Run of opportunity Running back: With consistent play, Earnest Hunter could fill the Ravens' need for a breakaway threat in the backfield.

August 13, 1996|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Ravens running back Earnest Hunter is a young, relatively unknown player with a job to win and more to prove. Then again, Hunter smiles when he considers the odds he has overcome already.

Growing up in Longview, Texas, provided Hunter with enough lessons on how not to live. As a high school student, he fathered a son out of wedlock and ignored his studies too much, often choosing to play ball instead of hitting the books. He recalls the drug users and dealers who poisoned the streets around his house, and the violence their lifestyle produced. Shortly before training camp, he learned that an old high school buddy had been shot and killed there in a dispute over a $50 drug debt.

Hunter's father died when he was 7 years old, which forced his mother to work several jobs to support the family. That left him with more time to find trouble. To this day, Hunter is amazed he did not fall into the traps that swallowed so many others in his hometown.

"A lot of crime, a lot of drugs, a lot of obstacles, right in front of me," Hunter said. "I didn't want to be around it, but I was surrounded by it. I realize God has always been on my side."

At 25, Hunter has conquered an obstacle few football players negotiate. He has made it to the NFL, and he has done it under unlikely circumstances.

When he signed as a free-agent rookie with the Cleveland Browns in May 1995, Hunter, 5 feet 8, 201 pounds, knew the odds were stacked against him, as they are against any free agent -- especially one from a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school such as Southeast Oklahoma State.

But Hunter, who set Oklahoma Intercollegiate Conference records by rushing for 1,899 yards and 16 touchdowns in 1994, would not fade away. First, in training camp, then in preseason games, he showed the Browns speed, power and elusiveness. After averaging 7.8 yards per carry and shining as a kick returner, the Browns kept him. He was the only free-agent rookie to make their opening day roster.

Said Hunter: "Once I realized I had something to prove, nobody was going to stop me."

Except Hunter. The fairy-tale preseason did not carry over smoothly into the real games, as Hunter developed problems holding onto the football. Handoff exchanges between quarterback Vinny Testaverde and Hunter became adventures. His hands also got shaky on kick return duty. After spending three games on the inactive list, Hunter fumbled away Hunter the opening kickoff of a 31-13 loss to San Diego in early December. Coach Bill Belichick deactivated him for the last three games of the season.

Hunter's new coach, Ted Marchibroda, likes Hunter's speed, which he showed plenty of during the second half of Saturday's 37-27 victory over the New York Giants. Hunter rushed for 40 yards, scored a touchdown and outran defenders around the corner impressively. But in Marchibroda's eyes, the entire package has yet to come together.

"Earnest is a fine, hard, tough runner with great speed," Marchibroda said. "But he has to be a total back, and he has to give a total effort on every play. At this point, he's still a prospect. He has to show us a degree of dependability."

In other words, Hunter needs to run sharper pass routes, catch the ball better, block better and do a more consistent job on special teams.

Earnest Byner, a 13-year running back, has gotten to know Hunter well in the past year. Byner is excited about Hunter's potential, and he hurts at the sight of his setbacks.

"At that San Diego game last year, he was real troubled about dropping that kickoff," Byner said. "I told him, the reality is, you dropped it, and the other reality is, you've got to move on and make other plays.

"I have four daughters and I call him my only son," Byner added. "I think Earnest can be one of the great running backs in this league, once his mental maturity is close to being reached. He has a lot to look forward to if that's what he wants. Sometimes, he relaxes. It makes me mad when I see him not doing the things I know he can do. The biggest thing is he has taken steps toward correcting the things he needs to."

The Ravens obviously think Hunter will prove his worth. As the backup to Byner and veteran Leroy Hoard, he appears to be part of the team's future.

Hunter was the reason the Ravens passed on a running back in the middle rounds of the draft, after they selected offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden over Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips with their top pick.

"I thought they were going to take Phillips," Hunter said. "I want to show the coaches and the fans that I am the guy. I want them to know I can be a 1,000-yard rusher.

"Whenever I'm pushed up against the wall, it makes me work that much harder. That's when I perform."

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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