In the fall of 2011, Margus Hunt, Southern Methodist University’s standout defensive end from Estonia, made a decision to reconnect with his homeland’s rich music history. “Music is in the roots of what we’ve been doing for the past 100 years,” Hunt says. “I always wanted to learn to play something, because I couldn’t sing or dance.” Once he found that a guitar class wouldn’t fit his schedule, Hunt opted for the piano. As the semester was ending, Hunt’s teacher asked if he wanted to perform at her recital. A leader of a revitalized Mustangs football program, Hunt spent that winter juggling both football and feverish piano practice with roommate and teammate Szymon Czerniak. The following April, he walked onstage at SMU’s O'Donnell Hall more nervous than he’d ever been during his gold-medal discus throws at the World Junior Championships or a four-year football career at SMU. Barely squeezing his legs under the piano, Hunt tickled out the first few bars of “Expression,” a Helen Jane Long composition that’s both calm and minimalistic — the same kind of collected repetitive piano pieces he listens to before a game. Hunt’s performance garnered a standing ovation, and the students who’d already performed joined their Estonian peer on stage. Most were between the ages of 5 and 10, and there, in the middle of them all, was the 6-foot-8-inch Hunt — the former world-class shot put and discus thrower, the future NFL player — smiling.
“It was incredible,” Czerniak recalls. “There’s this big, 300-pound, Russian-looking guy and all these 5- to 10-year-old kids. He took it really seriously.”
Leading up to the start of tonight’s NFL draft, Hunt has been described as the definition of “upside,” the type of prospect GMs and scouts are either praised for or needled about for years. The Eastern European physical marvel is one of the draft’s true wild cards, a champion of an individual sport who reinvented himself into a possible first-round pick just four years after he started playing football. He’s done it by proving himself to be one of the most impressive athletes in recent draft history. Hunt smashed the NCAA career record for blocked field goals on his way to 17 total blocked kicks — good for second in NCAA history. Last year, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin called Hunt “the greatest PAT/field goal blocker of all time.” Bruce Feldman touted the 25-year-old as “a PlayStation football creation” when Hunt topped “The Freak List” as the top athletic revelation in college football.
But it was at the combine where Hunt’s measurables raised NFL eyebrows: a 4.6 40 time, 38 bench reps of 225 pounds, and an 82-inch wingspan. Both his 40 time and bench performance put him in the top five among defensive linemen in the last five combines, the only such player to do so. His is an elite combination of speed and strength unlike that of any other defensive lineman in recent years.
The rise comes with added attention, none of which has affected Hunt, who's handled the weight of a nation’s expectations since he was a teenager, switching sports and countries in the process, all the while juggling questions about his patriotism and adaptability.
There’s nothing inconspicuous about 6-foot-8 and 280 pounds, but Hunt, whether it’s in a helmet or at a piano, has made a habit out of surprising people. He’s just hoping the next time he does, it’ll be on Sunday afternoons.
The banner was simple: “Margus Hunt The Winner!” As Hunt walked toward the discus ring inside the sparsely attended Chaoyang Sports Center in Beijing during the 2006 World Junior Championships, those words were in his sight. Four seconds later, Hunt threw; the motion was a graceful display of controlled explosion, accentuated by a battle cry. Two of his next three throws would end up setting new world junior championship records. Later, Hunt would fall to his knees and raise his arms upon realizing he had set another world junior record, this time in the shot put. His oversize hands concealed the emotion on his face. No athlete at the World Junior Championships had ever won gold medals in both events in the same year.
By 19, he was something of a rock star in Estonia, someone who was expected to bring an Olympic medal home one day. “Even in his early years, he was very well-known by all sports fans in Estonia,” says Erich Teigamägi, president of the Estonian Athletics Association.
Born toward the end of the Cold War, Hunt, like any Estonian child living in a country of 1.5 million people, was drawn to sports simply to avoid boredom. He grew up in Karksi-Nuia, a southern town of about 2,000 close to the Latvia border. He was raised by his mother, Edna, a former speed skater, and his older sister, Kairi, a former track star 14 years his senior. Hunt’s father was a championship-caliber motorbike racer in Estonia who wasn’t around much during his son’s childhood.
