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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Grit, determination and will: Tyler Hunt’s journey to Division I athletics

Hunt is one of two athletes playing on both the baseball and football team.

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Missouri Tigers running back Tyler Hunt (35) runs with the football Nov. 6, 2015, during a game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Faurot Field.

Maneater File Photo

Tyler Hunt packed his bags.

The next morning he would leave for Meramec Community College to play baseball, giving up his dream of playing football for Missouri.

That is, until the phone rang.

“‘You’re gonna show up for two-a-days,’” Carol Hunt, Tyler’s mother recounted. “‘You’re a preferred walk on.’”

He made the decision immediately, but he still called his parents, Carol and Ronald, for advice.

“What do you think I should do?” Carol remembers him asking.

“Well, that’s your call, only you can make that call,” Carol and Ronald mirrored each other’s statements.

“Well, my decision’s made then, no question. I’m going to MU to play football.”

In two phone calls, Tyler gave up stability, a full-ride scholarship and the possibility of going pro for uncertainty. His baseball career appeared to be over.

He wouldn’t be playing quarterback at Missouri; he’d have to work his way up from a low-tier depth chart position and fight to earn a spot on the team. But Tyler Hunt was OK with this.

As a senior, Hunt broke out as a running back on the Tigers’ football team, and he was voted most inspirational player by his teammates.

“He’s always been very competitive, very driven,” Carol said. “He’s spent a whole lot of time focusing on what he needed to do.”

Now, three and a half years after deciding to play football over baseball — three and half years away from the game — Hunt has returned to the diamond for his last semester in the country’s toughest conference as a walk-on.

Walking on to one sport at a Southeastern Conference school is hard enough. Hunt did it twice. Though Mizzou Athletics has not given media access to Hunt this baseball season, The Maneater talked to coaches, family and teammates about the senior’s journey.

Athlete in the Making

Hunt’s desire for athletic success began long before his freshman year at Missouri.

He and his older brother Jared used to watch their father, Ronald, play semi-professional football for teams like the Kansas City Bulldogs and the Jefferson City Jaguars. Hunt would watch, study and mirror his dad.

Apparent from a young age, Hunt’s drive to improve his game frequently set him apart from his peers.

Starting around fourth grade, Hunt was competing two years above his age group, playing quarterback and pitching for Jared's teams.

In sixth grade, one of Hunt’s little league coaches told the players that drinking soda was unhealthy and could hinder their athletic ability.

“He hasn’t drank soda since,” Carol said.

Lance Massey, Hunt’s head baseball coach and offensive coordinator in football at Westran High School noticed his talent and drive as early as eighth grade.

“You always knew he had athletic ability,” he said. “He always had a real good arm in baseball. Even as a little leaguer, he had what we would call a ‘plus arm.’”

Massey frequently reiterated three words when describing Hunt: grit, determination and will.

Once he got to high school, Hunt expanded his focus, running track along with playing basketball, football and baseball.

“He loved all sports for sure, but football tended to be his first love,” Carol said.

Hunt started at quarterback all four years at Westran High School, earning the nickname “T-B-T,” or Tyler Brett Tebow, for famous quarterbacks Brett Favre and Tim Tebow. In 2007, the freshman-heavy Westran Hornets went a measly 1–9 under Hunt. Despite the team’s record, he still wracked up 1,700 all-purpose yards.

The next year, the team returned 18 starters, including both Hunt brothers.

After a 25–12 loss to North Shelby in the season opener, Westran regrouped. The Hornets went a combined 16–6 during Hunt’s sophomore and junior campaigns.

From the gridiron to the diamond, Hunt’s success continued. After his junior football season, Hunt consistently clocked in about 91 mph during baseball workouts, according to Massey.

That’s when the professional scouts arrived.

“His best baseball year was his junior year,” Massey said.

In the team’s season opener against Brunswick High School, Hunt fanned 12 batters in just four innings of work. He finished his junior season with 394 career strikeouts and seemed well on his way to break the state record of 458.

After receiving all-district and all-conference honors at quarterback and linebacker his sophomore and junior seasons, Hunt entered his senior season with a lot of hype.

The 6-foot, 210-pound quarterback who refused to shy away from contact led the Hornets to a 12–0 regular season. In those games, the Hornets outscored their opponents 553–62.

