Danielle Hunter Rising: From Jamaica to Vikings Draft Project to the Pro Bowl

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistDecember 21, 2018

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) walks off the field after an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

"My name is Danielle. But they call me Hunter."

This is how the video begins. He pronounces his name "Dun-eel." If you pronounce it "Danielle" or "Daniel" he will correct you.

The word "TRANSCENDENCE" appears.

"I'm pushing myself to limits I didn't even know were possible. The evolution of body, spirit and mind."

He speaks slowly and softly, as is his way. His voice is sonorous, with a hint of an accent. As he transforms in the video, his voice starts to sound a little like Darth Vader's.

His magnificent body rests in some strange, reclining chair, with cables all over the place. He's wearing a mask that appears to be allowing him to breathe. As he breathes, his chest moves up and down. His skin is hardened by a metallic covering. He screams.

The video was shot in November at Triglass Productions in Minneapolis and produced by Ryan Thielen, cousin of Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen. It took about six hours to film.

Hunter took the acting seriously. He was all in.

It debuted on the video board at U.S. Bank Stadium during the Vikings' 24-17 victory over the Packers.

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Near the end, Hunter removes the mask. He now is something different than he used to be.

"This is my transcendence."

This week, the fourth-year defensive end out of LSU made his first Pro Bowl. An NFC front-office man says Hunter is easily the best player on the Minnesota defense, which is one of the better units in the league. He is tied with J.J. Watt and Von Miller for second in the league in sacks (14.5) behind only Aaron Donald (16.5).

He may not be a household name like those players, but his transcendence is evident in his pass rush, in his body and in his character.

Hunter celebrates some sacks with a martial arts kick to the side. He says he is kicking down the door, an appropriate metaphor for where he is in his career.

Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

While he has entered our consciousness with a violent jolt, he has been building towards this for many years.

Hunter didn't know what football was until he saw his stepfather watching it on television when he came to America from Jamaica at the age of eight. Shortly thereafter, he was playing tag in his apartment complex with his friend Jermel Holmes. Even though Holmes was on skates and Hunter was not, Hunter was moving faster. Holmes' father, Jerry, who also was coaching the Texans of the Houston Youth Football League, took notice.

"Son," he told Hunter, "you should be playing football."

Soon, he was. And he was playing it better than everyone else. He played every position other than quarterback, punter and kicker. At Morton Ranch High School, he led his team to a state championship as a junior. His mother still has three boxes full of letters from recruiters, postmarked from cities such as Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, Austin, College Station, Columbus and Blacksburg.

He liked that they played great defense in Baton Rouge, so he went to LSU and started 23 games over three years. But he had only 4.5 sacks and seven hurries, per CFBStats. Despite that, and after tallying just 1.5 sacks as a junior, he decided to forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft.

At the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, Hunter measured 6'5", 252 pounds. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds—fastest among defensive ends.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Vikings have an analytics formula that derives a cumulative grade after entering all of a player's measurables. The maximum is a 10, and Hunter's grade was a 10.

So he presented scouts with a dilemma: evaluate him based on his tape, or evaluate him based on his measurables?

"The positive things anybody could see is he was long, athletic, a very fluid athlete on tape," Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson says. "He changed direction very well. And ... he played with a lot of strength on the field.

"The negative was he was very seldom close to the quarterback. There wasn't a variety of pass-rush moves. He didn't play with a lot of contact balance, so if they ran straight at him, his feet would be close together and he didn't have the contact balance to help him get off his blocks.

"The athlete part of him said he is a first- to second-round player. The tape didn't say that at all."

The Vikings decided to take a chance on him in the third round with the 88th overall pick. General manager Rick Spielman says he thought Hunter had a chance to become a starter by his third season.

On his first day on the job, Hunter sat next to Patterson in his office. They watched a tape of every one of his pass rushes at LSU and discussed every move Hunter made and why.

Then they went to work.

Patterson's first directive was for Hunter to tighten his rush angle. He wanted him to cut closer to the tackle and get lower. He was taking a wide angle at LSU and being run way past the quarterback on most of his rushes. A tighter rush angle would enhance his speed and open the door for other moves.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 25: Danielle Hunter #99 of the Minnesota Vikings attempts to get to Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers during the game at U.S. Bank Stadium on November 25, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty I
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Next was to work on his stab move. The Vikings have a heavy bag that hangs from a chain similar to what you'd find in a boxing gym. Every day before practice for a year, Hunter would take 50 punches with his left hand and 50 with his right. The idea was to learn to stab with violence, and then be able to feel if the tackle sets up for an inside rush or an outside rush.

Then they would work on a counter move—the slap/arm over—in the event that the tackle got his hands on Hunter quickly.

