In the Western Reserve Youth Football League, a player isn’t allowed to hurdle over another.
But nothing stops Kareem Hunt. Not even Ohio high school football rules.
As a senior at Willoughby South in 2012, Hunt fielded a punt at his home field, picking up the ball near the left sideline after it took a bounce.
He ran to the right, cutting outside before he started up the sideline. When a Chardon High defender got in his path, Hunt didn’t stop. He didn’t go around him. He didn’t go through him.
He went over him.
“I just hurdled a guy and stiff-armed him,” Hunt said nonchalantly.
The officials just stared.
“They didn’t call it, I think because they were so blown away when he did it,” Willoughby South coach Matt Duffy said. “Just way up in the air, went over the top of someone.”
Duffy, who’s been the football coach at Willoughby South for the last 16 years, can’t remember ever seeing anyone else jump over another player.
“He just did things that kind of made you laugh as a coach,” Duffy said. “I had, at times, opposing coaches just put their hands up and say what are you going to do? There’s not much you can do.”
As surprised as the Willoughby community was to see Hunt jump over a player that night, they hardly blink when they see him doing it now in the NFL. In two weeks, he has hurdled over Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates and Denver Broncos safety Will Parks. But to this small town north of Cleveland, that’s just Hunt. He’s been doing that kind of thing for years.
On Sunday, he’ll take the field 19 miles from the spot of his first in-game leap when the Chiefs (7-1) face the Cleveland Browns (2-5-1) at FirstEnergy Stadium. The seats will undoubtedly be filled with hundreds of Hunt’s fans — including the 110 Willoughby South football players and coaches he bought tickets for during the week leading up to the game — eagerly waiting to see him do it again.
Brief career as an actual hurdler
Matt Luck laughs when he thinks about the three days Hunt spent as an actual high school hurdler — in track and field.
“I wish I could take credit for his hurdling, but I just can’t,” the longtime Willoughby South track coach said.
After watching him play football, Luck knew Hunt was fast, and he also knew he had the athleticism to be a powerful jumper.
But combining the two? That just didn’t work for Hunt.
“He practiced as a sophomore and was honestly so bad,” Luck said. “I swear to God. We just focused on the long jump, high jump and the 100. I am not making that up.”
Unlike Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who dominated the 110-meter hurdles in high school, Hunt just couldn’t get the rhythm of the race down.
Rather than leaping over the hurdle in one fluid motion mid-sprint, Hunt would run up to the hurdle and then start his jump. And as any track coach will tell you, that’s not the way to do it.
“He didn’t pick it up right away,” Luck said.
Instead, Luck steered Hunt toward the high jump, long jump and 100-meter dash. Those events harnessed Hunt’s natural athletic ability and helped him cross-train for football.
Watching Hunt vault over NFL players now, Luck does see a few things he taught him, but they’re not from those short-lived hurdling sessions.
“When I watch him do that, there’s a lot of athletic ability,” Luck said. “But there’s a lot of him long jumping that I see when he’s going over. It’s a hurdle, but I guess I should’ve taught him how to hurdle longer.”
Hurdling to Toledo
It only took one look at the picture of Hunt’s high school hurdle for Lou Ayeni to clear his queue of potential running backs.
Shortly after the Chardon game, Duffy texted the picture to Ayeni, then the University of Toledo’s run-game coordinator. That’s all he needed to see.
“I remember just my eyes lighting up and being like, ‘This kid is a freak show,’” said Ayeni, now Northwestern’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator. “‘We’ve got to have this guy.’”
A couple of bigger schools like Minnesota and Pittsburgh were after Hunt, but Ayeni stayed dedicated to his pursuit of the running back — especially after seeing that photo.
Every Monday, the Toledo coaches met to discuss their recruiting targets. They’d go over their lists of players to call, and Ayeni joked to Duffy that his was the shortest.
“Kareem Hunt,” Ayeni told the coaches at the meeting. “That’s it. I’m not calling anybody else.”
His persistence combined with Hunt’s desire to stay close to home so his mom could watch him play resulted in Hunt committing to Toledo on National Signing Day in 2013.
Ayeni was only at Toledo for a year, but their relationship was a strong one.
“Everybody used to call him my baby boy, like he was my first son, because it was such a big deal to recruit him,” Ayeni said. “When we got there, he was attached to my hip because he wanted to do everything right, which I loved.”
Ayeni watched as Hunt seamlessly transferred the athleticism he showed at Willoughby South to the college game. He not only hurdled over guys at practice, he also ran right through them.
On the first play of his first intrasquad scrimmage his freshman year, Hunt ripped off a long run to set up his team at the 5-yard-line. The next play, he broke two tackles, bounced off a defender, juked another and ran over safety Jordan Haden, breaking Haden’s collarbone.
“He just demolishes him in the end zone, and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” Ayeni said, still incredulous at the recollection.
Now that Ayeni’s seen that, not much surprises him when he flips on Chiefs games on Sundays.
“What he’s doing now in the pros is the same the he was doing in college, is the same thing he did in high school,” Ayeni said. “He was natural. It was just natural. I loved his build. I remember the first time I met him, I was like, ‘Whoa. He’s the guy. I want that guy.’ He just, there’s something in your mind, like, this guy is going to be special.”
Still a star around town
A signed Sports Illustrated cover featuring Hunt diving into the end zone hangs on the wall inside the Wild Goose on Erie Street in downtown Willoughby.
The Irish bar, also known for its stone-fired pizza, is owned by Duffy’s brother-in-law. His nephew, Casey Klicman, also works at the Wild Goose.
Klickman, as it turned out, knows Hunt pretty well: He was his high school quarterback.
And like everyone else around Willoughby South, he also vividly remembers the hurdle.
When he saw Hunt leap over Bates and Parks as a Chief, Klicman’s mind immediately went back to that night against Chardon.
“The play is kind of nostalgic,” Klicman said. “Not only for Kareem, but for the rest of everyone who graduated with him. We all knew he had the ability to be where he is right now, but it’s like a confidence thing. How easily could he do it in the NFL? It was a waiting game for not only us, but him. So it was cool to see that on TV. Blast from the past.”
These days, Hunt’s high-flying moves are plenty legal, but don’t be surprised if he starts pulling out new tricks now that defenses are on alert for his next hurdle.
“Everybody’s seen him jump people now,” Luck said. “So now he’s going to go around them or through them. He can do both and somebody’s going to pay the price for when he goes through you.”