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.
"I want to be the best. I won't stop until I get there. I'm going to work; you know I'm going to work. I'm going to keep working every day, and learning. And I'm not going to stop. Nah, I'm not going to stop because if I get there, then I'll have done something."
The Cowboys coaching staff sees a lot of potential in Hunter, no question. They moved up in the draft to get him, taking him with the 33rd pick in the fifth round (168th player selected overall). That might not sound great to you, or even to Hunter, but it showed interest on the Cowboys' part, considering that they drafted him as a cornerback. He played safety in college. Putting someone at a new position at the pro level demands that the player have talent and intellect and the team have trust and patience. The Cowboys did just that with safety Darren Woodson a decade ago--he was a linebacker in college--but General Jerry's captains aren't as patient as they once were. Losing makes you antsy.
"We saw a lot of athletic ability in Pete," executive vice president/director of player personnel Stephen Jones says after practice. Dear ol' dad, owner and general manager Jerry Jones, is a few feet away, yukking it up with The Dallas Morning News writers. (Ah, to be part of the in-crowd.) "He's tall and quick; he just has a lot of speed for his size and weight. He was productive at the level he played at, and he showed desire. And since he's been here, he hasn't disappointed us."
Guys his size (Hunter's, not JJ Jr's) who can cover receivers and run 4.34-second 40s tend to have their admirers. Sports Illustrated's football monarch, Peter King, proclaimed Hunter a draft-day steal. King wrote: "[Pete] Hunter has renewed my faith in pro football scouting...Virginia Union is a lost sheep in the football pasture of life, the place scouts go only when the other 943 college football-playing schools in the United States have byes...I guarantee you that he'll make the roster, be a special teams animal and, in time, become a nice DB."
So, what's the problem? Why hasn't Hunter played all that much if he's so talented and capable? Why did it take until Week 3 at Philadelphia for him to finally get activated (i.e., dress in his uniform) for a game?
Because drafting him and playing him on the regular are different things altogether. Hunter is finding his way. It's a slow process that the coaches believe will reap dividends. Remember, patience.
Still, that equates to "about a month" in the NFL. The Cowboys don't have the luxury of letting a young player develop for years. They need him now. Before the Eagles game, the Cowboys already had injuries to their secondary. It was a serendipitous turn for Hunter, thrusting him into the fray in a familiar setting. His first NFL game was against McNabb's team. His family, about 20 of them, made the 45-minute drive up the A.C. Expressway to see him. It was the first time Hunter had been in The Vet. He drove by it a couple of times when he was a kid, crossed over from Jersey to PA on the Walt Whitman bridge and headed into South Philly where red-brick row homes melt around an ugly concrete sports complex. But that's as close as he ever got, watching it flash by through a smudged car window.
"Everything happens for a reason," Hunter says. "I think I could have stepped in sooner, but maybe it was supposed to happen this way."
He was an Eagles fan growing up. He'd sprawl out on the living room floor, rest his head on the carpet and watch Reggie White and Randall Cunningham and Jerome Brown dance through the NFC East. Eric Allen, the former All-Pro corner, was his favorite. To go back there as a Cowboy, to play in The Vet, he never expected it could happen to him. But that never precluded him from working toward it.
"He's made giant steps since training camp," secondary coach Clancy Pendergast says. "There's a lot of things that are new for him right now. Moving from safety in college to corner is a difficult transition, but he's doing well. He has all the skills; now he just has to get the reps, and the more he plays, the better you're going to see this kid get. There's going to be a time when he's going to be out there a lot."
There was a time when, in Hunter's mind, playing in the NFL was as likely a possibility as jetting off to the south of France for raspberry scones. It's not that he didn't believe in his athletic ability. It's just when all you know is the casino world, where leaving town with loose change is considered a victory, big plans seem silly. You don't entertain lofty dreams. You imprison them in the back of your mind. Perhaps you visit them infrequently, just to make sure they haven't been shanked and left for dead.
