DETROIT — It’s 4 p.m. on an autumn Friday, and that means one thing for Kerry Hyder: time to take a trip down under.
Hyder pulls into the parking lot of an Outback Steakhouse, the Aussie-theme chain known for its campy commercials and 800-calorie fried onion. His wife, Jasmine, has their sleeping 2-year-old daughter, Giavonna, pinned at her hip as the family struts into the restaurant an hour before the early-bird crowd. They make their way to a corner booth unrecognized and, with no delay, put in their order for a Bloomin’ Onion.
Hyder stretches his arms along the stiff upholstered booth bench and grins. “This,” he says. “Is the best part of my week.”
If you’re not a Lions fan, or if your favorite team hasn’t taken on Detroit yet, you might not be familiar with Hyder. Undrafted as a 300-pound defensive tackle out of Texas Tech in 2014, he spent his first two NFL seasons stashed on practice squads (the Jets in ’14, the Lions in ’15). This season, with star linemate Ziggy Ansah limited by injuries, Hyder has carried the pass rush for the NFC North-leading Lions. His seven sacks through nine games rank fourth in the NFC.
Hyder’s ascent is a classic underdog tale of resolute focus and sacrifice. At the conclusion of last season, Lions management told him the team planned on signing multiple defensive linemen in free agency. He read between the lines and began mulling his options; perhaps he would become a gym teacher, or a coach. “I don’t have the luxury a lot of guys have of just waiting around and waiting for something to happen,” Hyder says. “I have a wife and a child to provide for, I needed to get a salary for them, whether it was in the NFL or outside the NFL.”
As a last-ditch attempt to salvage his football career, Hyder accepted the coaches’ invitation to switch to defensive end. He bundled up in sweatsuits and labored through daily one-hour elliptical sessions before normal workouts. He cut out sugar, pork, and fried food and shed 35 pounds, down to 265.
“I made my goal of making a 53-man roster,” Hyder says. “But I can’t let up now. I needed to make new goals, I needed to stay in the NFL.”
So Hyder maintains a regimented lifestyle, complete with meal prep and daily weigh-ins. But on Friday evenings, he allows himself a cheat meal. He always takes Jasmine and Giavonna to Outback.
“And here it is,” Jasmine says, as the waitress places the fried onion bouquet on the table. Hyder lets Jasmine dig in first. Then he grabs his first piece, takes a bite and licks his fingers.
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Hyder grew up in Austin, Texas and played running back until high school. He broke his leg his sophomore year. “My mom was really concerned about me,” he says. “So she comforted me with food.”
As Hyder substituted a season of football with couch time and heaping plates of homemade indulgences, he gained close to 30 pounds, ballooning to 245. When he returned his junior year, coaches moved him to the defensive line.
Only 6' 2" and new at the position, top Division 1 offers were scant. Hyder, who lived across the street from the University of Texas, long wanted to be a Longhorn. Instead, he settled on Texas Tech when Mike Leach offered him a scholarship-on-the-spot. Twice a second-team All-Big 12 selection, Hyder earned an invite to the NFL combine. “I didn’t get the 40 time I wanted,” he says. “But I thought I did O.K. otherwise.” The larger issue: Teams didn’t like Hyder’s body composition; he was a tweener.
Hyder weighted 290 pounds. At Tech, he never worried about eating habits; his play was strong, even if he had a bulge. Little Caesars was a staple. Sometimes meals consisted of only Muscle Milk.
“I remember in draft interviews, all teams kept asking was, ‘What position do you play?’” Hyder says. “‘Are you an inside guy or an outside guy?’ I’d just say, ‘I play defensive line.’” But that answer didn’t suffice. Says one area scout who evaluated Hyder at Texas Tech: “I liked his effort but he carried too much weight, especially in his lower half, and that’s not ideal for an NFL-caliber tackle.”
Hyder had only one team visit, with the Cowboys. He signed with the Jets hours after the draft. After spending all of 2014 on the practice squad, Hyder felt he was improving. “Maybe I had a chance to make the team the next season,” Hyder says. “Then the last day of the season, Rex [Ryan] and the whole staff was fired. I knew they were going to clean house, and that meant me too.”
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Hyder signed with the Lions in January 2015, again optimistic. “[Ndamukong] Suh had left, Nick Fairley had left, C.J. Mosley was gone,” he says. “I felt like I was coming in at a great position. I had three fumble recoveries in the last preseason game.”
But Hyder was once again relegated to practice squad. “I was upset but it still felt O.K. because it seemed like it would only be for a couple weeks,” Hyder says. “I knew I was going to get called up eventually.”
Weeks passed, the Lions struggled, and Hyder didn’t get the call. Between September and October, Detroit signed four other defensive tackles. Hyder kept fighting. Wednesdays were the last day the team put on shoulder pads for the week, so Hyder treated those days as game days. He would get eight hours of sleep Tuesday nights. He would ask trainers to wrap his tape extra tight.
“You look out there and see 61, that’s not always a defensive end number,” Aaron Rodgers said. “He must have a great work ethic and a lot of confidence because he’s really made himself into a solid player.”
But by virtue of being on scout team, he could never play as Kerry Hyder; he always had to emulate someone else. So he nagged his offensive linemen: Hey, what does Mike Daniels do? Give me a move that Linval Joseph does.
