The Challenger




This feature originally appeared in the Oct. 10, 2009 edition of Army Football Game Day versus Vanderbilt.

There is quite a bit packed into his 5-10, 166-pound frame.

Speed. Ability. Experience. Drive. Determination. Knowledge. Desire. All among the attributes hidden under the laid back, unassuming exterior of Damion Hunter.

The senior has played many parts during his career at West Point on his way to a starring role with the 2009 Black Knights of the gridiron. While he is listed as a wide receiver on the roster, he is also one of the squad's most lethal kick and punt returners, striking fear in the hearts of opposing tacklers looking to tame his track star-esque swiftness. But just as important, he has also fulfilled the position of leader for his teammates and classmates over the last four years.

Born in Miami, Fla., Hunter's roots can be traced through neighboring Fort Lauderdale and on to his hometown of Naples. While most of his siblings favored playing soccer, he caught the football bug at an early age, drawing inspiration from the likes of Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and the rest of the Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys of the early ‘90s. But his journey to the top of the West Point depth chart was almost snuffed out before it even began when he was only seven years old.

"It was my very first game and my mother was watching me play for the first time. I got hit a little bit and she took me right off the team after it was over," recalled Hunter with a smile. "It was only flag football. I kept begging her and begging her to let me play again, but she said no."

Hunter describes his parents as his biggest role models. Both born and raised in Jamaica, his mother, Julette, has been a registered nurse for over 20 years in South Florida, while his father, Carlton, has made a living as a self-taught mechanical engineer in his native country.

"The positive attitudes that they both have had while I was growing up has helped me through a lot," said Hunter. "Every opportunity they had, they took me out and taught me lessons on how to be a man. I looked up to them both."

Hunter also started to develop his running speed at a young age as well. After racing all the kids in the neighborhood, he would wait for his father to come home from work and challenge him to a race every chance he had. A former track & field sprinter, the elder Hunter's day wouldn't be complete until he had squared off with his waiting son.

Cast from the same mold as the familiar movie character, Forrest Gump, Hunter proclaimed "I always used to run everywhere I went. I credit a lot of my speed to always being on the move."

A year after his short-lived debut on the football field, Hunter's mother relented to her son's wishes and allowed him to give football another try. He hasn't been caught without pads and a helmet each fall ever since.

During his time at Barron Collier High School, Hunter's speed started to draw the attention of several Division I schools around the state as well as other parts of the country. Schools from Villanova and Northern Iowa to nearby Florida International and Florida Atlantic all became interested in recruiting the speedster. But a setback at the start of his senior campaign provided a bump in the road that caused him to turn his attention to the Academy located on the shores of the Hudson River that had also been hot on his heels.

"In the first preseason game of my senior year, I was blocking on the first kickoff return of the game and got demolished by a defender," cringed Hunter. "I tore my shoulder and had to play the entire season with a brace which kept me from being as effective as I was before."

He had already made a verbal commitment to play at Florida International, but they dropped him following his injury. His other offers began drying up as well.

"I was really hurt. All the visits I went on, I had to wear my sling since I had just had surgery. No one believed that I would be able to come back from my injury."

The week after his operation, he paid his first visit to West Point. The coaching staff didn't waiver in their interest in Hunter and still believed he could have an impact on the team after spending a year at the United States Military Academy Prep School (USMAPS).

While football was always his first love, Hunter had also run track and field in elementary and middle school. However, when he got to high school, he didn't run his first two years so he could focus on football as well as play basketball. That didn't stop the track and field coaches from asking him to come out for the team each year, and he finally agreed to join the team as a junior. He capped his senior year off by blazing his way to All-America and All-State honors as a member of the school's 4x100 meter relay team.

Hunter arrived at USMAPS along with one of his high school classmates eager to set out on this new adventure. However, after only two days, his classmate quit, leaving Hunter alone to fend for himself in new and unfamiliar territory.

"I thought about quitting too, but after talking to my parents and some of my friends, I knew I had to stay and make the most of the opportunity I was given. It was just another instance of overcoming adversity."

Following a successful football season, Hunter decided to also go out for the track team. During the spring, his season was cut short after he tore a hamstring. The athletic trainers said it wouldn't be a problem and he would recover fully if he could take it easy for three months during the summer. Not an easy task for someone starting as a plebe a West Point the following year.

"I had to go to Beast that summer for training and my leg never really had a chance to fully heal. I reaggravated it again and it has bothered me ever since. It is better now, but I knew it was always just something I had to work to overcome."