Really, how can you dream of the spotlight when no one around you ever glowed any brighter or longer than a fading flashlight? (Hunter and Cleveland rookie running back William Green are the first A.C. natives ever to go pro. "Yeah, but he went to Catholic school," Hunter says, joking, "and you're not really from A.C. if you went to Catholic school, so I'm, like, the only one.") In Atlantic City, there aren't a whole lot of options. Actually, there are two: working in the casinos or working the streets.
His mother, Carol Derrick, chose the former. She did the best she could by her brood--Hunter has two older sisters, Juana and Joy--putting in long hours as a card dealer under the artificial light at Caesars Palace. It's been her post for the past 22 years.
Derrick raised her children in an intimate two-bedroom apartment and warned against the seductive cry of drugs and alcohol. It worked. Her kids never got into bad trouble, she says. She's not a big woman; she didn't yell. She just had this gaze. A glare, as Hunter calls it. She would cock her head and narrow her eyes and stare.
"That's how I brought my children up: I'd give them a look," Derrick says, laughing. "See, you do that when they're young, you understand? You do that when they're young, so that when they get older, they know better, and then it always works. But Pete never got into anything where I had to snatch him and say you're doing the wrong thing."
No, but there was one time that Hunter recalls getting the worst look he ever got from his mother, the worst look you could ever imagine. He was 18 and a senior in high school. His friends were always smoking weed or running with gangs or whatever. That was never Hunter's bag. He'd just as soon lie on that carpeted floor and watch the Eagles, or maybe the Discovery Channel. But this one time, he relented and went out with the boys. They got some beer and drank themselves drunk. That's what a lot of teen-agers do, and it was all pretty innocent and harmless. Or it would have been if Hunter hadn't been Carol Derrick's son.
"I was always scared of my mom," Hunter says with a bit of gravity. "I love her, but I was always scared of her. I'm glad I was. She did a good job of raising me. I never got locked up or put in the back of a police car, and that was 'cause of her. I didn't want to disappoint her. That night I did. I came in the house tipsy drunk. I was a kid, hanging out with the high school guys, doing the high school thing. I came in the house and my mom just looked at me with that look, and all she said was, 'You remind me of your dad.' That hurt me...man, that hurt me to the fullest. That ended everything after that. I won't even drink now. I don't touch the stuff now because of that."
His father and mother don't talk. His dad had a drug and alcohol problem that led to a stroke when Hunter was 15. Today his father is partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. His dad went to the Eagles game Hunter played in; they're not estranged. But you understand what Derrick was getting at--that wasn't going to happen to her son.
So she did all she could. She didn't force them to work, but Hunter got a job anyway to put some spending money in his wallet. Early in high school he was a lifeguard at the beach. For the unfamiliar, the beach in Atlantic City is broken down like this: two parts nasty, gritty sand, one part garbage (discarded food wrappers, syringes and tourists). That got old quick, and he moved to that valet parking gig at Trump Plaza. Just across the way is Caesars, where his mother worked. She used to visit him on her breaks. They would talk or give each other a hug and then get back to the grind. The rest of the shift was Hunter alone with an assortment of deviants. Sunrise couldn't rescue him quick enough.
"That was crazy," Hunter says, shaking his head. His arms tense. "If you live there, it's hard to find things to do because everything is set around the tourists. What do you do for fun? Nothing. I played a lot of sports and kept busy working. But my friends, a lot of them took the wrong route--drinking and selling drugs, getting into gangs, getting locked up, that sort of shit. Just trying to stay focused in that area is really, really hard. Hell, just trying to play football there is hard. No one thinks football when they think of A.C. Not a lot of colleges come there to recruit. I mean, it's crazy because, the year after I graduated--this will give you an example--the year after I left, they won a state championship, and none of those guys went to college. Not one of them. No senior went to college."
Hunter can sympathize. He was an honor student in high school and a star on the field, and he almost didn't make it out. Few colleges bothered to contact him; fewer still came to see him. When he looked through his scholarship offers, it didn't take long because he had only one: Virginia Union, some school in Richmond that he'd never heard of and wasn't all that thrilled over.
