Kareem Hunt’s friends like to say they’ve never seen him without a smile, but it was more like fury the first time millions of Americans saw him. Actually, that’s not the right word. His body went numb, his senses dulled. It was too much.
Panic does that to us. Even professional athletes, at least the ones who work their entire lives for a moment they literally just fumble away. Hunt is the Chiefs’ starting running back, which means he will be defined not as much by what happens, but by what he does after. That might be the best and worst part of his chosen profession.
Life changes in an instant, and we never know when that moment will come, but here was Hunt’s. Four months ago, the power was off at his apartment in Toledo when the Chiefs drafted him (more on this in a minute). Then, on the NFL’s opening night in Foxborough, Mass., his first carry resulted in the first lost fumble of his life (seriously, all the way back to Pee Wee ball).
The outcome of that evening’s episode of the most-watched TV program in America would swing in part on his reaction.
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“I didn’t know if I should hug him or kick him,” his mother, Stephanie Riggins, said.
Hunt spent part of the previous night texting with his old high school coach, who was trying to calm his nerves ... but the nerves won. The natural instinct of teammates is to console. The natural instinct of the fumbler is to seek privacy, silence, but there is no such thing in the chaos of the NFL.
So after watching his rookie running back cough up the ball, Chiefs coach Andy Reid kept his words simple: Get ready, the first play of the next series is yours.
“Now, he was fuming when I said that,” Reid said, “so I don’t know what he heard or didn’t hear. But I said it.”
Thousands of men have played in the NFL, most with a first game they cherish. None have done what Hunt did, and it has nothing to do with that fumble and everything to do with what he did after: 148 yards rushing, 98 more receiving, and three touchdowns against the Patriots in one of the best Chiefs wins in decades.
So now, here is Hunt, dealing with a completely different challenge than coming back from a fumble. The new challenge, and the one that will consume him and define him, is dealing with success.
“Honestly, yeah,” he said. “I’ve had success before, but not like this, not on this stage.”
In just one game, Hunt became a national curiosity in America’s greatest obsession. Ninety-eight years of the NFL and nobody ever did what he did in a debut — a record 246 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in a win over the reigning champs.
In his next two games, Hunt rushed for 81 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Philadelphia and 172 yards in 17 carries in a road win over the LA Chargers, becoming the first NFL player to open his career with touchdowns of 50-plus yards in three consecutive games. He’s matched the NFL record of six touchdowns in his first three games. Only Billy Sims of the 1980 Detroit Lions had more yards from scrimmage in his first three NFL games.
Hunt spent part of the week after his breakout game in New England playing Madden online with his old roommate. He spent other moments looking at one of his touchdowns on the cover of Sports Illustrated, his face on all the shows, and of course a few minutes watching himself on YouTube a week after only hardcore fans and fantasy-football nerds knew his name.
From here, this story figures to go one of two ways: either the creation of a star, or the answer to a trivia question that will grow more obscure with time.
Clues to what might happen next are back in Northeast Ohio.
Two games in and Kareem Hunt still hadn’t been tackled. Clarence, five years older, goes all the way back to the beginning when asked when he knew his little brother was special. Kareem was 7 then, playing football for the first time. Kids mature at different speeds, but this was ridiculous.
Handoff, touchdown. Handoff, touchdown. Every time, for two straight Saturdays. Then came the third game.
“He got tackled,” Clarence said. “Then he cried.”
Kareem looked toward the sideline, to his mom, those tears in his eyes, and he probably wanted sympathy.
“I said, ‘Get back in,’” Riggins recalled. “‘Do you want to play football, or do you want to go home?’”
A few games later, Mom said, Kareem scored 10 touchdowns with around a thousand yards rushing against a team that included Mitch Trubisky — this year’s No. 2 overall draft pick by the Bears.
Kareem’s father’s full name is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Hunt and, no, this is not a joke. That’s what it says on the birth certificate. The older Hunt was a damn good basketball player, too. A high school star.
