The Rookie

It was a hot, humid night in Atlantic City two years ago, the kind of evening that grafts damp fabric to skin. Ralph "Pete" Hunter was working at Trump Plaza as a valet. This was the summer before his senior year at Virginia Union University, a long while before the defensive back would become a fifth-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys. In all likelihood you've never heard of Hunter. If you have, you gleaned what little you know from HBO's Hard Knocks documentary and then quickly forgot him. Don't forget that he used to park cars for pocket cash. Maybe it will help you remember him--or, at the very least, identify with him.

Because Pete Hunter worked hard. He was not a typical coddled athlete. In college, he pulled a lot of graveyard shifts: midnight to 8 a.m. You see strange things in the shadows of Atlantic City, Hunter's hometown. Pimps strut with their whores. Drugs are easy to get. People in suits and shorts slip into the not-so-discreet Oriental bathhouses that dot the scene.

"I saw all kinds of stuff out there," Hunter says. "Lots of drunks, lots of guys who lost all their money and then don't tip you, but you gotta go get their cars anyway. Lots of attitudes, man. Lots of them."

That night was different. That night two years ago, it was a slow, uneventful shift, and by 2 a.m. he was sweaty and tired, ready to wrap up. He thinks it was 2 a.m. Or 3 a.m. Hunter can't really remember. Whatever, it was late.

That's when Pro Bowl Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb rolled in, driving a fly-looking Benz. He parked in front of the casino door. McNabb is an East Coast star, so no one hassled him about leaving it there. Hunter watched, awed.

The car wasn't really the thing that caught his eye, though. What he noticed were the moonwalker dubs (shiny silver tire rims that keep spinning when the car is stopped). To Hunter, they were the epitome of cool, the essence of NFL stardom.

"That was the ultimate measure right there," Hunter says in a hushed tone. "I told my manager right there, I told him, 'See those rims? I'm gonna get them.' He just thought I was crazy for saying it."

A natural reaction. Outside his friends and family and a few coaches, no one ever believed in Hunter. The way the skeptics saw it, for him to get those fancy rims, he was going to have to offer to park the car...and then keep on driving. The only other option was making it to the NFL, and that seemed unlikely. At the time, he was a little-known safety at a historically black Division II college in Richmond, Virginia. A school with only 1,200 students. How many guys not named Larry Allen (Sonoma State) make it big in the NFL from a place like that?

"No one ever thinks I can do it," Hunter says. "That's the type of shit I love. It made me want to work harder--just to prove them all wrong."

He's 22 now and a rookie cornerback with the Dallas Cowboys. He recently inked a multiyear contract that pays him $225,000 this year, paltry by NFL standards but still more money than he's seen. A tidy signing bonus for 94Gs was thrown in for good measure. As soon as the check cleared, he got those rims with his new flow. They sit on a pimp-black Cadillac Escalade. The whole package is a big, fat F-you to everyone who said he couldn't do it.

And that should be that, right? Same old tale about a poor kid made good? Story over, turn the page.

Not quite. Because Pete Hunter is not another in a long line of pampered, self-indulgent Dallas Cowboys. (Personal note to Pete Hunter: Please do not get caught with 400 pounds of herb in your car and make me look like an idiot. Thanks.) He wouldn't have fit in well with the "white house" deviants the club used to employ. And the toys? Besides the new rims, he could do without them. The way he sees it, the comfortable lifestyle he now enjoys isn't the end, it's the beginning.

"Yeah, it was a long road to get to this point, but I don't think I've accomplished anything yet," Hunter says. He's leaning forward now, all 6-foot-2, 205 pounds of him, nodding. His long, lean muscles are stretched out from under a sleeveless black T-shirt and baggy mesh shorts. He's talking with his hands--big mitts with skinny fingers that look like Virginia Slims cigarettes. His corn rows tighten atop his head as he scrunches his face into a "let's get serious" look. He wants to prove the doubters wrong. There were a lot of doubters...or what do the kids call them now? Haters? Yeah, haters. There were a lot of haters. Still are.