Even in the hypertrophic realm of an NFL locker room, Danielle Hunter’s muscles look photoshopped. If he ever visits Florence, Michelangelo’s David will be shamed into joining a gym.
So while Hunter thanked teammates and coaches for the latest big day in his biggest season, one of those teammates directed credit to the people most responsible for Hunter’s stardom.
“That guy’s parents are great,’’ said fellow defensive end Stephen Weatherly. “Just for getting together and making a guy like that.’’
Their craftsmanship was on display at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday. Hunter, a fourth-year Vikings defensive end, produced nine tackles and a career-best 3.5 sacks and returned a fumble 32 yards for a touchdown in the Vikings’ 24-9 smothering of the Detroit Lions.
Hunter at least momentarily took the NFL sack lead, with 11.5, and while he’s been around long enough to be considered a veteran, his teammates kept offering reminders that he’s not old enough to rent a car in many states.
“He’s been a baller since I’ve been here,’’ said veteran defensive lineman Tom Johnson. “He’s only going to get better. He’s still 24. This is only half a season. It’s going to be a crazy year for him.’’
While he remains young, Hunter is past being promising, and while he plays on a talented line, he is beyond being anyone’s protégé. He has thrived with and without Everson Griffen, and whether playing on the left or right side of the line.
“He looks,’’ Griffen said, “like a superhero.’’
Hunter blends the Hulk’s bulk and Spider-Man’s agility, and you would probably like him when he’s angry. He may be the nicest, quietest disrupter in football.
Take his touchdown. He sprinted toward Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, perhaps prompting Stafford to try to pitch the ball. Hunter scooped it on the failed exchange, scored easily, then walked slowly through the end zone, greeting teammates.
No celebration? “I wanted to do a team picture,’’ he said. “But I just had to catch my breath. Plus, I was out there for the kick.’’
Yes, the NFL sack leader plays on special teams.
With 36.5 sacks midway through his fourth season, Hunter is likely to produce the second-highest sack total in any player’s first four seasons with the Vikings. Only Jared Allen, with 62 as a veteran in his prime, has produced more than Alan Page’s 39.
“He’s a very coachable player,’’ Griffen said. “And he’s a freak of nature.’’
That description is apt. A few years ago, Hunter told me about his upbringing in Jamaica, where he and his friends turned the island into a daredevil’s jungle gym.
Hunter and his friends would jump off rooftops, swim in large drainage ditches and compete to see who could roll down a hill without falling into a pond filled with alligators. He slipped once, heard something moving underwater, and sprinted away.
Now he knows how NFL quarterbacks feel.
“Today, constantly, I was like, ‘Was that Danielle again? And again?’ ” running back Latavius Murray said. “Then he had the fumble recovery and I said, ‘Danielle again?’
“When you spend time with him in the building every day, you know there’s no limit to what he can do.’’
The return of Griffen to the lineup and the emergence of Weatherly as a starting-caliber backup mean that defenses may not be able to build game plans around blocking Hunter, even if his statistics indicate that’s the way to go.
“We did it together,’’ Hunter said. “It wasn’t just me. It was the defensive line working together, staying in our rush lanes and just getting to that passer.’’
So the Vikings head into the bye at 5-3-1 and with a reminder of what they were built to be. They are a defensive team that relies on a remarkably powerful and deep defensive line, one featuring a superhero lookalike who can outrun alligators, leap from rooftops and make a quarterback wish he had worn a few more pads.