“There are a couple games that stick out during (Hunt’s) career, both during his senior year, probably, where the thing that made him special and gave him the ability to compete at the next level was his determination,” Massey said. “Nobody was going to tell him he couldn’t do what he was doing, and he was going to figure out a way to get it done.”

One of those games came against Missouri’s top-ranked Class 1 football team, Valle Catholic.

“He single-handedly carried us against a State Championship-caliber team,” Massey said. “Not that his teammates weren’t a part of it, but offensively, he really carried the load that day.”

With 195 yards rushing on 33 attempts, Hunt and his unbeaten Hornets were able to hold off the No. 1 team, 21–14.

In the State quarterfinals, Westran faced South Shelby, a team that included two Division II-bound linemen.

The game remained tied at six through the first half.

Then Hunt took over.

“Tyler pretty much willed his way into the end zone for our last touchdown on a drive that a lot of high school kids didn’t have the ability to do,” Massey said.

He repeated those same three words: grit, determination, will.

“The further out that I get from that game, the more I appreciate the fact that we won and the extraordinary effort that Tyler showed.”

After a win in State Semifinals, the still-unbeaten and top-ranked Westran Hornets headed into the Class I State Championship game against a team they knew well: Valle Catholic.

Missouri Tigers running back Tyler Hunt (35) runs through a defender Sept. 19, 2015, during a game against the Connecticut Huskies at Faurot Field.MANEATER FILE PHOTO

High School Heartbreak

The game, held at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, proved to be a barn-burner.

With 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the game tied at 14, Westran blocked what would have been the game-winning field goal, sending the game into overtime.

The game seemed all but over when Hunt crossed into the end zone for a 14-yard score, leaving Valle Catholic with one more chance.

The Warriors trudged down the field against Westran’s otherwise impenetrable defense. Eventually, quarterback Alex Stoll was able to toss up a 23-yard touchdown pass to Jared Bruns.

21–20, Westran with the lead.

After some deliberation, Valle Catholic elected to go for the 2-point conversion, and Stoll hit Bruns again for the overtime game-winner.

22–21.

Tyler Hunt collapsed.

Carol Hunt said it was one of the first times she’s seen her son cry after a game.

“It was pretty heartbreaking,” Carol Hunt said. “After the football game, he (could) hardly walk out of the locker room because he was just … you knew he had given it his all. He had worked his entire career to get to that point. That’s what you … it’s what you work for, to get to the state game, and he worked so hard for so many years, and it was just one of the biggest letdowns, of course, losing in overtime.

“That was heartbreaking for a parent.”

After the season came even more heartbreak in the form of waiting rooms and doctor visits.

Tyler had torn his ulnar collateral ligament sometime during the playoffs, playing through the injury in the State Championship. Deciding to forgo Tommy John surgery and let his elbow heal naturally, Hunt wouldn’t be able to play his senior year of baseball.

The strikeout record. The scouts. The possibility of going pro.

All gone.

Despite all this, Tyler decided to stay on the team as captain and watched from the dugout.

“I think it was a little bit later on when I recognized just how much it really impacted him as far as it really, really hurt him,” Carol said.

Contrary to what the doctors said, Tyler was able to pitch his final few games at Westran and worked on improving his game with a Kansas City travel team during the summer.

“Tyler’s strong-willed,” Ronald Hunt said. “If he gets his mind set on something, he’s going to do it.”

He was prepared for collegiate athletics, wherever it would be.

The Next Level

As a redshirt freshman, Tyler got his feet wet during the season opener against Southeastern Louisiana.

One carry. One yard.

Then, in his sophomore year, Hunt appeared in 13 games, mainly in special teams situations, and collected three tackles. The 2013 Missouri Tigers finished the season 12–2 as SEC Eastern Division Champions.

The summer before his junior year, the trajectory of Hunt’s career changed for the better.

Gary Pinkel offered him a one-year scholarship.

In spite of the uncertainty of whether he’d be on scholarship for his senior year, Hunt and his family appreciated the recognition so many felt he deserved.

“Everyone was ecstatic,” Jared Hunt said. “We had been praying since his freshman year he would (be offered a scholarship). (It’s) been a long-time goal. And financially, as a family, it was a blessing from God. And the satisfaction of knowing the hard work had finally paid off like we knew it would.”

