1-yard punting average and is the second all-time leading scorer in school history with 294 career points (behind John Carney); he averaged 42.9 yards per punt in 1,150 attempts.
At Marquette, Hentrich was the most highly recruited high school kicker in the country and was named a USA Today All-American in his senior season.
Hentrich’s journey began via injury, which may have been a blessing in disguise. He was days away from being the starting quarterback before dislocating a collarbone and eventually turned to kicking.
“He was an awfully good athlete,” said Waters, who coached 10 seasons from 1984-93 at Marquette with a 64-36 record, including Hentrich from 1985-88. “He was a great baseball player. He could make 3-pointers … I don’t think we had 3-pointers back in those days. He won the NFL golf classic a couple times and gave all the money back to Marquette.
“… It means a lot to see all of these guys. Craig played in a period of time at Marquette when we were awfully good and had a lot of good people surrounding him, but he was a unique talent. He nearly didn’t come come out for football. He almost played soccer and surprised us all.”
During his career at Marquette, Hentrich made 24 field goals in three seasons, including 10 during the 1988 season; he made one of 55 yards and another of 53 in a game against Decatur St. Teresa.
“That was probably the highlight of my high school career,” Hentrich said.
After a successful career at Notre Dame, Hentrich would play in three Super Bowls the first five years of his career (two with Green Bay and one with Tennessee, losing to St. Louis in 2000).
Hentrich played in 241 games in the NFL after being drafted by the Jets in 1993.
“The old saying is, ‘Do your job and things take care of themselves,’” Hentrich said. “That’s what I tried to do my whole career.”
Hentrich was invited to the Marquette locker room by current coach Darrell Angleton to give the Explorers a pep talk before taking the field, something he took pride in.
“This is football at its best. It’s so simple, it’s so pure,” Hentrich said. “After being where I’ve been for so long, being in college and being in the pros for so long, it’s nice to come back to the simple life here and to see kids play just for the love of the game.”
After retiring, Hentrich went on and helped coach kids for a stretch but has not been in the game at all recently. He enjoys his life these days in a new, unique trade and doesn’t plan on changing.
“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.”