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Vikings' Danielle Hunter: The car-racing, world-traveling NFL superstar you don't know

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EAGAN, Minn. -- Days after Danielle Hunter became the first player in NFL history to notch 48 sacks by his 25th birthday, Minnesota Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson received an email from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There was another milestone on the horizon for the defensive end, who was on the verge of becoming the youngest player ever to reach 50 sacks.

A few weeks later, on the night before the Vikings' Week 14 win over the Detroit Lions, Patterson sat next to Hunter in a team meeting and told him that Canton wanted his game-worn jersey and gloves when he got the half-sack he needed for the benchmark.

Hunter delivered the record the next day -- and then some -- notching a season-high three sacks.

Not even the Vikings could have projected that their 2015 third-round draft choice would reach such historic feats this early in his career -- years before the point when most pass-rushers enter their prime. What's even more impressive is that this Jamaican-born NFL star has flown under the radar for the entirety of his football career and is rarely mentioned among the household names at a position that carries almost as much celebrity as quarterbacks.

Hunter was named to his second straight Pro Bowl last week, as voted on by fellow players, coaches and fans. But people are still learning about Hunter despite all he has accomplished. This year he's stringing together a season worthy of consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, leading the NFL in pressures (82) while ranking third in sacks (13.5).

Those closest to Hunter are used to the reserved nature of their ultra-talented teammate. Any opportunity they get to stand on the table for their sports-car-racing, world-traveling defensive end is one they relish.

"He doesn't say a word," Minnesota defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo said. "I make fun of him every day, like, 'Bro, you're the man. You're a superstar.'"


His name is pronounced "Duh-kneel." Not "Danielle." Not "Daniel." Not "Duh-nell" (sorry, Mike Zimmer). It's a combination of two names his mother blended together. She wanted it to sound different from the way it's spelled, which often leads to frequent mispronunciations.

"I don't try to change it because I'm probably the only male on this planet with that name spelling," Hunter told ESPN.com. "So that's kind of unique."

His name isn't as recognizable as Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack. Companies and brands have approached his agent about sponsorship opportunities, but you won't see Hunter star in an Old Spice ad.

"I just want to play football," he said. "Maybe one day I'll do it, but I don't know."

But Hunter's passions go beyond football.

At a track two hours north of the Vikings' team facility in Brainerd, Minnesota, Hunter escapes to feed his love of racing with his Nissan GT-R Nismo, a model that can cost upward of $200,000. He took lessons to become a skilled driver at high speeds, careening around corners the way he bends around tackles. It's a passion he shares with teammate Eric Kendricks, who he's hoping will join him on the track in the offseason.

Hunter finds balance away from the game with a handful of interests. Motorsports, travel, capturing video of the places he visits with his drone and editing the footage into a project -- all of which he taught himself how to do through the internet, including YouTube.

But that's not some new development. Hunter has always been good with technology.

"No lie, I used to be a game hacker back in the day when I was like 10 or 11," Hunter said. "I had an Xbox and there was this game I used to play, and in order to get some points and all that, you had to do too much stuff. I figured out some way how to get into the software, and it gave me all the points in the world."

Hunter lived in Jamaica until he was 8 years old, leaving his native Greater Portmore to join his mother in Houston. It was the first time he had seen people who didn't look like him. Upon visiting relatives in New York, he witnessed his first snow.

His accent comes out from time to time, like when he broke down the huddle in a game on "one, two, tree" last season, but Hunter's Jamaican roots show up elsewhere, from the food and music he enjoys to his outlook on life.

"You should just watch and listen to Bob Marley. He lived life the right way," Hunter said. "It wasn't about attention, money or all that stuff. It was just about living life and being happy. That's a big example of what Jamaican culture is."

Hunter's travels have taken him across the country and the world, from Iceland to South America, London to Tokyo. Last offseason, Hunter, Odenigbo, Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Eric Wilson visited Tokyo, which he said is probably his favorite place he's visited.

The best part? The heated toilet seats. That and the fact that in the concrete jungle bustling with millions of people, everything is so organized.

"Everybody minded their own business," he said. "I'm not a nosy person. I like people who mind their business."


Hunter felt like he was at rock bottom when he entered the NFL in 2015. He gambled by leaving LSU as a junior after producing just 4.5 sacks over three years, and his draft stock took a hit. His athleticism and physical attributes said first-rounder. His sack total did not.

"How much worse can you get than that?" Hunter said. "I knew what kind of player I was, and I knew that there was something out there I could've done, but I needed the right tools. I just felt like there was something missing."