The son’s full name is Kareem A.J. Hunt — “that’s as far as I’d go with it,” Stephanie says, laughing — and he did pick up some of that athleticism, too.
Willoughby is a suburb of Cleveland, a 20-mile drive east from downtown on a stretch of I-90 between Lake Erie and a line of warehouses. Kareem’s football obsession, though, wasn’t the Browns. It was Barry Sanders. The poster still hangs on a wall in his room, in the house he grew up in with Clarence and Stephanie.
Kareem started telling people he would play in the NFL shortly after that game against Trubisky’s team, and Stephanie had to balance encouraging a passion and preparing him for reality. If she had it her way, Kareem never would’ve played football. He was a terrific baseball player as a kid — shortstop and pitcher — and of course a mother would prefer the sport with less contact.
But she did smile when he said, long before his voice dropped, that he would use football to help her retire. You won’t work after I make it, he’d say, and what’s a mother to do when she hears that? Kareem was insistent, and consistent, and once he started skipping outings with his friends for football workouts in the summer, she stopped even bringing it up.
Willoughby lies in the middle of the snowbelt, and later his college teammates would joke that playing through the cold is Kareem’s superpower. But he hated those snow days. Too much snow for school meant too much snow for practice.
“I’m telling you,” said Deltrin Kimbro, Kareem’s stepfather, “you thought the world ended for Kareem when he couldn’t practice.”
So this is not a story of a prodigy with otherworldly gifts. Kareem always had talent, and always loved football, but in this part of the country a lot of talented kids love football. Some of them are bigger (Kareem is now 5 feet 10 and 210 pounds), or faster (he ran a 4.66-second 40-yard dash at the NFL’s scouting combine, though the Chiefs had him at 4.58), or both.
Kareem had to make his way in the margins, more because of his work than his gifts.
“I remember telling reporters here this guy will play on Sundays,” Willoughby South High coach Matt Duffy said. “I said he may not get recruited by Ohio State, but he’ll play on Sundays.”
Kareem was a high school star from the beginning. He broke in as a linebacker, but when the starting tailback couldn’t play a stretch of three games, Kareem took the handoffs and the offense didn’t drop off a lick.
He scored 83 touchdowns between his junior and senior seasons, many of them on what his high school coach calls “circus runs,” but the big offers never came.
Ohio State signed Ezekiel Elliott, a top recruit and now a star with the Cowboys. Michigan signed Derrick Green, Rivals’ No. 1 ranked back in the country. Kareem was a three-star recruit, nowhere on the national lists. He signed with Toledo.
“We whiffed on him,” an assistant at Ohio State would later tell Duffy. “You got any more like that?”
“Nope,” Duffy replied. “That one’s different.”
During a scrimmage before his freshman year of college at Toledo, Kareem Hunt took a handoff near the goal line. The hole opened in front of him, but a safety was on the other side and squared his pads directly into Hunt. This should’ve been a stop, and would’ve been a stop, except Hunt lowered his pads, too.
The safety fell back into the end zone. Broke his collarbone.
“That doesn’t usually happen,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said.
Toledo was always going to be the place Hunt made it, or didn’t. The place he’d use to get to the NFL, or the place that chewed him up. He rode both sides of that at different times.
Toledo’s starter got hurt midway through Hunt’s freshman season, which meant one more chance earlier than expected, and he shined: 127 yards and a touchdown in his first game as a primary ballcarrier, then 114 and a score, then 168 and two scores, and 186 and another score. On and on it went.
His sophomore season was even better — 1,631 yards rushing, and 8 yards per carry — and he talked with friends about going pro the next year. But that’s when the bad came.
His junior season began with a suspension for a violation of team rules that his coach calls “not at all malicious,” and his mother calls “a very bad decision.” Then came injuries. His ankle. Hamstring. Maybe a groin. He was better later in the season, and still made second-team all-Mid-American Conference, but he wasn’t the same, and everyone knew it.
