Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter taps on a wooden bench outside the juice bar at TCO Performance Center and asks for protection. Through the superstitious knocks, he describes the hopelessness of his 25-year-old hands being taken off the wheel of a superstar NFL career, wishing it to never happen again.

"It's crazy, unexpected," Hunter said in an interview with the Star Tribune. "Whatever happened to me, could've happened to anyone."

Hunter left the practice field on Aug. 14, 2020 riding high. He'd finished the non-padded session, taking reps without limitation and minimal contact. But somewhere in that contact with a teammate, a moment that required film study of practice to identify, Hunter suffered the cervical herniated disc that would end his season. It just took a while to realize.

Hunter awoke the next morning without much worry.

"Man, it was nothing," he said. "It felt like I slept wrong. And by the end of that next day, my neck was normal again. Then I woke up the next morning and it felt like, it didn't feel normal. As the weeks went on, it felt normal again. But I just wasn't as strong."

Hunter's strength is back for a Vikings defense that desperately needs him after a franchise-low 23 sacks last season. A grueling season sidelined by neck surgery is behind him. His contract feud with the front office is mended, for now. The NFL's youngest player to reach 50 career sacks plans to jar your memory as well.

"It's as if I disappeared for a little bit, and that's OK," Hunter said. "Stuff like that fuels the fire, and you just go back out there and just remind people."

'Something like a tweak'

Nearly two weeks after Hunter's injury, coach Mike Zimmer was still publicly calling it a tweak.

Privately, that was the initial belief as Hunter reported puzzling strength loss without numbness. The team held Hunter out of practice. He continued to train behind the scenes, sprinting and pushing a blocking sled. He eventually underwent testing that revealed a problem the training staff tried to remedy without surgery, hoping his strength would return.

"It literally was something like a tweak," Hunter said through a laugh.

Physical therapy didn't recapture his full strength, and in early October Hunter sought a second opinion in New York at the Hospital for Special Surgery, a top orthopedics hospital. There he was advised not to play.

Accepting that was difficult. Hunter had grown into a dominant force without missing an NFL game to injury in five seasons. Nearly three weeks later, he walked into a Los Angeles hospital, where he underwent a 45-minute neck surgery and, after a few hours, walked out. His mother, father and two sisters visited to boost his spirits, while he spoke weekly with co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson.

"It's a shock to you when you think you're Superman, right?" Patterson said. "Then you find out you're human. At the beginning, I think it's a shock to you. I think he thought, 'Hey, I'm going to will this to be OK.' Then you kind of find out at some point, it's bigger than you."

Hunter was in a neck brace for two weeks, walking around L.A. for exercise. He then went to Phoenix, where he trains in the offseason. Riding a bike and hiking trails provided solace, especially when he ran into Minnesotans who recognized him. His family's concerns shifted from him lifting something he shouldn't, to climbing rocks he shouldn't.

After six weeks of recovery, he started rehab. The only pain came from boredom of slow and tedious movements.

As Hunter resumed training with fellow NFL players, some told him they'd had similar but more severe procedures. They eased his concerns. Players like rookie Titans cornerback Caleb Farley to veteran Cardinals defender J.J. Watt have returned from microdiscectomy, a minimally invasive procedure that treats herniated discs.

"Some star players," Hunter said. "I'm not going to put their info out there. They're like, 'Yeah, I had that done to me, but it was like way worse than yours.' After I heard that, I didn't have nothing to worry about. I just trained."

Seeking a new contract

After Hunter's surgery, tension surfaced over his outperforming a 2018 contract extension; NFL Media reported that he wanted to be the league's highest-paid defender or be traded. While General Manager Rick Spielman said in March that wasn't communicated to him, Hunter did not refute the report. Asked if it came from him, Hunter said he leaves business to his agent, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Did Hunter ever want to be traded?

"I mean, I'm here now," Hunter said. "I love this football team. Being able to go out there again and do whatever I have to do in order to make this team win football games is honestly what I've always wanted to do."

Still, resolving a months-long contract dispute was required.

There was a gulf between what the Vikings pay Hunter, who was the 17th-highest paid edge rusher in the league, and what his representatives asked for last fall. The highest-paid edge rusher, the Chargers' Joey Bosa, averaged $27 million per season, or nearly twice as much as Hunter's $14.4 million. There isn't that big of a gap, if any, in their play.

Negotiations continued through Hunter skipping voluntary spring practices for the first time in his career, though he said he did so to protect his health. On the eve of mandatory minicamp in June, Spielman and cap specialist Rob Brzezinski agreed to move up money in Hunter's deal and set a trigger, of sorts, to revisit contract talks next spring.

It was a modest resolution, but one Hunter can leverage into the new deal he's wanted should he play up to his standard this season. Teammates, some who have long told him he's underpaid, see an even better player than before.

"He's stronger, to my knowledge. He looks a little bigger," left tackle Rashod Hill said. "He's got some moves that I've never seen on the left before."

"Danielle is going to be something to reckon with this year," Hill added.

Back in driver's seat

Hunter laughs as he reads through a list of notes. They're bullet points detailing ways to counter his game, jotted down by NFL offensive linemen during an annual summer summit in Dallas, where players gather to talk shop, exchange tips and study the best defenders. A reporter obtained the notes and shared them with Hunter.

"Maul him in the run game?" he reads. "They [are going to] try to maul me?"

He stops at "loves to use stab/long arm to bull rush" and ponders ways to add more variance as a pass rusher. The notes also say he doesn't like being blocked through the whistle.

"Nobody likes that," Hunter said. "That's extra."

He has been studying his own game, too. When he realized he wasn't going to play last season, he asked Patterson for film of his good and bad pass rushes to study. From watching himself, Hunter said, he learned the extent of how his 34 ¼-inch arms can cause trouble. Between watching Vikings games last fall and critiquing teammates like D.J. Wonnum over the phone, Hunter altered his own game.

"I can tell by some of the adjustments he's made on the field," Patterson said.

Mike Zimmer's defense is a little different, too. Hunter has worked closely this summer with new defensive assistant Paul Guenther, the former Bengals coordinator, on coverage responsibilities as the team tinkers with different fronts and blitzes.

Hunter is learning more about formations and what routes to expect when dropping in coverage. He's still growing before a season that could reintroduce him to the league, and reaffirm what he's worth to the Vikings.

"I'm the kind of guy that focuses on the now moment," Hunter said. "I take it a day at a time. You can't look too far down the road, because you'll get distracted. That's going to steer you off from where you need to be."

His hands are back on the wheel.