The Rookie

Page 6 of 7

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.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez