A Columbus man stood before thousands of people Sunday to be honored for something he felt unworthy to receive.

When contacted Dec. 14 by the Indianapolis Colts, Mark Hunter thought that his deceased son would be honored by the team on New Year’s Eve.

His son was U.S. Army Sgt. Jonathon Hunter, 23, of Columbus, killed Aug. 2 in an attack on a NATO convoy in southern Afghanistan during the first deployment of a 16-month military career.

But Colts representative Quinn Adams called afterward to explain it would be Mark Hunter who would be named the Horseshoe Hero during Sunday’s final home game of the season against the Houston Texans.

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Acknowledging that he is among many bereaved family members — including Jonathon’s mother, Kimberly Thompson, and her husband Brian Thompson — Mark Hunter made it clear that being individually recognized does not sit well with him.

“I’m not looking for anything for me,” Mark Hunter said. “I’m just interested in honoring my son and keeping his legacy alive.”

However, it was always the Colts’ intentions to honor the entire Hunter family for enduring their grief and sacrifice, Adams said in a follow-up interview.

Her actions Thursday backed that up when the team provided 13 free field seats to accommodate the family, instead of the customary four.

While understanding Mark Hunter’s mixed emotions, Adams said there are specific criteria regarding who can and cannot be a Horseshoe Hero.

Announced at each home game, honorees are Colts fans selected either for outstanding community contributions or for exemplary courage and perseverance through challenging circumstances, Adams said.

Past recipients this season have included a policewoman who spent decades helping victims of domestic violence, a highly honored Naval commander, and several Hoosiers bravely facing serious health complications.

Mark Hunter fits the bill, Adams said.

The family did not seek the honor. It was a Colts season-ticket holder who had heard of the family’s loss and contacted Colts management to request recognition, Hunter said.

While still struggling with mixed emotions over the program, Hunter said it occurred to him that being named a Horseshoe Hero could indirectly help him to honor his son’s legacy.

A few weeks ago, the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County announced the creation of the Sgt. Jonathon Michael Hunter Legacy Scholarship.

With a little more than $13,000 already donated, the father said he has been pushing this holiday season to raise the total to $15,000 — the minimum required before scholarships can be awarded, he said.

Sporting the same Army-green Jonathon Hunter “memory shirts” on Sunday that they are selling to raise additional scholarship funds, the family is hopeful the recognition might help increase donations to the scholarship, Hunter said.

Finally, since Lucas Oil Stadium was the scene of one of his fondest father-son memories, the invitation had a distinct emotional appeal.

The date was Aug. 29, 2010. Both the Columbus East Olympians and the Greenwood Woodmen had been invited by then-Colts quarterback Peyton Manning to open their football seasons in the PeyBack Classic tournament.

Serving as a backup for Columbus East starting tailback Andrew Wilson, Jonathon Hunter filled his father with pride by scoring a touchdown on the Colts’ home turf, as well as making a few significant tackles in a 48-13 win for the Olympians, Mark Hunter said.

Jonathon Hunter graduated from East in 2011.

“It didn’t mean that much to Jonathon, but it was important to me,” said Hunter, who also played football for East before graduating in 1976. “Not everybody can say they have scored a touchdown at Lucas Oil Stadium.”

Originally, it appeared that Jonathon Hunter’s widow would not be able to attend Sunday’s game.

Whitney Hunter had driven from her North Carolina home to Buffalo, New York, for an extended holiday visit with friend Sierra Brown, the wife of U.S. Army Sgt. Chris Brown, who was with Sgt. Hunter when he was killed.

But the widow eventually decided to fly into Indianapolis on Saturday, attend the game Sunday, fly back to finish the visit, and drive back home, Mark Hunter said.

Whatever recognition Mark Hunter receives, it is extremely well-deserved, Whitney Hunter said during a phone interview Friday.

“He was extremely strong for the rest of us,” she said.

Following an interview, the Colts brought Mark Hunter, daughter-in-law, Whitney Hunter, son Marcus Hunter and brother Kenny Hunter to the 50 yard line at 12:50 p.m.

Besides customized jerseys, the four family members were also presented a game ball during the ceremony.

When the Colts unexpectedly placed the image of Sgt. Jonathon Hunter on the Jumbotron, there was only word Mark Hunter used to describe his feelings.

“Proud,” he said.

Scholarship information

For information on the Sgt. Jonathon Michael Hunter Legacy Scholarship and other scholarships administered through the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, or to apply, visit heritagefundbc.org.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.