He also would try to improve his power move by jamming both hands on a blocker's shoulders, snatching him one way and rushing the other.

Over time, Hunter became proficient at everything he was working on—even his sack celebration.

Hunter's body now looks like something from a Stan Lee dream.

The last time he had his body fat measured, it was 7 percent. His waist is 32 inches, and his midsection looks like a large, lean roast that has been tightly tied in cross sections. With arms that are 34½ inches long, he doesn't have to ask for anything to be passed from the far end of the table. His deltoids are the size and shape of fast-pitch softballs. Veins pop from him as if they are about to burst.

"He's built crazy," Vikings defensive tackle Linval Joseph says. "He got all them veins. We call him Mr. Vein Man. And Gumby, because he's still flexible, can move and do things other people can't do."

Among his other nicknames are Super Hero, Create A Player and Terminator.

Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

His first nickname was given to him shortly after he started playing football—Too Tall.

"They told me there was a Dallas Cowboy named Too Tall Jones and they could see he had the same kind of energy," his stepfather, Cheikh Ndiaye, says. "He already had a body that separated him from the other kids."

His mother, Kimara Bonitto, says he was well-built even as a baby. "He had that body since he was little," she says.

James "Coop" Cooper, who trains Hunter at O Athletik in Houston, has seen a lot of impressive-looking athletes. But he hasn't seen many like Hunter. "He's like an action figure," he says. "You remember those WWE dolls they had? He's built like that—those big deltoids and the big old veins."

To Tashawn Bower, Hunter's teammate both at LSU and on the Vikings, there is something unfair about this.

"A lot of people have to work three times as hard to look as cut as him, and be as big as him," the defensive end says. "And I see what this kid eats for dinner sometimes. One time I saw him eating cereal for dinner—Cinnamon Toast Crunch, I think—and I'm over here eating greens. His genes are ridiculous."

But Hunter's body has been enhanced by determination and dedication. The day after he signed a five-year $72 million contract extension in Minnesota in June, Hunter flew back to Houston and went straight from the airport to O Athletik for his daily workout.

There, working with NFL players such as Adrian Peterson and Trent Williams, Hunter is a leader, according to Cooper. He even does speed work with wide receivers, defensive backs and running backs, often coming in first in 300-meter sprints.

When Hunter walked into a weight room for the first time as a freshman in high school, he was immediately enthralled. He started spending more and more time there, and he often didn't leave until the lights were turned off.

The first time he tried to squat 225 pounds, he fell to his knees. These days, he squats 450 pounds 10 times—right after speed and conditioning work, Cooper says.

And his muscles keep growing. He weighed 215 pounds coming out of high school. At his last college football game, he weighed 245 pounds. Now, he's 260.

Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

After practice, Hunter is called to break down the huddle.

"OK," he says to his teammates. "On tree."

Puzzled looks.

"What? On tree?"

Laughter all around.

"On three," he says with a sheepish smile.

"His island words come out from time to time," Joseph says.

Hunter's Jamaican roots are evident in his tastes. He loves his mother's rice and peas with oxtail, jerk chicken, ackee and saltfish and chicken foot soup. Playing in his headphones are Bob Marley, Damian Marley, Bounty Killer and Buju Banton.

Danielle on his way to his first day of pre-school
Danielle on his way to his first day of pre-schoolPhoto Credit: Kimara Bonitto

But his life in a developing country was far from idyllic. Bonitta had Hunter when she was 18. Then her parents told her they were taking her and her four siblings to live in America. One catch: Her baby couldn't come with them because he was not eligible.

Bonitta was intent on staying in Jamaica until Hunter could accompany her, but her parents talked her out of it because they believed America was an avenue for everyone to have a better life. Eventually, they assured her, Danielle would join her.

So they left for New York City when Hunter was one-and-a-half, and he stayed in St. Catherine with relatives. Bonitta furthered her education and worked two jobs so she could send a monthly check. She cherished her trips back two or three times a year. She would bring 80 to 100 pounds of clothes, shoes and toys in her suitcases—the maximum the airline allowed—for her son. Her mother also sent barrels filled with gifts.

"I buy very nice stuff for him," Bonitta says. "I send him Nautica. My favorite brand for him at that time was Nautica, because I loved seeing him in sailor clothes. He was looking very nice in that kind of clothing."

But when she visited him, she found him wearing the same things over and over again—shabby outfits that she had not purchased.

"Where are the things I sent you?" she asked him.

"I don't know. I don't have anything," he would say.

When she walked down Jamaican roads, people told her they heard she was not providing for her son. It wasn't true, but she didn't want to make waves because she was concerned about her son's welfare.

