Kareem Hunt’s Career Night Comes in First Game
- The Chiefs stunned the Patriots on opening night thanks in part to the three-touchdown performance by their rookie running back who fumbled on his first carry
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — After most of his teammates left the field, after the national TV interview ended, Kareem Hunt finally headed to the locker room some time after midnight, his jersey stained with grass and a commemorative game ball tucked in hand. He made only a few steps into the tunnel before Chiefs fans stopped him: “Kar-eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeem!” Hunt signed some memorabilia for the fans and then trotted up the tunnel. Once he turned the corner, he took a long look at the game ball in his hands and then let out a long exhale.
The Chiefs had just shocked the NFL by handing the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots a 42–27 loss at home on the opening night of the season. Hunt, a rookie running back, a third-round pick from the University of Toledo, had led the Chiefs to victory. He compiled 246 total yards, setting an NFL record for the most yards from scrimmage in a players’ first career game, and scored three touchdowns. Over the course of the past four hours, Hunt went from an unproven rookie to bona fide star.
Hunt certainly looked like a rookie at the start of the game. On his very first career carry, Hunt took a handoff, started heading upfield, and found himself caught in a pile. Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore was wrapping his legs, and safety Jordan Richards was grabbing his waist, when Richards’ left hand happened to push the ball out of Hunt’s grasp. The Patriots recovered, as Hunt, laying on the ground, frantically swiped at the ball.
“I was more in shock than anything,” Hunt said. “I couldn’t believe it. I feel like I got too lax with the ball. I thought I was going to be down. … It just came right out.”
Hunt had carried the ball 782 times over four years at Toledo—and he’d only fumbled once, in a game his freshman year against Western Michigan. He still remembered the fumble, from four years earlier. He also remembered that he’d recovered it himself.
Hunt hung his head and started jogging off, clearly upset. He’d only made it a few steps when Bennie Logan, the Chiefs’ fifth-year veteran defensive tackle, grabbed him by the jersey, as he was coming onto the field. We’ve got your back, Logan told him. You’re good.
“He was down on himself; he knew what he had done,” Logan said after the game. “But you’ve got to rally around him. Just keep him boosted up. He’s just a young guy. He’s going to be a big help for us going through the season, so you don’t want to kill his confidence.”
Once Hunt reached the sideline, though, Hunt had to face the wrath of Eric Bieniemy, the Chiefs running backs coach. Bieniemy coached Adrian Peterson in Minnesota when he was a rookie, when Peterson fumbled 20 times in his first three years in the NFL. Bieniemy had been challenging Hunt to be better, especially since Spencer Ware had injured himself during the third preseason game, making the rookie the starter. On the sideline after the fumble, Coach Andy Reid said, Bieniemy and Hunt “were getting after each other a little bit.” Then Reid and Charcandrick West, Hunt’s backup, stepped in and “calmed the storm,” Reid said. Sit down, relax. You’re getting the ball the next play, Reid told Hunt. Get yourself ready to go.
The defense, in turn, did have Hunt’s back. After the Patriots marched to the Chiefs’ 10 yard-line, they found themselves in a 4th-and-1 situation—and Bill Belichick went for it. The Patriots ran Mike Gillislee up the gut, and Logan and the Chiefs front swallowed him up.
True to his word, Reid gave Hunt the ball on the very next play. Hunt took the handoff, broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage, and burst ahead for nine yards. Four plays later, Hunt caught a swing pass for five yards and shouldered Malcolm Butler as he went out of bounds. Then Hunt took a handoff around the right side and ran over Duron Harmon.
Hunt was picking up steam. This was why the Chiefs moved up in the third round to snag Hunt in the draft, No. 86 overall. Last year, when Reid was preparing his game plans each Thursday night, he’d have on the weekly MAC game in the background, which meant that he’d seen several Toldeo games—and Hunt routinely caught his eye. In 13 games that season, Hunt compiled 1,878 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. “He seemed to get stronger as the game would go on,” Reid says now. “And they fed him and fed him and fed him.”
That’s what Reid did Thursday: he kept feeding Hunt. Hunt carried the ball 17 times for 148 yards and one touchdown, grabbing chunks of yards here and there, showing a great mix of vision, speed, and power. After his very first game, Hunt seemed to already have a rapport with the offensive line. “Sometimes you have leverage on a guy, and [the blocker] knows exactly what’s about to happen,” said Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, the Chiefs right guard. “[The running back] is going to pinch back inside, make the cut, as you finish the block. It’s just a great feeling when you know where he’s at. It’s pretty impressive that after only his first game you’ve got that feeling, that connection between the line and the running back.”
Then once Hunt hit the open field, he showed his elite level speed. When the Chiefs had the ball, down six points, at the start of the fourth quarter, Hunt ran a route up the seam past Cassius Marsh, a backup linebacker the Patriots had just acquired in a trade, and Alex Smith hit Hunt in stride, for an easy 78-yard touchdown. Later in the fourth, when the Chiefs needed to put the game away, Hunt took a carry around the left end for 58 yards. “He had an amazing college career, and that carried over,” West, the veteran backup, said after. “You don’t wake up and forget how to play football. That’s what we expect from him. That’s why we drafted him.”
Once Hunt reached the locker room, reporters mobbed him, and he answered every question wearing a big grin. The only thing that could damper his mood was, every now and then, he said, when he’d remember that fumble from his first career carry. “I’m excited and still a little bit, you know, kind of disappointed in myself, because I let one go—slip,” Hunt said. He still couldn’t help but beam as he spoke. “I still think about it a little bit. But I ain’t going to forget about it now. I’m going to be cautious and learn from my mistake and just keep coming.”