Hunt's emotional return to KC as a Brown

By Marla Ridenour
Akron Beacon Journal/TNS
Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt runs by Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward for a touchdown rush in the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the Wild Card Playoff game in Pittsburgh.

As Browns running back Kareem Hunt faces the team that drafted him, there are many layers to his return to Kansas City.

How he nearly threw away his NFL career with off-the-field transgressions, including shoving and kicking a woman in February 2018 and lying to the Chiefs about it. His longing for a Super Bowl and the pain it brought him to watch them win it last season without him. His second chance with the Browns and his desire to help his hometown team raise the Lombardi Trophy. The belief he had for months that the two teams would meet in the playoffs. The challenge of running angry against people who remain special in his life.

And then there’s the most basic motivation in football - bragging rights.

That was sure to come up with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce, whom Hunt considers family, as they face off Sunday in an AFC divisional playoff in Arrowhead Stadium.

“It’s a big game. Travis and Pat and all those guys, we’re buddies. This is my first time playing against some of my best friends in the NFL,” Hunt said Thursday. “It’s definitely going to be for bragging rights and stuff like that for the long run.”

But Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins added some unexpected fuel.

Watkins was tweeting while watching the Browns beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 48-37 in a wild-card game Sunday night. But when a Kansas City fan replied that the Chiefs might get some competition from the Browns, Watkins tweeted, “I wouldn’t go that far lol..!"

Browns running back Kareem Hunt (27) outruns Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Cameron Sutton (20) during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

“We’ll just see on Sunday,” Hunt said in a Zoom call, chuckling. “We’ll let the play do the talking. There ain’t much to be said. If he believes that, we’ll see what he thinks after the game.”

Hunt’s backfield mate Nick Chubb revealed Wednesday how Hunt practically willed this matchup into existence.

“Kareem talked about this game all year like he knew it was going to happen,” Chubb said. “He’s excited for it. I’m excited for him. I’m excited to watch him go out there and play. He’s ready for it.”

Asked where that premonition came from, Hunt said, “Honestly I believed. I knew with the players and the coaches we’ve got, I believed we could definitely make a run. I knew they were going to make it to the playoffs - that’s a terrific program over there.

“I kept telling Nick early in the season, ‘We’ve got to make it to the playoffs ... I’ve got a feeling we’re going to have to see the Chiefs in the divisional round or something.”

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After Hunt pounded the Steelers with two first-half touchdowns, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said Hunt “ran like he wanted to get to Kansas City.”

Mayfield said he has become “extremely close” with Willoughby South High School product Hunt this season and believes the Browns will play hard for him Sunday.

“Him being back home, it means a ton to him, but then obviously you add in playing his former team. I know how that goes,” Mayfield said Wednesday. “There are a lot of emotions. He spent time and invested a lot into people there. It means a ton to him.

“I think that is going to permeate for our guys, as well, and they are going have those same feelings and want to play for him.”

Hunt tested the commitment of the Browns' new regime when he was pulled over by Rocky River police for speeding on Interstate 90 last Jan. 21. A small amount of marijuana was found, along with a previously opened but sealed bottle of vodka in a backpack in the backseat. Hunt told the police he would fail a drug test and dashcam video caught Hunt saying, ‘You know what happened to me? I should be playing for a freakin’ Super Bowl. It hurts my soul like you wouldn’t understand.’”

Hunt was not charged for marijuana possession. Mayfield understands what Hunt went through then.

“It is like the give-and-take of Kareem is hurt that they are in the Super Bowl, but he was cheering for his guys, but you know he wanted to be there,” Mayfield said. “That is why he comes to work every day and works his ass off to try and get there with us now.”

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski wouldn’t reveal what he told Hunt after that traffic stop days after he was hired, but said, “I will tell you he's done everything I've asked of him since the moment he and I met.”

That incident, along with the fact that the Chiefs cut the 2017 NFL rushing leader on Nov. 30, 2018, after TMZ video surfaced of him kicking a woman in a downtown Cleveland hotel/apartment building, didn’t keep the Browns from signing Hunt to a two-year, $13.25 million contract extension in September that included $8.5 million guaranteed.

Former Browns General Manager John Dorsey, who drafted Hunt in the third round in 2017 out of the University of Toledo, took a chance on Hunt, bringing him to Cleveland on Feb. 11, 2019, but Hunt served an eight-game league suspension last season for the hotel incident and an altercation in Put-in-Bay in June 2018.

“They believed in me,” Hunt said of the Browns. “They gave me an opportunity, a chance. I’d like to thank the Haslams for sure for bringing me in with welcome arms. Honestly, it’s been a journey. I missed eight games last year ... This year I wanted to make sure to do whatever I can to help this team turn it around.

Hunt said he keeps in touch with Dorsey, who has always been in his corner, and feels the same way about Chiefs coach Andy Reid.

“Coach Reid cares a lot about me and he’s always been a great coach to me and person. He looks beyond football,” Hunt said.

As for the Chiefs cutting him, Hunt said, “I wouldn’t say I’m mad. It’s just a learning point in my life. I’m home in Cleveland, so God’s got a plan for me and it’s obviously to be here.”

Asked how he feels about Hunt appearing to get his life in order this season, Reid said Wednesday in a conference call with Cleveland media, “Put all the football aside, that’s why you do this. You care about the kids and you care about what happens after football ... you want to make sure that they are set when their days are done.

“He’s made that commitment, and I’m proud of him for that. That’s a huge thing. He’s doing a great job. He’s with a great organization. I’m a fan of Kareem Hunt so I am pulling for him, except on Sunday.”

Stefanski observed Wednesday that Hunt “runs violently,” and Hunt said that won’t be a problem against his old teammates.

“I automatically play with anger, so I’m going to find it. You don’t have to worry about where I’m going to find it ever,” Hunt said.

Asked about Hunt pointing to a potential game against the Chiefs for weeks, Browns receiver Jarvis Landry said, “I’m happy he got it.”

“I hope he has a great game; I hope it’s a great experience,” Landry said Thursday. “I know he’s going to be ready. I’m just happy that he’s on this side, not that other side.”