In 2006 it appeared that Margus Hunt was on his way to Olympic gold.
The then-19-year-old became the first athlete in history to win both the shot put and discus in the same year at the World Junior Championships. It made him a national celebrity in his home country of Estonia.
“That was a problem,” said Hunt. “When you come from a country that has 1.3 million people and do something like that, there’s huge pressure on your shoulders to win the Olympics in two years. I had to get out.”
So he moved to the United States to train at SMU under famed track coach Dave Wollman. But by the time he arrived in Dallas, the school had dropped its men’s track program.
“It’s been a weird rollercoaster ride to say the least,” said Hunt. “Six years ago I was sure that I was going to be in the Olympics in 2012. You never know what life is going to bring you. You go with the decisions at hand and just work your butt off.”
In order to stay at SMU, Hunt tried out for football and was given a scholarship based on his freakish athletic ability. But there was one small problem: Margus knew nothing about the game.
“I had my tryout in November of 2008 and then went home for Christmas,” said Hunt. “That’s when I bought Madden.”
That’s right. The 53rd overall selection in this year’s NFL draft began learning the game at the age of 21 by playing Madden NFL football.
“I went out and got Madden to have more of an overview of what the game is about,” said Hunt. “Just the overall view of it – the defense and how it works. You kind of see where the guys are going.”
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Hunt studied football by playing a video game. After all, he says he taught himself English by watching American television and movies.
“I watched a lot of Friends when I was back in Estonia and whatever American movies came out,” said Hunt. “In France, Germany and Italy, they have TV shows dubbed over, but we had subtitles so I was able to learn English fairly quickly through that.”
He learned the language well enough to graduate on schedule at SMU with a 2.7 GPA in sports management. On the field, Margus went from being a kick-blocking specialist as a freshman, to an All-Conference defensive end by the time he was a senior.
“What really helped me is when they put me in the starting lineup my sophomore year,” said Hunt. “We had some issues on the defensive line where one of the guys was suspended, so they made me a defensive end and I got a lot of reps and a lot of work. That showed me what I needed to do if I wanted to get to the NFL in a couple of years.”
After being named the MVP of the Hawaii Bowl in his final college game (3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles), Hunt posted jaw-dropping numbers at the NFL combine for a 6-8, 277-pound lineman. Of course, sprinting and lifting weights were nothing new for Margus.
“The combine is essentially a track meet,” said Hunt.
“He can run like a deer, he’s got great strength – we just have to point him in the right direction,” said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Zimmer’s challenge will be helping Hunt adapt to lightning-fast NFL football as a 26-year-old rookie.
“Football-wise he’s about 12,” said Zimmer. “But he’s an exceptionally hard worker. You watch this guy play on tape and he’s running all over the field.”
“Every day I go out there and I have to tell myself, ‘Stay low, stay low. Look where you put your hands. Play with leverage.’ ” said Hunt. “There are a lot of things to learn every day.”
One thing Margus doesn’t have to learn is how to deal with public scrutiny. When the Bengals selected Hunt in the second round on Friday night it was national news in Estonia.
“We have ESPN back home so there were a bunch of journalists who were up all night watching the draft,” said Hunt.
It took a while for the folks back home to accept his decision to pursue a Super Bowl ring instead of a gold medal.
“Some people even called me a national traitor at one point,” said Hunt. “Track and field is something they’re really proud of and they take a lot of credit in that. But it was something that I had to do for myself and now they finally understand.
“Football has given me new energy and I’m just so excited to be here. I can’t wait to get to work.”