Coach Hunter Cantwell Is Finding His Stride at Christian Academy of Louisville
Writer / Julie Engelhardt
Christian Academy of Louisville (CAL) has a long-standing reputation for being one of the finest learning institutions in the state of Kentucky. They have attained that status by attracting outstanding administrators, instructors and athletic staff.
Three years ago, their athletic department scored a touchdown when they brought in a new head football coach, Hunter Cantwell, to their English Station campus. Cantwell knows the game inside and out, not just from a coaching perspective, but also as a former player. He played football in elementary, middle and high school, college, and with the National Football League.
Cantwell’s path towards playing football, and eventually coming to CAL, happened in somewhat of a roundabout way. In fact, if it hadn’t been for his mother, he most likely wouldn’t have played football at all.
“My mom’s side of the family is heavily into football,” Cantwell says. “My grandfather played in college and my mom’s brothers, my uncles, played in college too. My dad has never played football. He was a big baseball guy, so I played T-ball from an early age. That was our thing – baseball.”
Cantwell’s father went out of town one week on a business trip, so his mom decided to intervene.
“I had been begging my parents to let me play football,” he says. “My mom signed me up while he was gone. When he returned home, she said, ‘Your son is going to play football.’ I think he was kind of opposed to it initially, but he’s come around since. He’s a huge football fan now, and I think he has really enjoyed following his son through high school, college, and a professional career.”
Cantwell says he actually continued playing various sports, playing football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring.
“I had a lot of friends who played football,” he says. “Growing up in Georgia, it’s a big football state. Much like there’s a strong basketball culture in Kentucky, we all grew up following Georgia and Georgia Tech, and the Atlanta Falcons. I think just being in the culture really piqued my interest and I wanted to try it out.”
Cantwell is originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee. He and his family moved to an area just north of Atlanta when he was younger, where they lived until the summer before his sophomore year of high school. They relocated to Paducah to be closer to extended family members, and Cantwell attended Paducah Tilghman High School, playing football under Coach Perry Thomas. He became the school’s all-time passing leader, completing 458 of 756 passes for 7,272 yards and 70 touchdowns. He set the Kentucky Class 3A playoff record for passing yards in a game while going 31-8 as a starter.
After a prolific football career in high school, Cantwell was given the opportunity to be a preferred walk-on at the University of Louisville prior to the 2005 season. On November 25, 2005, quarterback Brian Brohm injured his leg in a game against Syracuse and was out for the rest of the season. Cantwell stepped in and completed 3 of 5 passes for 66 yards, helping the Cardinals to a 41-17 victory. On December 2, 2005, Cantwell started the season finale on the road against the Connecticut Huskies, completing 16 of 25 passes for 271 yards and 1 touchdown, aiding Louisville in a 30-20 win. In the 2006 Gator Bowl, Cantwell played very well, throwing for 216 yards and 3 touchdowns, but their opponents, Virginia Tech, won the game. Cantwell was voted the Cardinals’ MVP of the Gator Bowl.
While at the university, Hunter Cantwell studied sports administration and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in that field. Cantwell appreciates his time at U of L, saying it made him the man he is today. He met his future wife there, plus he had the opportunity join some Christian-based organizations on campus. After graduating, Cantwell knew it was time to set his sights on his childhood dream – playing professional football.
“I graduated in December of 2008, and in January of 2009 I signed with an agent and actually went to Oceanside, California, training for the NFL combine, doing different pro workouts, then getting ready, hopefully, for the transition to the NFL,” he says.
The Carolina Panthers offered him an undrafted free-agent rookie contract.
“I was there in Carolina for my rookie year, and then going into my second off-season, I was cut,” he says. “I went on to play two more years with the Baltimore Ravens, so I got three years in professionally. After my last year with Baltimore I had couple of tryouts, one with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but nothing came of that.”
Cantwell made a call to Thomas, who had left Paducah Tilghman High School and became the head football coach at Campbellsville University. Cantwell discussed his idea of pursuing a coaching career at the university. He also wanted to work on getting his master’s degree in special education.
Thomas offered Cantwell the job of assistant coach, which he accepted, and Cantwell admits that once he was on board, he began putting the idea of a career in professional football to bed.
“Then I got a call from the Jacksonville Jaguars and they wanted me to come down and do a workout,” he says. “I’d kind of figured football was over, so I’d stopped training and stopped growing. I talked it over with my family and my wife. She and I decided to go to Jacksonville, even though I’d accepted the job at Campbellsville. I got down there and went through the physical process, and I was getting ready for the throwing part of the workout when one of the assistants to the general manager came in and told me the GM would like to see me. He offered me a contract right there on the spot.”
Although it was a generous offer, Cantwell explains that with the NFL, contracts are not guaranteed. Cantwell spoke with the general manager, Thomas and his wife, finally deciding that he would pass on the offer.
“My transition to coaching was not an easy one,” he admits. “When you’re the one who actually ends your own career, and not have it phase out on its own, it’s tough. Unfortunately, I had to kill my own career, but at the same time I was very excited to get started with coaching.”
Hunter Cantwell says he is very thankful for the opportunity to be a part of the NFL.
“The organization taught me a lot of great lessons that I carry over to my coaching career,” he says. “One of the big things I carried over is that on the pro teams there were guys who would have bad days out on the football field, or who weren’t handling their business with their discipline or timeliness or professionalism, so their lockers were cleaned out pretty quickly. It was very high-stakes. If you went out and had a bad day on the practice field, you might not have a job when you walked back into the locker room. That provided a focus on the little things, day to day, that I just never had to apply before, even at U of L.”
After his time at Campbellsville, Cantwell took a position as the head football coach and as a special education teacher at Carroll County High School. He remained there for two years, admitting he never thought he’d leave that school, but then the opportunity to become head coach at CAL became available.
Hunter Cantwell came in on the heels of Stefan LeFors, who left to take a coaching position in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. LeFors had a stellar career at the school, posting an 87-20 record in eight seasons and leading the Centurions to Class 2A championships in 2016 and 2018.
“They were coming off a pretty incredible run when I took the job, but the desire to be involved in a Christian education was just too good to pass up,” Cantwell says. “Since I’ve been here, in my first year we went 7-5. I definitely felt like we were a better team than our record showed, but we were beaten by a very good DeSales team in the second round of the playoffs this past year.”
Cantwell says his team put together a pretty nice season.
“We went all the way to state semis this year, but unfortunately lost to Elizabethtown, one game away from the state championship,” he says.
Hunter Cantwell is quite proud of how his players battled during the COVID era with all of the hurdles that were put in their path.
“Right now we’re heavy into the off-season, and our expectations have not changed from the success Coach LaFors had while he was here,” he says. “We want to keep this program playing at a high level and competing for state championships year in and year out. Obviously first, in no way, shape or form do we want to inhibit in any way the gospel moving forward. That’s always going to be our first and foremost goal, and coaching football at a high level is going to be second to that. We want to see those two things go hand in hand, and we think they do here.”