When you're limited to a single choice, at least you don't have to suffer through a taxing decision process.
"What was I going to do, say no?" Hunter says. "I thought, 'At least they want me.' I knew I could play, I just had to show everyone. If I had to show them at Virginia Union, that was OK with me.
"I never really thought in terms of making it to the NFL, but I wanted to prove people wrong and at least play college ball, because no matter where I went, everybody said I couldn't do it. They said I wouldn't be any good at the college level."
Willard Bailey remembers the first time he saw Hunter shine. Hunter was a sophomore under Bailey, who has been Virginia Union's head coach since 1995. A representative from the Baltimore Ravens was at practice that day (despite being a small school, the Panthers have produced a few pros, including basketball players Charles Oakley and Ben Wallace, and former Cowboy Herb Scott). Now, the scout was there to see another player, some senior, but that notion never entered Hunter's mind. He figured if there was an NFL scout on hand, he had better play well.
It was a hot day, about 100 degrees. Bailey had worked his charges pretty hard that afternoon, so he ordered some seven-on-seven drills to slow things down. Hunter started to backpedal with his man when all of a sudden he threw up in the middle of the play. Just started booting pieces of undigested lunch all over the field, which was unfortunate for two reasons. First, it's kind of hard to run with a wideout when you're projectile vomiting. Second, because Virginia Union's practice field is also its game field.
Anyway, Bailey caught all this and signaled for someone to replace the sophomore. Hunter went ballistic and started cussing. No way he was coming out. He wiped his mouth with the back of his forearm and kept going. He didn't miss a play.
"When I saw that, I knew he was going to be something special," Bailey says fondly. "I couldn't have drug him out of there for anyone or anything. He fought. That's the way he was. I still get a laugh out of that, oh yeah. But the dude from the Ravens, I remember he turned to me and said, "'That's the type of guy we're looking for.' That's what he said to me right there on the field. Pete only got better from there."
He was everywhere in college. Kick return, kick block, punt block, starting defense and nickel packages. He would have played in the band at the half if they would have let him. He never came off the field. Or, if he did, it was only because the game was in hand and Bailey drug him from the action, Hunter screaming the entire way. He was a three-time all-CIAA selection and finished his career with 20 interceptions.
During Hunter's senior year, he had 11 interceptions in 11 games and earned All-America honors. The Panthers even beat their rivals, the Winston-Salem State Rams, in the regular season for the first time in 17 years. The night before the rematch with the Rams, which also happened to be the conference championship, the CIAA held its annual banquet. Considering the unreal season he'd turned in, everyone figured that Hunter was a lock for the defensive player of the year award. They figured wrong. Some cat from Winston-Salem won instead.
"That kind of hurt me," Hunter says. "I had a good season; I worked hard. People were talking about where I was going to get drafted. I felt like I was finally getting some respect. And then they gave it to someone else. So I made sure I showed them they made a mistake."
In the title game, Hunter had three interceptions against the Rams. Virginia Union won. The championship ring he earned that day sits in plain view in his townhouse, a reminder of what the slighted can achieve.
Hunter didn't waste any time after his final collegiate season, just jumped right into training. Lifting, running, whatever it took. He thought for sure that he'd be invited to the NFL combine, where the best, if not necessarily the brightest, showcase their talents.
Wrong again. The NFL power brokers weren't interested in hosting some Division II wasshisnameagain? when it could flirt with the big-school progeny. No matter. He simply held private workouts at Virginia Union nearly every day until the day before the draft.
"A lot of the time I wasn't even fresh," Hunter says. "When you're benching every day, running the 40 every day, backpedaling every day, it's hard. But I wasn't in the position that the guys from the D-I schools were. I couldn't say no; I needed the exposure."
Did he ever. "At Virginia Union, you get one pair of cleats to make it through the whole season," says Alvin Parker, one of Hunter's best friends and the special teams and running backs coach for the Panthers. "You get two jerseys, one for practice, one for games. That's it. If you get a hole in your jersey, we take it to the cleaners and they patch it up."
