By Bob Thomas
Associate Sports Information Director
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Closing on NC State’s Bo Hines with speed and bad intentions, Florida State safety Tyler Hunter delivered a textbook tackle, dropping the Wolfpack receiver dead in his tracks early in the fourth quarter last Saturday. Three plays later, the scene repeated itself with Hunter once again wrapping Hines up chest-to-chest and sending him to the ground on his back.
It was that kind of night for the redshirt junior from Valdosta, Ga., who registered a career-high 10 tackles, including a team-leading eight solo stops, a pass break-up and a quarterback hurry to help the Seminoles lock down a 56-41 victory.
“I’ve tried to work on that all during camp and through this day; just work on perfect form tackling so when I get into the game its second nature,” Hunter said. “I don’t think about it, I just go do it. From me working on it, I feel like I don’t have to think about it in the game. I can just react and go hit them with perfect form.”
That Hunter is in football form at all is a testament to his relentless rehabilitation, his love of the game and the advances in medicine. Without all three, his football career could have come to an abrupt conclusion when he wobbled off the field with numbness in his extremities following a tackle against Bethune-Cookman on Sept. 21 last year.
When he takes the field Saturday afternoon against Wake Forest, only 361 days will have passed since renowned Chicago surgeon Dr. Julian Bailes removed a herniated C3-C4 disc from his neck through a small incision in the front of his neck. Within 36 hours Hunter and FSU head football trainer Jake Pfeil were on a flight back to Tallahassee, setting in motion a remarkable recovery.
Hunter was cleared for full contact prior to the start of camp and in the starting lineup for the Aug. 30 opener against Oklahoma State.
“[Hunter] listened to everything that Dr. Bailes said, and that we said, throughout the rehab,” Pfeil said. “He knew that if everything goes right, he’s not going to miss games. He’s going to be on the field when games start.”
At a time of heightened awareness for head and neck injuries in college football, Hunter’s performance against NC State was equal parts impressive – FSU coach Jimbo Fisher selected him as one of the co-defensive MVPs – and necessary. Though he is completely healed from the potential career-ending injury, Hunter has a complete understanding of just how important it is to tackle correctly.
“I think you saw it this last game; a great example of him doing that,” Pfeil said. “He tackled better than I thought he had in a long time.”
And Pfeil cited the back-to-back stops of Hines as a perfect example.
“He runs right up to a guy, wraps him and drops him,” Pfeil said. “He wasn’t trying to make a highlight film.”
The improved fundamentals fall right in line with Hunter’s post-injury appreciation for the game and what life might mean without playing football again.
“It made me love the game that much more and appreciate it, just knowing that any play can be your last play,” Hunter said. “In practice, I practice harder, just like it’s a game. I try to prepare as best as I can.”
With the support of his mother, Tiffany McGilberry, and former FSU and Lowndes County High teammates Greg Reid and Telvin Smith, as well as Terrance Brooks, Hunter never lost faith that he would make it back on the field.
“They always kept me up,” he said.
And Hunter did his part by following the rehab schedule through the very last step, which was passing a CT examine in late July.
After two weeks of post-surgery inactivity, Hunter began a four-week course of light aerobic activity, culminating with jogging and a return to the weight room. Though many athletes endure periods of depression while coping with injuries, Hunter was most distraught by being reduced to the role of spectator as the Seminoles marched through the season and on to claiming the BCS National Championship.
“Every Saturday, coming to watch the games was the hardest thing, because I really wanted to be out there with my guys,” Hunter said. “That was the hardest thing; trying to control my emotions, because I wanted to be out there.”
With his rehab progressing at an impressive rate, Hunter was cleared to participate in February’s Fourth Quarter Drills with full exertion. “It was a good month for him,” Pfeil said.
After passing regularly scheduled MRI’s along the way, doctors released Hunter to participate in spring drills. He wore a green jersey like the quarterbacks, though he was prevented from any contact. He even participated in the spring game under those same limited conditions.
“At times it was frustrating,” Hunter admitted, looking back on spring practice. “There were times when I would get mad because the offense would make a play and I’d just want to go knock them out…Definitely in the spring game it had me frustrated because I was not ready to go, full go.”
Rather than succumb to the frustration, Hunter continued his rehab and made the most of his down time throughout the spring and summer. He channeled some of that frustration by emerging as an on-the-field mentor to his younger teammates, and became a fixture in the film room.
“He helped a lot,” said FSU junior cornerback Ronald Darby. “At that time he really didn’t know if he’d be able to play football, but he still loved the sport, so he was always out there telling us what we needed to work on and what he’d seen (from) off the field. He was just being supportive.
“He’s a great film guy. During the summer, after workouts – they would be done around 2 o’clock – he would be up there until like 6 or 7 at night watching film. He would even take me up there to watch film.”
An instinctive player in his first two full seasons, Hunter yearned to become a more complete contributor on defense.
“I definitely studied a lot of film while I was hurt, learning in certain situations and what offenses wanted to do to us,” Hunter said. “It definitely helped me.”
The only remaining piece to the puzzle was Hunter’s realization that he was once again a key component to the Seminoles’ defense.
“I’d actually have to say [that happened] the first day in pads at camp; just going out there being able to hit whoever I wanted to and feel good about my neck,” he said. “That’s the first day I finally said, ‘I’m back!’ I don’t remember who it was [he hit] and I don’t remember the moment. From then, I’ve been hitting.”
Hunter’s recovery left quite an impression on Pfeil:
“It went as good as you could ever want. He worked hard.”
Maturing though a difficult life lesson, Hunter is even more determined to become a leader both on the field and by example off it.
“I definitely learned a lot from this, knowing that the game that I love could be taken away at any time,” Hunter said. “School, which was important to me before, had to be that much more important to me. From my injury, knowing that I might not be able to play again. I know that I’ve got to earn my degree. I had to buckle down on that.”
That too has become a matter of tackling it with proper form.