“Coaches always told me how well I was doing giving our first team offense solid looks,” Hyder says. “But my dad would always say, ‘They haven’t had a chance to see you yet.’”
“I’d say, ‘We have to take a look at this guy,’ because every single week he finds his way into the backfield,” coach Jim Caldwell said earlier this year. “He was creating problems for us in practice. He just has this knack in terms of pass rush.” And yet, the Lions didn’t call on Hyder until the season finale. He was on the field for two plays.
Meanwhile, practice squad life was a strain on the Hyders. Jasmine, a four-time All-America hurdler at Arizona State, stayed in Texas to train for the 2016 Olympics. Hyder’s parents—his mother is a beautician and his father is a mechanic—helped care for Giavonna. Hyder estimates that by the end of the year, his practice squad salary, after taxes, was about $60,000. Though he had a roommate in Detroit (defensive end Brandon Copeland), maintaining residences in two states, plus airfare for frequent trips from Texas to Detroit, added up. (Consider: Hyder was fined $18,000 this preseason for roughing Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron. He earned roughly $1,000 per week in training camp).
Without his family, Hyder’s life and eating habits revolved around practice. For breakfast, he’d eat at the facility: eggs, toast, orange juice, bacon and sausage. He’d have a post-workout shake, then for lunch have pasta. Dinner again was at the facility. “The food was never that unhealthy,” Hyder says. “But they have these big plates so you’re never really managing your portions. If Jasmine was in town maybe I’d eat at home but she wasn’t living with me.”
And then there was a second dinner. “I stayed right across the street from a Chipotle,” he says. “And the closet things to me were a TGI Friday’s, WingStop and a Chinese takeout place.” Most of those establishments knew Hyder by name.
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When Hyder returned to Austin in January, he committed to losing weight. Jasmine had been conscious of her food in-take since college; her track coach at Arizona State was also a nutrition coach. She detailed a meal plan for her husband. “I was eating pretty much only fish and chicken,” he says. “No fried foods. Salads all the time—but without croutons or dressing. Only lemon juice. I’m telling you, if you put enough lemon on there, it doesn’t taste so bad.”
He worked out at a gym in Austin that had no air conditioning. He’d arrive an hour early for the cardio—“in the heat of Texas spring, mind you”—then do a full lift and position drills workout. Though he was torching calories, Jasmine was concerned he wouldn’t keep the weight off until he ate smarter. “He’d come home then not eat for two or three hours!” Jasmine says. “You need to get your protein in so you can recover.” Soon, Jasmine was waking up earlier too—to stuff tuna packets in Hyder’s backpack. As the weight melted, Hyder’s confidence swelled. In his final preseason game, against Buffalo, Hyder racked up three sacks.
They Hyders decided that Jasmine—who missed out on the Olympic team—and Giavonna would move to Detroit if Hyder made the team. By September, the family had taken over Jeremy Kerley’s lease (after the receiver was traded to San Francisco). The family had some security.
Hyder’s first sack of the year came in the season-opener at Indianapolis, in the middle of the Colts’ opening drive. He lined up at left end opposite Joe Reitz. “I was trying to run off as hard as I could,” Hyder says. “I got chipped by the running back [Frank Gore], and the tackle must have been caught off guard because I beat him inside. Then all of the sudden it’s just me and Andrew Luck.” Hyder swarmed in for his first-career sack. He notched his second in the second quarter.
He returned to the locker room after the game to dozens of texts from college friends, chiding him for not properly celebrating. “I hadn’t really prepared anything,” Hyder says. “So they suggested I do the Southside [dance] after sacks.” No worries, Hyder had a sack in each of the next three games, and preformed the Southside after each one.
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When the Lions offered Hyder’s college jersey number, 91, to second-round draft pick A’Shawn Robinson, Hyder decided he would keep No. 61. “That’s the number I wore on the practice squad,” he says. “And if it was good enough for me then, it is good enough for me now.”
“You look out there and see 61, that’s not always a defensive end number,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said upon scouting Hyder’s tape before their Week 3 matchup. “I can’t think of another guy wearing that number, but a high-effort player, he’s making a lot of plays… Obviously, he never became a victim of his circumstances. He definitely must have a great work ethic and a lot of confidence because he’s really made himself into a solid player.” Three days after Rodgers gushed that praise, Hyder sacked him.
The early-season surge was welcome for a defense line undergoing a makeover under first-year general manager Bob Quinn, especially as defensive end Ziggy Ansah missed four games with an ankle injury. When the Pro Bowler returned in Week 6, Lions coaches figured out ways to keep Hyder on the field, including a move back inside as a situational pass-rusher.
Hyder has finally come around to buying new clothes. His old underwear is too big. On the first road trip, he wore a suit he had bought his rookie year and was embarrassed by how baggy it looked on television. “I got it altered, and they took four inches off,” he says. “They said they probably could have done more, but my pants would have been crooked.”
Now at 265 pounds, he is in maintenance mode. Jasmine says he can have two cheat meals per week—one on Monday nights before his Tuesday off day—though Hyder rarely cashes in. And after he plucks at seven bites of the Bloomin’ Onion, Hyder returns to his new comfort zone. The loaf of bread remains untouched. He sips on water and orders the relatively diet-friendly 22-ounce ribeye with sides of sweet potato and mixed vegetables.
He licks his fingers after finishing off that, too.
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