When he returns to the countryside of Estonia to visit his family for Christmas, Margus Hunt dresses up as Santa Claus. A 6-foot-8, 295-pound Santa, that is.
It’s usually the only time of year the SMU junior defensive end gets to see his family.
But last year Hunt couldn’t get home for the holidays because SMU was playing Army in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Life didn’t always revolve around football. Hunt grew up in Estonia competing in track and field. He won gold medals in both the shot put and discus at the 2006 Junior World Championships in Beijing, becoming the first junior athlete to ever win a shot/discus double gold. He was an up-and-coming thrower, a sure bet to make the Olympics some day.
But his life went in a different direction in 2008. Fellow Estonian thrower Aleksander Tammert, who was much older than Hunt, had been training at SMU for quite some time with renowned coach, Dave Wollman.
Tammert was the first-ever Eastern Bloc athlete to come to SMU, and under the eye of Wollman, he won the bronze medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
Tammert knew of Hunt and so Wollman recruited him to come to SMU. Unfortunately, however, despite the SMU men’s track and field team being ranked No. 4 in the country, the program was disbanded in 2004 due to gender equity reasons. In 2008 Wollman was doing everything he could to get the program back, but it didn’t work out. Hunt came to SMU anyway.
After a few months of training at SMU, Wollman asked Hunt if he wanted to go to another school in order to compete. But the father-son relationship Hunt had built with Wollman, plus the love he’d developed for SMU, were so strong he decided to stay.
And since he wasn’t going to be on a team, it opened up opportunities for other coaches on campus to recruit him. He swam, played basketball and cross-country skied in Estonia, plus he was 6-8, 295 lbs. and undoubtedly the strongest athlete on campus.
“He was beyond impressive. It was eye-opening to a lot of people,” Wollman said of the attention Hunt attracted while working out in the weight room. “He could bench 330 lbs. 13 times. His most remarkable was that he could snatch 330 lbs. and cling 370.
“If you know how long he is, his angles are not advantageous for heavy lifting, but he creates so much power for being so long. That brought notice of strength coaches and football coaches.
“So I asked June [Jones] if he’d be interested in giving him a look.”
Hunt had never played football before, but Jones took one look at him and set up some combine activities, like shuttle runs and 40-yard dashes, to see what kind of numbers Hunt could clock.
Wollman told Hunt to go 90 percent and he ran the forty in 4.70 seconds.
“I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” Jones said, as he recalled that day.
Kids didn’t play football back in Estonia. Hunt’s only interaction with the sport was when ESPN would air games every now and then. He also learned a few things from watching the movie The Longest Yard “over and over and over again.”
“When I came here in 2008, I went to a couple of games. I knew the basic rules,” Hunt said. “I’m a pretty fast learner. If coach tries to teach me something, if someone else does it first, I can picture myself doing it.”
Now a junior, Hunt has become one of the most integral parts of SMU’s football team, especially on special teams.
Last week against Northwestern State, Hunt blocked his eighth career field goal, tying the NCAA record. It was his fourth blocked kick in three games and his 14th career block (eight field goals, six PATs), tying him for third in NCAA history.
“I got through there so fast and so clear, I was just standing there covering my private parts,” Hunt said, smiling. “It’s fun.”
So what’s his blocking scheme secret?
“He’s lucky he’s got 5-foot long arms,” defensive end Taylor Thompson joked.
The in-depth technicality of the scheme is “classified,” but part of what he does is he gets on the left side of the center when the kicker lines up for the attempt. When the ball is snapped, Thompson, who usually lines up in front of the center, fakes a rush. When the center pushes in front to block the nose tackle, a gap sometimes opens up for Hunt to move through and swat the ball.
“But you can have the best schemes in the world and if you don’t get off the ball and get in there, it’s all useless,” Hunt said.
“For us, blocking kicks seems normal,” Thompson said. “We feel like we should block every one. It’s like, if we don’t, we’re not trying hard enough.”
When asked what holding an NCAA record means to him, Hunt was humble.
“It means nothing,” he said, sort of laughing. “Uh, sorry about that, I don’t mean nothing. It’s fun when we have an opportunity to take points off the board, but I was not aiming [for the record]. I mean it’s not my goal to get the record or be the all-time best. I just want to pay football.”
Formerly an individual sport athlete, Hunt is the ultimate team player now.
“When you take an athlete that is typically an individual athlete and put him in a team environment, you don’t see blending that quickly,” Wollman said. “But he naturally likes to take on shared responsibilities rather than sole responsibilities.”
Hunt’s success on the field and natural athleticism bodes for a bright future. He has aspirations to play in the NFL.
“It’s like why not?” he said. “I’m already on it, giving 100 percent at everything I do. We’ll see how it goes.”
Cognitively, coaches say, Hunt is understanding the nuances of “why here and why there.” He’s developing and mastering the techniques and learning how to use his hands. But once his actions become more instinctive, that’s when scouts will take note.
But what about the Olympics?
“It’s on hold,” Hunt said. “I just want to give football a try. It’s a very rare opportunity to play this game at the highest level and I’m loving it. That’s the main thing. If you don’t love what you do, what’s the point?”
Plus Hunt noted that there’s time for the Olympics as the prime age for throwers is about 30 years old.
One of the leaders on this team and well within sole reach of NCAA records, Hunt is no longer a thrower playing football. He’s a football player.
“Margus is amazing,” Jones said. “He’s a cult hero now. I can see his statue out there standing next to Doak [Walker’s] with him blocking a kick.”
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