The Rookie

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"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."

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez