The first steps were the most difficult. Kareem Hunt got out of bed every morning for months, put his right foot on the ground and it felt off. His foot felt stiff and uncomfortable. A self-described "toe walker," Hunt had two plates and four screws in that foot, and they made everything feel different.
This was not what he had in mind for the 2015 season. A junior at Toledo, Hunt envisioned improving on a sophomore year when he had 1,631 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. The Lisfranc injury suffered in the offseason between his sophomore and junior years changed everything. He missed all of spring practice. He played all of 2015 with “hardware” in his foot, which he was reminded of every day as he got out of bed.
“I really had to get warmed up, a good five or 10 steps,” Hunt said. “On game day, I would be hurting, too. They were talking about redshirting me going into my junior year, my team and doctors, they were thinking about it, but I couldn’t let it happen.
“I lived in the training room, [to] do whatever it took. I played with the hardware in my foot and then right after my bowl game my junior year, I got it removed and had time to recover and was fully healthy for my senior year, and it definitely paid off.”
The extra year mattered. Had Hunt had a strong junior season after his breakout sophomore year, he would have declared early for the NFL draft. It’s a what-if he’ll never be able to answer, but he will graduate in May with a degree in criminal justice, the first member of his family to graduate from college.
The injury also forced Hunt to view football differently. He watched tape before, but missing spring practice and struggling at points in his junior season led him to watch film of his freshman and sophomore years. He learned more about opposing defenses, something he implemented during his senior year.
He also watched NFL running backs. He doesn’t try to emulate any backs in the pros, but he grabbed pieces from Marshawn Lynch, Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson.
“I just like their effort,” Hunt said. “They never give up on a play, like I never try to give up on a play. No matter how bad the blocking is up front or if someone missed their assignment, I’m trying to make the most of every opportunity I get when I touch the ball, and I feel like a lot of those guys are the same way.”
Hunt returned healthy his senior year, the plates and screws removed following the 2015 Boca Raton Bowl. He rushed 262 times for 1,475 yards and 10 touchdowns last season as a senior at Toledo. That caught the attention of scouts and NFL teams, making him a strong candidate to be a Day 2 selection in the NFL draft.
The injury didn’t change his running style much, something he developed midway through his high school career in Lake County, Ohio. In high school, he started on defense as a linebacker and safety, and on offense as a running back. After being unhappy with some of his early performances his junior year, he made a decision.
“I was watching film early my junior year when I was just not getting as many yards as I wanted,” Hunt said. “It was because I was doing a little bit too much dancing, just not really going.
“I feel like once I really started thinking about it, why don’t I start just trying to run through everybody and see how that goes and mix things up through that game. It started working when I started doing that.”
Early in games, he wouldn’t try to make defenders miss. He would try to run through them, delivering hits with his body as he moved past them and wore them down physically and mentally. When defenders would be more fatigued later in games, Hunt could take advantage, having already shown he wasn’t afraid of contact.
Then he’d bring his shiftiness in, shuffling to make hesitant defenders miss. He's kept that running strategy ever since. His Toledo career and running style -- one also focused on ball security, with no lost fumbles over 645 carries the past three years, according to Pro Football Focus -- made for a busy two months leading up to the draft.
Between visits and workouts, he met with Detroit, New England, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Carolina, Tennessee, New Orleans, Atlanta, the New York Jets, the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay, among others.
The lengthy process led Hunt to reflect a bit about how he will be the latest MAC running back to make the NFL, and how he made sure his foot injury didn’t hold him back. When he hurt his foot, he wondered if he would be able to remain the same back he was prior to the injury. Now, he says, he thinks he's even better.
Since high school, he thought he could reach this point -- and hearing his name this weekend would be a culmination of the journey, two years after it took him numerous steps just to warm up his foot. Now he’s sprinting -- right toward an NFL job and a big paycheck.
“It’s going to be very emotional for me and my family,” Hunt said. “It’s been such a long time coming and working so long and hard for this moment.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll drop a few tears.”