It was no wonder, then, that when it came time to send out highlight tapes to the scouts, Hunter had to, uh, improvise. There was no real video equipment at Virginia Union, no team videographer. So Hunter did it himself. He grabbed the game footage (shot on home video cameras) and stuck two VCRs together and made a tape that way. The quality of the finished product was pretty poor. "It looked like a bootleg off the street," Hunter says with a chuckle. "It was all grainy and shit. You could barely see me."
One of the tapes he shipped off landed in the hands of Pendergast, who saw something through all the gray static. Rather than sending a scout, the Boys' secondary coach went out to see Hunter for himself.
"The day before [Pendergast] showed, the locker room was cleared out," Hunter says. "See, this is how things went at Virginia Union. We didn't get new shit; we got all our shit reconditioned. So the day before he came to see me, they took all the cleats to be reconditioned. When he got there, I didn't have any cleats to wear for the workout. I'm looking around the locker--I wear a size 12--and I see a pair of shoes way over in the corner, almost hidden behind a box. It was an old-ass pair of shoes. Size 10. That wasn't even all. I'm saying, these shoes were old...they weren't even the cleats with the screws in them, they were the molded kind. The molded plastic kind--Nike Sharks from like 1986. You remember them? Yeah, that's what I did my workout in. Old-ass cleats that were too small for me."
Pendergast kept telling Hunter to stop working out, to not worry about it, considering the circumstances. "I was like, nah, you came all the way out here to see me; I'm gonna finish the workout. And I did. You know, the whole time I was worried about my feet, just thinking about my shoes. But it turned out that I ran, like, a 4.4 [40 time] that day. He must have liked what he saw."
His mother wanted him to come home for the draft. She figured it was going to be a big day for the family, and why not spend it together?
"First of all, we're very close," Carol Derrick says. "It was a very important thing that was about to happen, and I wanted us all to be together. But he had that term paper he was working on. He said he wasn't budging till he was done with it."
It was the final paper he had to do to earn his degree in criminology. He wrote a large part of it from Parker's couch as the first day of the draft unfolded--wrote it while trying to pay attention to the developing drama and answer two cell phones and a land line all at once.
In retrospect, it was probably better that he didn't go back to Jersey for the draft. Despite hearing rumors about where he'd be taken, and by whom--no later than the third round (meaning a day-one selection of the two-day draft) is what he'd been clinging to--the first day came and went without his name being called. Dealing with the disappointment was hard enough; doing so in the company of his family would have been unbearable.
"I was watching, and I thought, 'OK, here's where I'm gonna get picked,'" Hunter says. "But it didn't happen. I kept watching these guys go before me--guys who I knew I was bigger than, guys who I was stronger than or quicker than--and I'm like, what's going on? But they went to Wisconsin or Florida. That pissed me off."
Hunter stayed at Parker's that night. He might have gone home if he had had ESPN, but he didn't, so he grabbed a pillow and curled up on Parker's couch, long, slender legs dangling out from under the too-small blanket.
"I was still asleep when it started again," Parker says. "He woke me up. The phones did, too. Everyone was calling."
On the second day, in the fifth round, the New Orleans Saints were poised to take Hunter. All they had to do was wait for New England to hurry up and pick, then it would be their turn and Hunter would be on his way to the Big Easy. Before all that could unfold, Pendergast called and learned of the Saints' interest. He quickly hung up with Hunter, but then called back moments later.
"He said, 'Watch this, we just traded for the Pats' pick to get you,'" Hunter says. "Next thing I know, the ESPN ticker stops, the music goes and I'm announced as a Dallas Cowboy. It was the best feeling I've ever had. It was amazing."
The euphoria didn't last long. The next day Hunter went on the Cowboys' official Web site and checked out what the fans were saying about their fifth-round small-school pick. They were saying a lot, actually, but not much of it was good.