He wasn't alone. Most draft analysts felt Hunter needed more time in college.

"He's a player who has a lot of talent, but I also think he's not ready," ESPN draft insider Todd McShay said at the time. "If he was asking my advice, I'd tell him he needs to go back to school and continue to develop. I know he's freakish, great in the weight room. I see flashes of it. I never thought this year that he developed."

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Hunter was selected 88th overall by the Vikings and was the youngest player in the NFL during his rookie season. Vikings coaches knew Hunter had the capability of playing the run after he notched 21 tackles for loss in college. Changing his habits as a pass-rusher became their primary focus.

The breakthrough came when he played the role of Von Miller in the week of practice leading into their 2015 game against the Denver Broncos. At LSU, Hunter rushed the passer out of a three-point stance. Given his length, Patterson saw a more natural fit for Hunter to rush standing up, like Miller. Vikings coaches could tell quickly that Hunter's timing and rush angles were improving. Hunter's pursuit became more effective when they deployed their nickel defense on third down.

The early impact he had on the defense led to a five-year extension for Hunter in June 2018, after he compiled 25.5 sacks his first three seasons. At 23 years old, Hunter signed a $72 million contract that included $40 million in guarantees and a $15 million signing bonus.

Hunter has more than outplayed that deal but has no regrets about his decision.

"I knew it wasn't the biggest contract or anything like that and if I'd waited I could have gotten more money, but I wanted to be here and have my future ... solidified, cemented," Hunter said.

"... It was never really about the money. I don't spend money like that. The only time I'll probably spend money is on vehicles that I like. That's about it. The money that I have right now would be enough for me and my family and generations. So it was never about the money for me."


Don't confuse Hunter's soft-spoken, reserved manner for anything other than that's who he really is. He's thoughtful and deliberate with his words and doesn't want to be boxed in to a specific role. His sack celebration -- he draws the outline of a door and proceeds to karate kick through it -- is as flamboyant as he gets.

"He just wants to be left alone," Odenigbo said. "He's just a guy that wants to handle his business. He happens to be really good at his job, but he doesn't need all the attention because he sees everything as a distraction. And it's true because a lot of times when you start becoming the man, you start believing the hype and what everyone is saying about you. Then when you have a bad game, everyone's like, 'What's going on?'"

To know the real Danielle Hunter is to understand that he'd rather sit back and observe than lead the conversation. Being quiet isn't a bad thing, and in his eyes it doesn't define him.

"People tell me that [I'm quiet] all the time, but that's because they don't know me," Hunter said. "If you know me, then you realize the type of person I am. My friends tell me I'm funny. Teammates, they think I'm funny.

"But if people tell me I'm quiet, that means they want me to be something else. They want me to be loud. Because most of the time when people say that, they're expecting or they want me to be something else that I'm not portraying to them."

Hunter says he didn't say much when he first arrived in Minnesota. Five years later, not a lot has changed.

"I still don't say much, but my D-line room, I'm close with them," Hunter said. "I talk to them a lot. The older guys too. When the younger guys come in, I don't really say much to them, but I say more than I would have said from the first time I got here as a rookie."

His copious note-taking showed Vikings coaches the time and effort he was willing to put in to get here. That's been his approach his entire career.

"He didn't open his mouth," former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "He just absorbed everything that you gave him. He was not a talker. He would show emotions, he had that, but you don't have to be someone that's opening your mouth all the time to be a leader. And he became a leader for us early on, a leader by example."

Patterson has coached some of the league's premier defensive linemen, a list that includes John Randle, Chris Doleman, Elvis Dumervil and now Hunter.

The comparison game is off-limits, particularly when it comes to Hunter. It's something Patterson has pushed back on since Hunter arrived in Minnesota five years ago, even with his colleagues in coaches' meetings.

"I won't do it because I think it limits him," Patterson said. "Why can't we just sit back and enjoy who he is and let him write his own ticket, and at the end of it see how good he is. Maybe people will then say, 'You're trying to be the next Danielle Hunter.'"

Hunter's unassuming personality is what makes him such an enigma. Here is this insanely talented specimen, who hasn't even begun to scratch the surface of his full potential, yet he's quietly rewriting history and still has years left to close in on a handful of records.

"We've got a superstar in Minneapolis," Odenigbo said. "Everyone talks about their edge rushers. "This, that, Watt, Bosa. Yeah, well, we've got the Hunter. His last name's Hunter."

Added Patterson: "This is only the beginning. I hope I'm blessed to keep coaching here for as long as he's playing so I can experience this journey with him."