Life would've been different for Hunt if not for Dave Wollman. SMU’s track and field coach since 1988, Wollman traveled to Estonia in 1990 to recruit discus thrower Aleksander Tammert, the first track and field athlete from the former Soviet Union to come to the U.S. on an NCAA scholarship. After Tammert’s graduation from SMU, Wollman remained his coach through four Olympic Games, including a bronze medal finish at the 2004 Games in Athens. Tammert’s bronze finish was the country’s first post-Soviet Olympic medal in track and field and had every young Estonian wanting to throw the discus — including a teenaged Margus Hunt.
Hunt trained with Tammert, a family friend, for the early parts of his career and through his 2006 triumphs in Beijing. Tammert eventually told his former coach about his new protégé, and by 2007, Hunt made it clear he wanted to come to Dallas to learn from Wollman. After taking a year off from discus and serving another two years in the Estonian military, Hunt was recruited as a discus thrower by SMU. By the time he got to Dallas, however, SMU still hadn’t revived its men’s track and field program, which had been cut in 2004. It didn’t matter. When he walked on to the campus as a full-time student for the first time in the fall of 2008, Hunt’s family in Estonia, specifically his brother-in-law, funded his freshman year tuition of around $50,000. Hunt knew what he wanted, and that was to be coached by Wollman.
“When a guy chooses to turn down 300 other schools to walk on and pay 50 grand to come to SMU to be coached by me, then he knows what he wants,” Wollman says. “And he went out and got it. That commitment meant a lot to me. I never met a 19-, 20-year-old kid who made that kind of commitment to anything.”
Hunt came to Dallas knowing little about his new home, more than 5,300 miles away from his old home. He knew about the Cowboys and the TV show Dallas. He was aware of the Mavericks, but only because of Martin Müürsepp, the only Estonian to ever play in the NBA.
But by the end of his freshman year, Hunt had fallen hard for SMU and Dallas. He was thriving in the detailed brainstorming sessions with Wollman, during which teacher and pupil would bounce ideas off each other for improving Hunt’s discus technique. His weight-room workouts had become the talk of SMU athletics. SMU student-athletes would stop their own workouts just to marvel. During this time, the idea came up about Hunt looking into a scholarship for football, a sport he knew almost nothing about. Some of the players and coaches on June Jones’s staff were well aware of what Hunt could do in the weight room and were just as curious to see if those physical tools could translate onto the field.
If Hunt didn’t know much about Dallas or football, then Jones was even less familiar with Hunt and Estonia.
“I didn’t know anything about either, to be quite honest,” Jones says.
Hunt’s SMU football tryout has become something of a local legend on the Hilltop.
“You could just see it,” says Bert Hill, SMU’s defensive line coach. “Margus has that presence.”
Coaches and players gathered to watch Jones and his staff put Hunt through drills. When it was time to run the 40 on the practice-field grass, Hunt, weighing 280 pounds at the time, clocked in at 4.6. The verdict was easy.
“June looks at me and goes, ‘Yeah, I’ll take him,’” Wollman recalls.
“That alone was enough for me to take a chance,” Jones says.
Despite all of Hunt’s physical gifts, Jones and his staff knew that he needed to brush up on the fundamentals of the game before coming back to campus with a full scholarship in 2009. Hunt took matters into his own hands — literally. When he arrived in Estonia for Christmas break in 2008, Hunt picked up a copy of Madden and began learning the basic rules, such as how many players are allowed on the field.
“I figured it would help me get more into knowing the game,” he says of the unorthodox approach. “I just played with the Cowboys because they were the only team I kind of knew.”
Back home, Tammert’s bronze, along with the gold and bronze finishes in the discus by Gerd Kanter in the last two Summer Olympics, helped usher in a new generation of prospective Olympic-caliber talent in track and field. Hunt’s medal had signaled that he was next, but that situation had changed when football came along.
“My duty as Estonian Athletics Association president is to fight for better results for our sport,” says Teigamägi. “But the first thing we had to respect was Margus’s personal choice.”
The initial decision to put his Olympic aspirations on hold in favor of learning football was met coldly in Estonia, a proud nation that takes its Olympic sports seriously. Publicly, Hunt had hoped to balance football and Olympic training, but surgeries on a torn labrum and meniscus in a four-month span in 2011 put an end to that. Hunt was made out to be something of a national traitor for choosing football — a sport that his countrymen knew little about — instead of becoming the next great Estonian Olympian.
