One of the best young pass rushers the NFL has ever seen was born in Jamaica in 1994, didn’t know American football existed until 2002, and couldn’t understand why his stepdad would want to spend every Sunday in front of a TV cheering for a guy named Michael Strahan to get something he called a “sack.”
“I didn’t know what a sack was,” said Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter. “I’d watch and be like, ‘I don’t understand this game. At all.’ ”
Strahan is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with 141 ½ sacks. Nine of those came before he turned 24.
Hunter turns 24 on Oct. 29. He has 30 ½ sacks, the fifth-highest total before age 24 since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
“He’s not someone who is going to sit and say, ‘I am satisfied,’ ” said Cheikh Ndiaye, the only man Hunter calls Dad. “So I see that he can beat all of those other guys, including my guy, Michael Strahan.”
Hunter has five sacks this season and joins Bears linebacker Khalil Mack as the only players with at least one in every game. He has three more games as a 23-year-old, including Sunday’s game against Arizona at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Young, strong mother
Kimara Bonitto was 18 when she got pregnant with Danielle in St. Catherine, Jamaica. The biological father is someone Danielle has seen only once or twice.
“There were people against me having the child at 18,” Bonitto said. “But it happened. I dealt with it by myself.”
She went to New York, where her mother lived, and attended Monroe College while Danielle stayed behind with an aunt. Today, Bonitto is an accountant working on her doctorate while raising daughters Mareme, 12, and Aisha, who turns 10 Sunday.
“I had to leave him in Jamaica or I would have had to stay and not have the opportunity to bring him to America at all,” Bonitto said. “I set myself up as best I could before I could take him. It was our opportunity to come here legally.”
At 8, Hunter spent six months with his grandmother, Joy Gayle, in New York while Bonitto moved to Texas with Ndiaye, whom she had met in college. They were married, and Hunter settled with them in Katy, near Houston.
At 9, Hunter was playing tag with best friend Jamaal Holmes. Jamaal’s dad, Jerry, was grilling nearby when he saw Hunter run down his son, who was on roller skates at the time.
That moment, Hunter became an American football player for Jerry Holmes’ ADC Raiders of the Houston Youth Football Association. Ironically, his first position was left tackle, although he ended up playing every position but quarterback and punter.
“The first time I put on shoulder pads, I felt like I could run through a tree,” Hunter said. “I felt invincible.”
‘Create a Player’
With 34 ½-inch arms and a sculpted 6-5, 252-pound physique, Hunter looks like an “action figure,” said his trainer, James Cooper, who runs Houston’s O Athletik club as CEO and co-owner along with Adrian Peterson.
Defensive line coach Andre Patterson calls Hunter “Gumby” because of his unusual ability to twist such a large frame through small openings.
“I didn’t know who Gumby was,” Hunter said. “I had to look him up. Little green twisty guy.”
Nose tackle Linval Joseph, the strongest guy on the team, calls Hunter “Super Hero.” But he prefers defensive end Everson Griffen’s description better.
“Everson started calling him ‘Create a Player,’ like you see on Madden,” said defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. “Make them all ‘99’ [Hunter’s jersey number] for attributes, abilities, speed, skill, all of that. You can cheat a little bit on Madden if you do that.”
No one can recall ever seeing Hunter tired. Wayne Johnson, Hunter’s strength coach and offensive coordinator at Morton Ranch High, said Hunter would routinely arrive when the weight room opened and go home when it closed.
“The only time he ever missed a lifting session was the morning he had his wisdom teeth pulled,” Johnson said. “He was going on a visit to LSU later that day. I called and asked him if he was almost to Baton Rouge. He said, ‘No, I’m getting my running in. The dentist said I couldn’t lift today, but I could run.’ ”
Hunter grew up running track with Eli Hall, who went on to become one of the best collegiate sprinters in the country at the University of Houston. Hall is an Olympic hopeful in the 200-meter dash.
“And you know what?” said Johnson. “When they ran together, there wasn’t much separation between the two.”
‘It’s just money’
Of the dozens of NFL players he trains in the offseason, Cooper calls four of them his “measuring sticks”: Peterson, Hunter, Redskins offensive lineman Trent Williams and Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes.
Hunter can power clean five reps of 300 pounds and run eight 300-meter dashes under 41 seconds with only 90 seconds of rest in between.
“Danielle runs with the receivers and running backs,” Cooper said. “And he does everything that I ask of him. Usually what happens when a guy has success is he says, ‘Well, I only want to this or that.’ Danielle just comes and says, ‘Hey, you tell me. You’re the coach.’ ”
That didn’t change in June, when Hunter signed a five-year extension worth $72 million with $40 million guaranteed and $15 million up front.
“He was here when the contract got done,” Cooper said. “He flew to Minnesota, signed the contract and came right back. I’ve found most guys in that situation take a little vacation and go partying. Some don’t, but they tend to be the guys who end up in Canton, Ohio.”
“Money wouldn’t change me,” he said. “It’s just money. Over time, you’ll end up making a lot of money by just doing your job instead of chasing the money.”
Patterson knew something was different about Hunter the first time they met in his office after the Vikings drafted him in 2015.
“He unzipped his briefcase and pulled out a pad of paper and a pen,” Patterson said. “Only time I ever saw a player do that. By the time we were done, he had about 10 pages written.”
Hunter had only 4 ½ sacks before leaving LSU after his junior year. But the Vikings accurately determined that the Tigers’ scheme called for Hunter to take rush angles that were too high and wide.
With a lot of work came the current pass-rushing version of Danielle Hunter.
“He’s got an uncommon desire to improve,” Patterson said. “That’s every day, every play. He’s never satisfied. I’ve only been around one other guy like that in my whole coaching career. And that was John Randle.”
No ceiling too high
LSU strength coach Tommy Moffitt said he never heard Hunter answer to instruction in any other way but “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”
“Obviously,” said Johnson, the coach at Morton Ranch, “God gave him the talent to play. But God gives a lot of people the talent to play who don’t take advantage of it.”
Patterson refuses to answer the question, “How good can this 23-year-old become?”
“I don’t want to ever put a ceiling on him,” Patterson said. “I’ve coached Hall of Famers, but I don’t want to compare him to anybody. Let him keep striving to be as good as he can be. We might just turn around at the end of his career and see that everybody is comparing other people to him.”
Ndiaye no longer roots for the Giants. He travels a lot to Europe and Africa as a contract attorney for Fortesa International and First Exchange oil companies. But when the Vikings are playing, “I put my No. 99 on and make sure to watch wherever I am in the world.”
“That man,” said Hunter, “is a big influence in my life. He’s one of the reasons I stayed with football. He was just always there for me.”
Meanwhile, Ndiaye’s soft-spoken son keeps rising quietly. Never missing a game due to injury, playing left and right end with equal comfort, stepping up for extra duty as Griffen, his friend and mentor, recovers from mental health issue, and, of course, racking up all those sacks.
“How good can I be?” he shrugs. “Coach tells me not to limit myself. So as long as I keep striving to be better than what I am, I could be one of the greatest.”