TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Tiffany McGilberry pleaded with her son. “Try baseball,” she begged.
At that time in early October, her son Tyler Hunter was riding around Florida State in a neck brace. It was the only thing preventing even a minor car accident from paralyzing the then-20-year old. A tackle in a September game that left his hands temporarily numb was the tipping point. Years of battering receivers across the middle deteriorated Hunter’s neck. Doctors ordered he wear a neck brace around campus and while driving.
The Baltimore Orioles drafted Hunter in high school, and McGilberry asked he start sacrificing runners instead of sacrificing his health.
“He doesn’t love baseball like he loves football,” McGilberry said Monday. “You can’t take [football] away from him. I don’t think anyone can.”
Not even a neck surgery that required the expert hands of leading neurosurgeon Dr. Julian Bailes could do that. Bulging discs were removed and a metal plate was inserted to deal with a congenital condition called cervical spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine near the neck.
Nearly six months after the surgery, Hunter is ahead of schedule and practicing. He’s undergoing monthly X-rays -- the most recent coming last week -- and is still in a non-contact jersey, but he’ll participate in every spring practice. The repartee with Jameis Winston is already underway, as Hunter has unsuccessfully tried to goad the Heisman winner into throwing his direction. Inexperienced backup Sean Maguire tried his luck Saturday, and the savvy free safety returned the interception for a touchdown.
“It’s been real exciting, just being able to be out there with the team again, being able to play football,” Hunter said. “I really appreciate the game a lot more now.”
Although Hunter is avoiding most contact (he admitted to popping a receiver last week, which he hid from his mother until she read it in a Monday article), those around him in the secondary see a confident player reminiscent of Hunter’s pre-injury form. They see the safety who persevered through a knee injury last spring to win a starting job in fall camp.
“He deserves to be out there,” sophomore defensive back Nate Andrews said. “He loves being out there.”
He wasn’t out there for the final 11 games of Florida State’s first 14-0 season in school history. He wasn’t out there for the ACC championship, and he wasn’t out there intercepting Auburn’s Nick Marshall or making snow angels in the confetti. He was out there on the sidelines, despondent.
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher asked Hunter still travel with the team but it too often had an adverse effect, forcing him into the locker room as he battled with an overwhelming sense of emptiness. The white lines did more than separate him from the field; it formed a barrier from his teammates.
Against NC State, the first home game following Hunter’s season-ending surgery, he finally broke down.
“I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t watch this game,” he texted his mother.
“It was hard to watch,” Hunter said this week. “I couldn’t even watch from the sidelines.”
His head hanging, McGilberry refused to let that become the defining image of Hunter’s sophomore season. Abandoning teammates is not part of Hunter’s make-up, and McGilberry knew it. Florida State was starting a freshman and sophomore in the secondary and rotating two others. The injury meant he wasn’t on the field. It didn’t mean he wasn’t on the team, she told him.
“We had to have our meetings,” Fisher said of Hunter. “The things you face mentally, and the ghosts you chase and the wondering and not knowing, that’s the toughest part, and we had to help him through that. Once he got through that he was back helping any way he could.”
Through the final 11 weeks, Fisher said he can’t recall seeing a player study more film on his own than Hunter. He was dejected, but few knew the secondary assignments better. Terrence Brooks, a 2013 senior, credits Hunter for helping him reach new levels and calls him “another coach on the field.” For a defense that finished No. 1 in the country, Hunter’s absence became a rallying point.
As Florida State preps for a run at a second straight national championship, few on the roster are held in higher regard than Hunter. On a defense lacking seniors, Hunter, normally quiet and reserved, is becoming a vocal fixture.
“I don’t talk a lot, but knowing we need somebody to step up and be vocal and lead the team, I took it upon myself to do it,” Hunter said.
Fisher said it is that selflessness that’s endeared him to teammates. This season and these teammates mean more to Hunter than any career on the diamond ever could. The closest he wants to come to baseball is when he picks off a Winston fastball in football practice.
“He never thought twice about baseball [after the injury],” McGilberry said. “He still believes that was his best decision.”