At first, the criticism hurt. His mother, in particular, would become upset after reading comments online. The country’s sentiment started to shift with Hunt’s success. After this year’s Hawaii Bowl, Hunt has once again become one of the biggest stories in Estonia. His performance against Fresno State resulted in three mentions from the Estonian president on Twitter, and fans back home are now slowly learning about football.
“In the beginning, it was definitely hard to hear from your own people that you were basically stabbing them in the back,” Hunt says. “But I knew that this is something I had to do, and I believe it has worked out perfectly for me.”
At 25, Hunt’s time is now. With his full beard, he looks a bit like Kevin Love, only if Love were built like J.J. Watt. Montee Ball, who trained with Hunt before the combine, called him “a giant.” His lone tattoo is of a wolf that goes from his left shoulder down to his elbow. “Hunt” translates to “wolf” in Estonian. In all, the design took 16 hours. The wolf’s eyes are wide open, a symbol of looking toward a bright future.
No feat speaks more to that future than the blocked-kicks record Hunt set at SMU. Simply looking at his size and seeing his quickness, Jones knew that this 6-foot-8 mystery could, at the very minimum, be a disruptive force in altering kicks as he was still learning the game. By the time he was done in Dallas, Hunt finished his career as the NCAA’s all-time leader in blocked field goals (10), one short of the all-time record for blocked PATs (seven), and two short of the record for total blocked kicks (17).
The finer points of playing defensive end came slower, but it speaks to Hunt’s development that his best game as a Mustang was probably his last one. His stat line in last year’s Hawaii Bowl: Two sacks, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, three QB hurries, one safety, one MVP award, and one overwhelmed Fresno State offense.
Hunt’s pre-draft workouts have only improved his case, but he knows that even with league personnel penciling him in for the late first round or early second round, the questions and criticisms are out there. He’s too inexperienced. He’s inconsistent. He’ll be a 26-year-old rookie. He won’t adapt at the next level. His technique needs work. Hunt gets it.
“The experience question has been an issue that has been brought up, but I don’t see it being a problem,” Hunt says. “I have been learning the game of football for the past four years. The only thing now is to keep learning and keep practicing. I have grown to enjoy it a lot.”
By now, the volume of the measurable has drowned out those questions. Hunt will likely be gone in the draft’s first 50 picks, and the team that takes him will be one salivating at the idea of Hunt developing into an overpowering force at defensive end for the next decade. In a combine meeting with the New England Patriots, Hunt entered to find Bill Belichick in his trademark hoodie, a computer on his lap. Belichick had heard about Hunt from Jones years ago.
“‘So you’re the Margus Hunt I’ve been hearing about for four years,’” Hunt recalls Belichick saying.
It should come as no surprise that Hunt’s rise coincided with the start of what hopes to be a fruitful rejuvenation for SMU. Hunt has the school record for most games played (53) at the school and went to a bowl game in each of his four years — no small feat for the post–Death Penalty Mustangs. No win signaled that progress more than the 2009 Hawaii Bowl, three years before Hunt’s final standout performance. In Jones’s return to Honolulu since leaving Hawaii for SMU, the 45-10 win against Nevada was special for the SMU coach. An hour after the game, following dozens of interviews and handshakes with old friends, Jones spotted one player still in uniform. It was Hunt, waiting patiently to speak with his coach.
“I was kind of shocked,” says Jones, still surprised years later. “I said, ‘Margus, what are you doing?’ The players had already gone into the locker room and had left for the bus. He said, ‘Coach, I just wanted to say thank you for allowing me to be on this football team.’”
Like he did during that first tryout, or back at that piano in O’Donnell Hall, it was just another instance of Margus Hunt somehow sneaking up on someone, as wolves are wont to do.
“I was just floored," Jones said. "He waited there, and he just wanted to shake my hand. I gave him a hug and told him, ‘Margus, you’re going to be a great player, boy.’”
Timothy Bella (@TimBella) is a journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Men's Health, and Salon. His reporting and research will appear in The System, a college football book by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian that will be published in the fall by Doubleday.