Before the Boston College game, Hunter’s anguish rattled the entire team, Smith said. Since then, eye contact is dangerous, a trigger for all the emotions they’ve worked to suppress. But when Smith wandered into the players’ lounge before the Seminoles’ showdown with Miami earlier this month, finding Hunter slumped in a chair, head in hands, he couldn’t help but put an arm around his friend and promise things would get better.
“He’s coping with it, but I know it’s definitely tough for him,” Smith said.
This wasn’t how the season was supposed to go for Hunter. No one embraced defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s new system with more ferocity than he had, spending countless hours studying game film and teaching his teammates the intricacies of the scheme. He’d organized FSU's seven-on-seven drills over the summer, mentored his young teammates in advance of fall camp, then nailed down the starting safety job with little fanfare.
And then with one seemingly insignificant hit against Bethune-Cookman in September, it was all over.
“It’s still hard for me,” Hunter said. “Seeing them make all those plays in the secondary, wishing I was out there and knowing I could be making plays, too. It’s hard for me to watch every week.”
Hunter was born with a condition called cervical spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spine near the neck. Over the course of his career, enough big hits had left the area vulnerable. Against Bethune-Cookman, the ticking time bomb finally exploded.
It wasn’t that Hunter was in pain, he said. In the immediate aftermath of the hit, he assumed he’d miss just a week or two of action. It felt like a stinger, some numbness in his hands and legs that wouldn’t dissipate. An MRI revealed the extent of the damage, though, and doctors initially wondered if Hunter would ever play again.
“The doctor showed me the MRI, and it was just — I don’t know,” Hunter said. “It looked bad.”
That was a low point, but eventually Hunter made his way to Chicago, where he met with Dr. Julian Bailes, who recommended a surgical procedure to remove some of the discs and fuse a metal plate to strengthen the area.
Hunter now has a jagged scar on the front of his neck and a second chance at playing the game he loves.
“He kept his mind positive," Smith said. "He’s staying with it. He’ll be back, give all he’s got and lead this team again.”
Still, Hunter won’t be able to return to the field until the spring, and even then, he expects his contact to be limited. Now, he’s stuck on the sideline, tossing footballs during warmups and serving as a de facto coach during the game.
It’s hardly an ideal role, but it’s one he’d prepared for long before the injury.
When Pruitt took over for Mark Stoops in January, Hunter was rehabbing another surgery. A knee injury kept him off the field during spring practice, but Hunter was ravenous in the film room.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a guy who was in the office studying more on his own,” Jimbo Fisher said.
Hunter would arrive on campus around 1 each afternoon, then spend the next six to seven hours studying the playbook or watching game film — usually from Pruitt’s old stomping grounds in Alabama.
“What we did in the spring, there was a lot of messing up going on, so I couldn’t really watch that,” Hunter said.
By the summer, those mistakes began to disappear, and it was largely because Hunter was so adept at mentoring the rest of the group. What Hunter learned from the film he passed along to his teammates. He noticed the potential in freshmen Jalen Ramsey and Nate Andrews, and he made them a priority.
Hunter was the wise, old scholar. Ramsey and Andrews were his eager students.
“At first they struggled with the system, but just watching them in seven-on-sevens, I knew they had ability to get out and be able to play,” Hunter said.
Ramsey opened the season as the starter at corner, but when Hunter went down, he slid to safety and has been nearly flawless. Andrews saw his role expand after Hunter’s injury, too, and he now leads the team with four interceptions.
Even without Hunter in the lineup, Florida State leads the nation in passing defense and interceptions. For Hunter, that offers both reward and heartache.
“He’s like having another coach. He knows it all inside and out, and those guys ask a lot of questions,” Fisher said. “But at the same time, you’re disappointed to not be out there with your teammates because of the competitor in you.”
It’s hard knowing what this year might’ve been, Hunter said, but he doesn’t feel alienated. The emotions overwhelm him at times, and his teammates have been there to pick him up again. Smith scribbles Hunter’s name on his gloves before games, and the freshmen pat him on the back afterward, his reward for their job well done.
Florida State’s success this season was built on a selfless approach, cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said, and no one has embodied that more than Hunter. It’s hard to see him struggle with his emotions on game day, but it’s been inspiring, too.
“Every second in the locker room on game days, we can look him in the eye and see he wants to be out here as much as us,” Joyner said. “And even though he’s not, we still have the spirit of Tyler Hunter out there with us.”