“I’m sure he was down,” said Terry Swanson, a Toledo running back and teammate for three years. “I mean, he had to be. But you could ask anybody in the locker room. We never saw it. He never showed it.”
Hunt still wanted to leave early for the draft, but the NFL’s evaluation came back unimpressed. Stephanie talked him out of it.
“Maybe this isn’t the right time,” she remembers telling him. “I think he really wanted to leave.”
Hunt was a star last fall at Toledo, but that’s only part of the point. He rushed for 1,475 yards, led the nation in missed tackles, caught 41 passes and dropped none while playing with a cast on a broken wrist. He became a darling of the growing industry around the NFL Draft. But, notably, he was the same guy.
His work never changed. His habits didn’t waver. When teammates made fun of his hair, or his ashy knees, he laughed as hard as he did the day after rushing for 200 yards against Western Michigan.
Hunt did enough to know he’d be drafted, even if he didn’t know where or when. Detroit is an hour from Toledo, and story after story came out linking Hunt to the Lions. The Chiefs may have thought the same thing, because they traded ahead of the Lions in the third round to select him.
Hunt watched the draft at home, with Stephanie and friends and family. That’s where he’d have been anyway, of course, but his roommates also scattered to watch the biggest night of his life for a more pragmatic reason: The power company turned their lights off.
“Oh my God, that is so true,” Hunt said this week. “I can’t believe (Swanson) told you that. I’m dying.”
To review: The day Hunt was selected into the NFL, a spot that would eventually be worth a $3.3 million contract, he was so behind on bills that he had no lights.
“It was a rough time for us,” Swanson said. “And yeah, after that, he helped us.”
Now that Hunt has had the best debut for a running back in the history of his new league, the questions are about what he does from here. The NFL is an obsessive place, where the tiniest details are blown out of proportion, each week a literal referendum on a player’s worth and commitment.
And so the first thing Hunt’s new teammates and coaches will watch for is change. Changes in his habits. In his focus. In his recall in the classroom, or effort during practice.
“He’s going to work hard because that’s how he’s been since he got here,” Reid said. “The way we practice, everybody in the world would know if you’re cruising, and nobody would let you do that.”
There is no way Hunt could’ve kept the week after the Patriots game normal. Not in a real sense. There’s too much going on. Too many phone calls, too many texts, too many shows with his highlights.
But he’s tried to do the same things. Still talks to his mom every day, more than once and never about football. They talk about how he’s feeling, what she’s cooking. Mother-son stuff.
He still plays in an online Madden video-game league with friends and old teammates, and sure, let’s answer the question you’re asking: Hunt plays with the Chiefs, though everyone drafted new players, and he drafted himself … but not before taking a quarterback.
So if you want someone equipped to deal with sudden and intense and immediate success, this is a man who appears ready. He’s had to work his entire life at this, harder than many of the men who are now peers, and has spent his first week as a new star practicing the same way and acting the same way as when he was just trying to make the team.
Here are a couple more stories, too, picked up back in northeast Ohio. Did you know Hunt earned a 3.8 GPA during his senior season at Toledo, and again made the dean’s list in the spring while prepping for the draft? This is no small thing.
Hunt was diagnosed with a learning disability in high school. Classwork has never come easy. He’s had to work at it, just like football. He’s the first person in his family to graduate from college, which is part of why his stepfather is now going back to school, dedicated enough that he watched Kareem’s first game on TV rather than miss class for the trip.
Hunt’s stepdad missed a moment there, too. Stephanie told him about it later. After the game, after touchdown after touchdown after touchdown, Kareem opened the locker-room doors and hugged his mother and looked her in the eyes and spoke the first words she’d heard him say since his just-completed breakout night.
Here, you can decide if this is a man who is about to be happy with one good game.
“I can’t believe I fumbled,” he said.