Tyler appeared in 13 games his junior season, returning four kicks for 78 total yards, rushing twice for nine yards and making eight tackles on special teams. He and the Tigers repeated as SEC Eastern Division Champions with an 11–3 record.

During his senior year, Tyler significantly improved his numbers.

He led the team in single-game receiving yards, longest reception and yards-per-reception. He also rushed 42 times for 195 yards, third on the team in both categories, and averaged 4.4 yards-per-carry. His performance earned him a spot on the Burlsworth Trophy Watch List. The award honors the nation’s top player who began his career as a walk-on.

Hunt’s highlight reel play came in the third game of the year against UConn.

Hunt, wearing a black jersey emblazoned with the number 35, came rolling down the field toward Huskies linebacker Graham Stewart.

At the 48-yard line, Stewart bent his knees and tried to make a tackle just as Tyler Hunt lowered his shoulder.

One spin and it was all over.

Leaving Stewart at the 47-yard line, Hunt trudged past seven other white jerseys before senior Andrew Adams took him down at the UConn 5-yard line.

Hunt’s 51-yard reception came just two games after nabbing Drew Lock’s first career touchdown pass against SEMO. Hunt had two catches in two games with 128 yards receiving.

After the game against UConn on Sept. 19, Hunt took to social media.

“FEWDM,” for everyone who doubted him.

By the time Hunt’s senior football season was over, there weren’t many doubters left.

“I wouldn’t have been able to overcome all the adversity thrown at me if it wasn’t for all the support and love everyone has shown me,” Hunt tweeted after walking off of Faurot Field for the last time as a player.

Senior pitcher Tyler Hunt sits in the dugout on April 17 during the third game of the LSU series at Taylor Stadium.Photo by Jordan Kodner/Photo Editor

Back to the Diamond

Now, after three and a half years away from the sport, Hunt has tried to climb the ranks of Missouri baseball during his final semester.

“It started about three years ago,” baseball coach Tim Jamieson said of his conversations with Hunt. “He’s talked to us on several occasions, but he always had to fight to earn a spot on the football team. He’s still got some ways to go, but he’s getting a little bit better and he’s got a good arm — he just hasn’t gotten a lot of experience.”

For a stretch in the middle of his senior football season, Hunt did not receive much playing time. Jared said that this was when his brother began seriously considering baseball.

Jamieson had wanted Tyler to begin pitching workouts and long toss before the offseason began, but his status on the football team prevented this from happening.

“I know that hurt him transitioning-wise due to his arm not being quite up to par … unlike if he had been able to take those extra workouts prior to the season,” Jared said.

Now, he has had to prove himself on the field for the second time.

“After coaching him in both baseball and football, I expected him to try to do this probably for the last two years,” Massey said. “This did not surprise me.”

Although his usage on the mound and from the bullpen has been limited, his family and teammates seem to be behind his journey.

“He’s the guy you want to have the ball when a play needs to be made,” Jared said. “When we were in high school, I played centerfield and there were a lot of times I could’ve just taken my glove off and not played when he was on the mound.”

Sophomore pitcher Tanner Houck said before the season began that he hopes the team gets to see more of Hunt on the mound.

“He’s a competitor,” he said. “He’s the same way I am. He came in, and he’s been doing really good things for us, so we hope to be able to use him a lot this year, and he can really help this program.”

On March 11, Hunt got his chance against Youngstown State.

In the bottom of the ninth inning with an 8–1 lead, the Tigers sent Hunt in to close the game out.

First baseman Zach Lavy handed Hunt the ball and directed his eyes toward the jumbotron.

“Welcome to the show,” he said.

Hunt was pulled after pitching only 0.1 innings, giving up three walks and two earned runs.

After the game, though, Lavy still seemed upbeat about Hunt’s ability.

“I grew up playing against him in little league from like 10 to 14,” he said. “For him to get here and actually get an appearance, even if he struggled a little bit, I mean, you heard the bench go nuts. He works his butt off, and it pays off for him to be here.”

After the game, Hunt tweeted once more.

With 14 games left in the regular season, there’s still time for Hunt to make more appearances from the bullpen.

Growing up in Huntsville, Missouri, population 1,564, Hunt wanted to play football for Missouri. However, by the end of his time in high school, it appeared as if baseball was his best shot at collegiate athletics.

In the end, through grit, determination and will, he found a way to do both.

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