Danielle on vacation with his mother
Danielle on vacation with his motherPhoto Credit: Kimara Bonitto

Hunter remembers a town that had concrete everywhere. He walked around barefoot, and the bottoms of his feet became so calloused he could step on a rock and not flinch. That's just how it was.

"When he was in Jamaica, the life wasn't easy," his mother says, still feeling the emotion. "It was very hard. As a child, he wouldn't understand some things. I really wanted to get him here. It was not a good situation."

Four years after Bonitta left, Hunter moved in with his grandmother's brother's son and his wife, and his life improved. "When I go there, I could see he was cheerful, he was playing," she says. "They took good care of him. I wasn't worried anymore. I wasn't crying like I used to before."

When he was eight, Hunter was finally allowed to come to America. He still remembers deplaning the Air Jamaica flight at LaGuardia Airport in New York on Feb. 3, 2003 with wide eyes. "It was my first time seeing white people," he says. "I had only seen them on TV. So it was like, 'Wow! There's a white person!'"

The family moved to Houston shortly after Hunter's arrival in the states. There, his mother held him to a high standard, going so far as threatening to send him back to Jamaica if he didn't fulfill expectations. "I wanted him to have A-plus, not just A," says Bonitta, who became an accountant and now is working on a doctorate in leadership and business administration. "I want him to be somebody."

It was apparent that Hunter wanted to be somebody, too.

"I came here and saw people that have," he says. "When I was down there, I saw what it was like to not have. I know the difference."

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 4: Danielle Hunter #99 of the Minnesota Vikings carries the flag onto the field during player introductions before the game against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium on November 4, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

He became the type of player who sits in the front row, writes notes through meetings (he has eight full legal pads of tips Patterson has given him), saves old text messages from his coaches and sometimes studies practice film before cutting the tape off his ankles.

In the spring of 2015, Patterson traveled to the Arizona State pro day. While he was watching drills, he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Hunter. He had been training in the area and wanted to say hello. They talked for more than an hour.

"I found out he was a unique person with a strong desire to learn and want to be great," Patterson says. "I knew he was going to do whatever was asked of him. When I left, I said, 'I've got to have this kid.'"

One of the reasons the Vikings were able to get past Hunter's lack of production at LSU was that their psychological tests showed he had solid football character, was a hard worker, was willing to take coaching and had a high level of commitment, according to Spielman.

Hunter isn't like most NFL stars. He has no tattoos and no piercings, and he doesn't wear jewelry. He hasn't made many splashy purchases, though he does own two muscle cars—a Dodge Challenger Hellcat and a Dodge Challenger Demon. He's humble. He doesn't talk trash. Mostly, he listens and watches.

"I don't say much," he says. "I'm very observant. I see things. People think I don't see it, but I do. It's just how I am. Growing up in Jamaica, it's rubbed off on me through the years."

In the week of practice before the Vikings' fourth game of Hunter's rookie season, he was given a special assignment: Imitate Broncos All-Pro pass-rusher Von Miller on the scout team. That's when his coaches knew.

"He put a show on in practice," Patterson says. "I mean, it was unreal. It was amazing. Inside, outside moves, spin moves. He did stuff I didn't even know he could do."

Hunter played 36.5 percent of the snaps that season and had six sacks. The next year, he played 58.0 percent of the snaps and had 12.5 sacks. His sacks dropped to 7.0 in 2017, but he's up to a career high of 14.5 this season and is one of only six players since sacks have been recorded with 40 sacks before the age of 25.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

He's about more than sacks, though. He's tough against the run, and he makes plays all over the field.

"He chases down running backs who run 4.4s," Bower says. "He's passing linebackers and sometimes our DBs. His effort and relentlessness to the ball is ridiculous."

Earlier this season, Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams caught a screen pass and took off down the left sideline. Hunter somehow made up a 10-yard gap and closed the distance from the far hash to a few yards from the sideline. He hit Gurley and slowed him down so Mike Hughes could tackle him after a 56-yard gain.

He's proud of that play.

"I'm not thinking as much this year," he says. "I used to think a lot, trying to live up to expectations. That kind of slowed me down. Now it's more go out there and play, don't worry about what people are saying. You have to just [block] it all out."

But Hunter hasn't hit his ceiling yet.

"He's still dabbling with it," says Joseph, who has been a mentor. "He's 24 years old. Give him a couple of years. When he gets his grown man strength, I really feel like he's going to show things he's not showing now."

Patterson has spent 15 years in the NFL and coached hall of famers John Randle and Chris Doleman. He told Hunter he has a chance to be his next Hall of Famer.

In other words, this could be a transcendence.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.