"They were bagging on me hard," Hunter says. "They were like, 'Who? You traded up to get who?' But, like I said, that type of shit ain't nothing new to me."
Going from Virginia Union to the Dallas Cowboys was unsettling and foreign at first. Aside from switching to a new position and learning a playbook as thick as the yellow pages, the scene itself was just so...extravagant.
"Here, the Cowboys give you everything," Hunter says. "You have everything at your fingertips, or else it's already in your locker. They have guys to do everything for you. At Virginia Union, we had one guy who was wide receiver coach, financial aid adviser, strength and conditioning coach, and he put the lines on the field. Same guy. Man, that's what I'm talking about. I mean, in our weight room, we didn't even have 10-pound plates. We had to use double fives. Here, the weight room alone is bigger than our whole facility was in college. When I got up here, I was in awe, but I tried not to show it."
That was awfully hard considering HBO was in his hip pocket the whole time. They followed him everywhere with cameras and boom mikes. They documented everything: coaches yelling at him, Rocket Ismail and Joey Galloway running past him, everything. They caught a lot of his quality plays, too, but they didn't capture what they'd hoped--another unceremonious cut. Those make for good, dramatic TV. They got Richmond Flowers' dismissal; they got Hunter's buddy, practice squad receiver DeVeren Johnson, too. But they didn't get Hunter. He had other ideas.
The exposure did make him a familiar face in Dallas, so much so that when he went to Wal-Mart to buy a DVD player, he was besieged by autograph seekers. The veterans heard all this, and caught his on-screen debut, and naturally busted his balls. They called him "Hollywood" and "Petey Beamen" (after Jamie Foxx's character, Willie Beamen, in Any Given Sunday). But the way he was portrayed on that show, it didn't look as though he had much of a shot at making the team. Then, the HBO crew didn't know his story. If they had, they might have expected things to unfold this way--with Hunter being talked about as a future contributor.
"I'm very pleased with what he's shown us; we're comfortable with what he can do," head coach Dave Campo says as the sun beats down on him outside the Valley Ranch practice facility.
"He has a rookie mentality right now," Cowboys mainstay Darren Woodson says. "His eyes are a little wide right now. I'm trying to get him to understand that it's his time right now. Not later, now. He's capable of doing that. Now he just has to believe it.
"It's a difficult step being a rookie. It takes awhile for things to click. That said, he's shown that he can be awfully good if he stays healthy."
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Hunter just got home. He's sitting in his newly rented townhouse on his just-purchased tan leather couch. He's looking around at the spider plants (the ones he calls his "babies") that hang over a glass dining table and watching SportsCenter on a big-screen television. A proud grin is spread across his face. If you didn't know better, you might think he's content.
"This is all I need right here; I don't need a lot of expensive things," says Hunter, who got all his furniture, including a king-size bed, on bargain at The RoomStore. The TV, meanwhile, only cost him $600 and a pair of tickets to a game at Texas Stadium. "I'm kinda cheap, actually. I don't need a lot of toys to play with. I don't really go out. I'm kind of a private person; I stick to myself. I'm going to get my mom a car, but that's about it. Maybe it's the way I was raised. I'm glad at the life I've lived and everything I had to go through. It made me appreciate everything a whole lot more. Nothing has ever been given to me; I've had to work for everything I've gotten."
Earlier today, at practice, Hunter was on the left corner for some goal line sets, working toward simple goals--a job and some respect. He was matched up on Joey Galloway. Quarterback Quincy Carter took a short drop, turned to his left and fired toward the orange end zone cone where he expected Galloway to be. Galloway was there, but Hunter, who had been trailing, jumped out from behind him and intercepted the pass. Pendergast started whooping approval. Hunter nodded and smiled.
"That felt good," Hunter says, still looking around his townhouse. "I got a chance out there and I made a play. One day, I'm going to be out there all the time; I'm going to get that chance. I'm the type of person, always have been, that I hate coming out of the game. One day they're going to leave me out there, and I'm going to show them that they made the right decision. And then I'm never looking back."