KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Fantasy football players everywhere already were regretting their decision to draft Kansas City Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt moments into last week’s NFL opener. Hunt fumbled on his first NFL carry, and the New England Patriots recovered.
Friends back home in the Cleveland area and those who knew Hunt from college at the University of Toledo weren’t concerned. They’d seen him fail before, and then seen his response.
In high school, Hunt pulled a hamstring in a running event at a track and field meet. But with a berth in the state meet on the line, Hunt pulled himself together in the high jump and cleared 6 feet, 5 inches with room to spare to qualify for states.
At Toledo, his first carry as a freshman wasn’t a fumble but was almost as ominous. He was stopped for no gain. Before he was finished at Toledo, he would be the school’s all-time leading rusher.
For them, seeing Hunt bounce back from his fumble to have one of the best debut games for any running back in NFL history wasn’t a surprise.
“There’s nothing that shakes Kareem,’’ said Matt Duffy, his coach at Willoughby South High School in Ohio. “He’s the same no matter what. I talked to him a couple of days after the game and I was kidding him about the fumble. It was already out of his mind.
“In high school, he was the same way. He knew what to do. He wasn’t necessarily coming to us all the time asking questions, but we knew he was working at it. He loves watching film. Kareem always knew what to do and how to handle the situation.’’
The Chiefs weren’t concerned about Hunt, either. They lost starting running back Spencer Ware in the preseason because of a knee injury, and after seeing Hunt in a spectacular training camp and strong preseason, they made him their featured back instead of either of two veteran options, Charcandrick West and C.J. Spiller.
So they gave the ball to Hunt on their next offensive play and 20 more times after that. He accounted for 246 yards, 148 rushing and 98 receiving, and scored three touchdowns in the Chiefs’ 42-27 road win over the Patriots. No player has gone for more than 246 yards in a debut in NFL history.
The Chiefs didn’t expect 246 yards from Hunt, but they did expect big plays like Hunt’s 78-yard touchdown catch and his 58-yard run.
“I saw probably the same thing ... at camp every day,’’ coach Andy Reid said. “He’s a load and you know he is talented and he’s a smart kid, which helps in that position.’’
Hunt has a saying he used repeatedly before the New England game when the rookie was asked about playing such a big role so early in his career and playing against the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots in prime time in his debut: “Don’t make it bigger than what it is.’’
It’s a phrase he leaned on last week, particularly after the fumble.
“I hadn’t fumbled in so long,’’ he said. “To start out that way, I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ I just got back to the basics. ... I just had to keep playing through it, not get down on myself and keep making plays.’’
Hunt has been using the saying for years. Duffy said he heard it from Hunt many times when he was in high school.
He took the same attitude to Toledo.
“He’s never made it more than it is,’’ said Anthony Johnson, Hunt’s position coach for two seasons at Toledo. “That’s his personality. To him, it’s just football, just a game. He doesn’t make things more difficult than they have to be.’’
Johnson was a running back in college at Texas, where for a year he was a teammate of Jamaal Charles. The Chiefs’ all-time leading rusher, Charles was released in March, in effect to make room for Hunt.
Only twice in six full seasons did he have more than 246 scrimmage yards in a game.
“Kareem is just as talented,’’ Johnson said. “The first tackler doesn’t really tackle him. He’s not really big, but he runs big. He’s not as fast as Jamaal, but from a running back standpoint he’s as talented as any back I’ve ever been around. That includes Jamaal. That includes Cedric Benson, all those guys, D’Onta Foreman. He’s just as talented as those guys. Playing at Toledo he was probably under the radar a lot. He just needed the opportunity to show his skills to everyone.’’
At Texas, Johnson also was a teammate, roommate and good friend of Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson. He couldn’t resist checking in with Johnson regarding Hunt before the Patriots game.
“I talked to Kareem a couple of times during camp, but I called Derrick the day before the game to get the real story,’’ Anthony Johnson said. “Derrick was like, ‘He’s got ability. I just don’t know how it’s going to translate to the games.’ I told him to watch him because Kareem is going to go off.
“Derrick called me when the game was over. He just told me, ‘You were right.’’’
Hunt isn’t particularly fast from a 40-yard dash standpoint. He was timed at 4.62 seconds at the scouting combine in February.
But he plays much faster. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Hunt was the league’s fastest ball carrier in last week’s games, clocking a top speed of 20.84 mph on his 58-yard run.
Matt Luck, his track and field coach at Willoughby South, worked with Hunt to make him faster this year before the Chiefs went to training camp.
“Running is not a complicated thing when it’s done right,’’ Luck said. “The mechanics are simple and we worked on that.
“I tried to get him to run track when he was a freshman and he just wasn’t having it. The next year, I told Kareem and his mom that if he runs track for me, he’ll never get caught from behind again on a football field.’’
That sold Hunt. He participated in track the next year.
Hunt still holds Willoughby South records for the high jump (6-8), long jump (23-3) and in the 100 (10.8). But it’s football where his athletic career truly soared, and by the end of the game against the Patriots, he was being celebrated not only by his fantasy owners but by some new friends in Kansas City.
“For a young guy, we put a lot on him in all facets of the game plan and he was able to handle it,’’ quarterback Alex Smith said. “Not just physically, [but] he was able to handle the game plan. That's a credit to him.’’