When the phone rang, it was early morning, and Pete Hunter didn't react at first. The sun hadn't come up, and the sleep crust hadn't fully formed in the corner of his eyes. He rolled over, fighting through the heavy fog that lingers when you're barely awake, and he wasn't sure if the phone was ringing at all or if it was part of some horrible dream. As he reached for the phone, the clock mocked him: 5 a.m.
It was his sister on the line, calling from the East Coast, from their childhood home in Atlantic City. Her voice was excited, and loud, and it took Hunter a second to process what she was saying.
"She was calling me to make sure I was gonna get up in time for minicamp," Hunter recalls, laughing. "Man, I never oversleep. Never. There's no way I was gonna miss this camp. No way. But she was just excited, you know? My whole family is excited. So I was like, 'You're an hour ahead of me out there. I still have an hour to sleep.' I don't think she cared. She just kept talking."
Hunter didn't hang up or even get angry, because that would have been wasted effort. There was no way to suppress his family's energy, no point in even giving it a try, because it would have been hypocritical. He was right there with them--thrilled beyond words by the opportunity that waited for him once he got up and made his way to Valley Ranch for minicamp.
It was no secret last year that the Cowboys were thin in the secondary--perhaps their biggest trouble spot on that side of the ball, save the defensive line. That seems like a curious thing to say about a team that had Roy Williams and Darren Woodson and Terence Newman in the defensive backfield, a team that was then ranked first against the pass. But that other corner spot and the nickel defense were areas of concern for head coach Bill Parcells. Mario Edwards played capably opposite Newman, but not spectacularly, and there were too many big plays against the Cowboys. There weren't enough forced turnovers, either. The Cowboys ranked near the bottom of the NFC last year in turnover ratio (minus-4 put them 12th of 16 teams) and interceptions (13 picks put them 13th in the conference).
When Edwards became a free agent and asked for more money, it was no surprise that the Pokes let him walk. Everyone figured they'd use the vacancy as a chance to add depth to the secondary. Everyone hoped they'd grab a big-name free agent--the hot candidate was former Eagles Pro Bowler Bobby Taylor. But Taylor signed with Seattle, and the 'Boys waded through the off-season without entertaining any serious job applicants. By not bringing anyone in, the implication was that Hunter would be the man. The way it played out was somewhat odd, because what Hunter can do is still unknown. But it wasn't as strange as this:
"I think we have a chance to be better there," Parcells says. "I don't know why, but I just think that someone will step up over there. I think someone will come through."
It could have been more sleight of hand from Parcells, more optimism with one hand to distract you from the real thoughts he was clutching tightly in the other. But I don't think so. I think Parcells is planning on heading to camp with Hunter and Jemeel Powell and a few others and seeing if any of them can find a seat for themselves once he kills the music and the season begins.
Which is probably worrying some of you, or at least making you wonder if this is the right way to go. Can the 'Boys get better by promoting Hunter, last year's nickel corner and special-teamer, or going with someone with even less experience?
"I think we can be better, because Pete's working as hard as anyone here," Newman says. He should know. Newman looked like Mighty Mouse last year, small and cut, but not noticeably muscular. Parcells says he was down around 179 pounds last year but came into this minicamp pushing 200; you can see the added weight in his shoulders, neck and arms. "He's trying to step it up on that side; you can see that he wants to grab the position. I know he's gonna do it. He's just competitive."
From this end, I'd like to believe Hunter can pull it off. Not so much because I want to see the Pokes do well but because he's a real person, one of the few athletes I've interviewed and gotten to know who didn't make me want to boot. (Incidentally, my peers mercilessly bust my balls about Hunter. They call me "Pete's biographer" because of the lengthy feature I wrote about him during his rookie year. They can all bite me.) Regardless of all that, there's no guarantee Hunter will excel or even prove serviceable, because playing regularly requires a different skill set than playing solely on third downs or in obvious passing situations.
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"Pete improved quite a bit at the end of last year, but I still need to see something from him," Parcells says, validating my fondness for the would-be starter but admitting that, despite all the people in his corner, Hunter must seize the day. "He has some good athleticism. I think he has a shot. This is his third year in the league. He's either gonna get going or not. The circus doesn't stay in town forever."
Hunter knows as much, and fighting for a job is nothing new for him. He had to work harder than most to make it out of tiny Virginia Union; harder still to stick in the NFL. He spent last off-season employing the same grind-it-out ethic, running and lifting weights and looking at tape. Sometimes he'd watch plays from last year on his TV, but most of the time he'd just rework them in his brain--play them over and over without a break. Those plays, the ones he still can't get out of his head, were never good.
One in particular still haunts him. The Giants game at the Meadowlands last year didn't go well for Hunter, but it did provide an education. At one point he was matched up against Amani Toomer, New York's standout receiver. When Toomer reached the end zone, he juked and went left. Hunter got turned around and went right. The whole thing took only a few seconds. But in the time it took you to open another beer, Hunter had let up a touchdown. And now he can't let it go.
"That was awful," Hunter said shortly before minicamp began and his chance to start finally arrived. "I'll never forget that. I can't forget it. But I learn from my mistakes, and I think I got better as the year went on. That play right there taught me what it was like to play against big-time receivers and the difference between being a starter and a backup. That's a play that, if I become a starter, I have to make every time. And that puts pressure on me, but that's what I want. The guys who don't have pressure on them? They don't play. I'll take the pressure."