FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – High and tight. High and tight. High and tight. How many times had Kareem Hunt heard that? How many coaches had preached that? If you’re going to carry the football, if you’re going to be a running back, you can’t fumble, they all said. Hold the ball high and tight and you won’t.
From the youth leagues of Northeast Ohio, to Willoughby South High and the University of Toledo, that was the mantra. Even into Kansas City Chiefs camp, where fundamentals remained a focus for the third-round pick.
And he always listened. High and tight. Kareem Hunt didn’t fumble. Ever. That was one of his things. He dropped one as a freshman at Toledo in a game against Western Michigan, but he scooped it back up. It haunted him anyway.
Now here he was, NFL opening night, the New England Patriots across the way. Gillette Stadium. Tom Brady. Bill Belichick. Robert Kraft. Five Super Bowl banners, the last two Hunt watched with his college buddies. Now the kid from the MAC was playing these guys, watching as the offense marched down for a quick touchdown.
Kansas City took the field looking to answer and the first offensive play of the Chiefs’ season, the first of Hunt’s career, saw the call go for him. He took the hand off, scooted right, cut through a hole and gained 7 yards until …
“I got too lax with the ball,” Hunt said.
He fumbled. He didn’t hold it high and tight. New England recovered. With the whole country watching, he let the whole team down.
“I was more in shock than anything,” Hunt said.
As he trudged off the field, teammates began slapping him on the shoulder pads, telling him to lift his head up. Coach Andy Reid told him to forget it. Quarterback Alex Smith said they needed him. Linebacker Derrick Johnson said the defense would pick him up. Then it did, holding New England on downs.
Hunt wasn’t sure if he’d get benched, at least temporarily. He wouldn’t have blamed anyone. Who fumbles on their first attempt?
“He was upset,” Reid said. “He was really upset. Came to the sideline angry.”
Reid wasn’t going to bench him. He liked the reaction. So he sent him back out and called the next play for him, at least partially as a show of faith.
“[Reid] said, ‘High and tight. Just make sure you hold onto it,” Hunt recalled.
Hunt took it for 9 yards. The night was on and a legend was born.
By the end, by the time Gillette was quiet and empty, by the time the scoreboard read Kansas City 42, New England 27, he’d run for 148 yards on just 17 carries and scored a touchdown. That was a whopping 8.7 yards per carry. He also caught five passes for 98 yards and two more scores, including a 78-yarder that broke the game open. That was good for 19.6 yards per touch.
His 246 yards from scrimmage is the most of any player since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
And he never fumbled again.
“I won’t forget about that,” Hunt said with a laugh.
Much of America expected the Chiefs to come here and serve as cannon fodder for the Patriots’ big celebration. New England was raising another banner. New England was gunning for 16-0. The biggest pregame drama was supposed to involve just how lustily commissioner Roger Goodell got booed.
And yet even when the Pats scored first, and even when Hunt fumbled, and even when New England led by 10, or led going into the fourth quarter, the Chiefs never lost faith, never allowed themselves to become the sideshow.
“We didn’t blink, that was the whole thing we were talking about,” Johnson said. “‘When they make a play, just don’t blink.'”
Johnson has been with the Chiefs since 2005. He’s the old guy trying to create a new mentality. Maybe in the past, yeah, the moment would have been too big for K.C., the Patriots’ initial shot too much. Not now though, he says. Not with this group.
“Guys in this room believe in ourselves,” Johnson said. “Strong-minded. Very strong-minded.”
That begins with Alex Smith, the quarterback who has spent his career being labeled a game manager, getting injured and losing his job in San Francisco to Colin Kaepernick and watching the Chiefs trade up to get Patrick Mahomes with the 10th overall pick last spring.
Yet Smith claims, at 33, he’s been through so much there is no pressure. Not to keep his job. Not to chuck it for 368 yards and four touchdowns and outduel Tom Brady. It’s just to win.
“I really don’t care,” Smith said. “Just been playing, enjoying the opportunity and not looking beyond it.”
Maybe it’s that calm that Hunt felt, the feeling behind the words. It’s easy for veterans and coaches to say a young teammate shouldn’t let that fumble bother him. What else are they going to say? It’s another for the young teammate to believe they truly mean it, that he shouldn’t panic because they aren’t panicking.
“A rookie, a third-round pick, going in against the New England Patriots and fumbling on the very first play?” Johnson said. “A lot of people would tuck their tail between their legs.”
Hunt didn’t do that.
“I couldn’t get down on myself,” he said.
The team needed him.
“There was a good chunk there we were going as Kareem was going,” Smith said. “We put a lot on him.”
So he went back to those basics that got him here – yards after contact, slipping through holes and growing stronger as the night wore on. And, of course, high and tight, every time, as his teammates and coaches marveled at it all.
One run after the next, one catch and then another, and slowly but surely New England was reeled in, chopped down and then left in the dust. The rookie who could have collapsed early instead was basking in the victory at the end. The Chiefs were just nodding their heads at their new star running back, a kid as mentally strong as he is physically.
“He’s extremely talented,” Smith said.
“He’s pretty good,” Johnson said.
“I’m proud of him,” Reid said.
Kareem Hunt saw his night in a different way.
“A lot of learning,” he said with a smile.