His freshman and sophomore seasons were limited to a combined seven games due to his injury, but that didn't stop him from showing the flashes of the potential he possessed. He made his collegiate debut as a kick returner on one of the largest stages possible - in the Louisiana Super Dome opposite Tulane - where he averaged over 25 yards on six returns, including a 42-yard scamper during the contest.

"I remember thinking to myself, ‘don't drop the ball, please don't drop the ball,'" recalled Hunter of his first collegiate appearance. "Once I had it, I just did my best to get up field and follow my blockers. On my third attempt, I found a hole and just took advantage of it. I remember jumping up after getting tackled and tossing the ball in the air. It was right in front of our sideline and everyone jumped on me.

"After missing most of my sophomore year with my injury, I wondered if I should even be playing football. I knew it could affect my whole college career, but I just decided to set it aside and roll with it."

Hunter dedicated himself to training extra hard during the offseason before his junior year, despite the lingering fear about his leg.

"I knew that if I worked hard, but got enough rest and did what I had to do to take care of my leg, I could have a big impact on the coming season. I put my faith in God and prayed every night. I told myself that this was my year and it was my time to shine and play a major role in the team's success."

Hunter appeared in all 12 contests during his junior year, tying for the team lead with 11 receptions while ranking second with 134 receiving yards during the rebirth of Army's vaunted triple option attack. The highlight of the season was a 47-yard touchdown reception on the third play of the game to stake the home-standing Black Knights to an early lead over service academy rival Air Force.

"I just turned the corner on my route and knew I had the opportunity to make the defender miss and take it to the house. I caught the ball, hurdled a defender and ran it in. Doing it in front of the whole Corps of Cadets is something I'll never forget."

Hunter was recognized as the team's "Most Improved Offensive Player" at the end of the season for all his efforts to overcome the things that had held him back in the past.

"I just attribute my success to putting in the effort. I made sure I put 100 percent into the things I was doing at practice every day. I just wanted to show the coaching staff that it wasn't about me catching balls. I knew that with the changes in the offense, I wasn't going to get passed to a lot, so if I put all the effort I had into every single day, they would still see the contributions I was making to the team. While being a receiver was the number one thing for me, I knew I could also have the opportunity to change games by working extra hard on returns. I practiced a lot, studied a lot of film and stayed after practice catching as many punts and kicks as possible."

Making the transition through three different coaching staffs during Hunter and his classmates' time at West Point has been a challenge, but one that they all tackled together as a team.

"There were plenty of times where some of us thought about quitting, but keeping together in the tight-knit group that we had become helped a lot. Staying together and having each other's backs is what got us through."

This season, Hunter has continued his large role with the team's offense and special teams' fortunes. In last week's tightly contested game with Tulane, Hunter had the ball in his hands when it counted the most in the fourth quarter when the Black Knights were mounting a comeback. Two of his three receptions came on the final drive, set up by a career-long 46-yard kickoff return that he almost sprung for the winning touchdown.

Hunter also started the season off by helping to tutor an unlikely pupil that had been moved into the Army wide receiving corps during the offseason. Six-foot, 10 inch Alejandro Villanueva had been tabbed to transform himself from a bruising offensive lineman to an agile wide receiver for his final campaign with the Black Knights. He knew exactly who to talk to heading into the season.

"Damion is by far not only one of the best players I know, but one of the best cadets and best people I have ever met in my life," explained Villanueva. "It is hard to describe if you don't know him, but his integrity in terms of cadet life and the way he treats people is unreal. We are roommates on the road and he always asks me how I am doing and tells me about the things I am going to see and how I should react and attack defenders. That knowledge has been really nice to have."

Said Hunter of his tall protégé, "It was kind of a shock when he came to me and I wasn't sure if the coaches were going to go through with it. He surprised me with how good his hands were. His main concern was how defensive backs were going to play him and he asked me about how to make the first move on a defender to be successful. Now, we study film and do everything together and both learn from each other."

With his eyes squarely focused on finishing his final season in the Black, Gold and Gray on a winning note, what Hunter's West Point experience has meant to him can be illustrated fairly simply.

"I always liked being challenged. Everything that West Point puts on us with the academics, the military and everything that goes along with it, I know is going to help us in the future and set us up for all the endeavors that we will confront for the rest of our lives.

"Although sometimes, a little more time would really help a lot."

This coming from the guy who also says he is hoping to wrap up his senior year after football season is over by spending his ‘free time' competing on the track team.

Bring on the next challenge.

Tim Volkmann is an Assistant Director of Athletic Communications at West Point.

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