As he plunked himself on one of Dan Reeves’ office chairs six weeks ago, Ricky Hunley half-knew what was about to happen. Hunley had seen the charts, the ones that hang inside the Denver Bronco meeting room. He could read the numbers, for goodness sakes. And if he could read them, so could everyone else.
Tackles . . . Down.
Hustle points . . . Down.
Factor points--the number of times Hunley, an inside linebacker, made a positive impact on a play . . . Down. A lot.
So here he was, the costliest, most publicized, most awaited Bronco player since John Elway arrived here in 1983, glued to a chair like some sixth grader waiting to see the principal.
Reeves glanced up from his desk and then, in that tight South Carolina drawl, told Hunley, in so many words, that he stunk.
“I don’t think you’ve been playing as well as you can play,” began Reeves. “If you don’t get any better, then I think someone else should have the opportunity to play.”
For a moment, Hunley was speechless. After all, nothing like this had ever happened to him in football. He had always been the best, the brightest. Once, a baseball coach had challenged him, much as Reeves was challenging him now.
“Betcha you can’t hit a home run,” the coach said as Hunley left the dugout.
He did, of course. “I knocked that sucker out of the park,” he said.
But this was different. This wasn’t Little League. This was Big Time.
Back in 1984, the Broncos had presented Hunley with a $1 million salary spread over four seasons, a $1.725 million signing bonus, an $800,000 loan, $60,000 worth of roster bonuses. To the Cincinnati Bengals, the team that had chosen Hunley seventh in the entire 1984 draft, the Broncos coughed up a first- and third-round selection in 1986 and a fifth-round pick in 1987. Responsible for initiating the trade and constructing the contract was none other than Bronco owner Pat Bowlen.
Which made this little chat with Hunley so difficult. Two seasons earlier, Reeves had described Hunley’s status as “either-or.” Either Hunley became a starter, or Hunley risked becoming an ex-Bronco. Simple as that. Even Bowlen had dropped a hint or two of dissatisfaction with Hunley’s progress, or absence of it.
Hunley listened to this latest speech of Reeves and then, in a soft, determined voice, delivered one of his own.
“Coach, whatever it takes to get the job done, I’ll do it,” said Hunley.
And that was that. The meeting finished, Hunley returned to the Bronco locker room. Reeves returned to work, wondering perhaps if Hunley had spoken from the heart or simply recited something from the book of player cliches.
Now, as Super Bowl XXII approaches, he knows.
It was from the heart.
This, it turns out, is the Hunley way. Always has been. Always will. Learned it from his mother, Scarlette, Hunley did. A proud, stubborn woman who had 10 children of her own and another 40 or so foster children during the last 20 years, Scarlette Hunley taught Ricky to speak his mind, to cling to his convictions.
So Hunley speaks his mind, creating this vast separation of friends and foes. “You’ve got some people who love me, some people who hate me,” he said after a recent practice. “That’s the way it was with my mom, either you love her or you hate her. She didn’t bite her tongue. She didn’t go out of her way to please anybody.”
And Hunley clings to his convictions as if they were precious jewels, like the time he told the Bengals to take a hike during bitter contract negotiations. Want to know why? Wasn’t money, said Hunley; it was mother, his mother.
The way Hunley tells it, a member of the Bengal management phoned Scarlette one day and said her son risked injury if he failed to arrive at training camp on time. So, of course, Scarlette passed the conversation along. And, of course, Hunley became furious.
“You don’t tell a mother her kid’s going to get hurt when he comes into camp,” Hunley said.
Later, Hunley asked Bengal front office types about the phone call. They denied it.
“By denying it, in essence, he called my mom a liar,” said Hunley. “I said, ‘No matter what you offer me, or what you say, I’m not coming to Cincinnati.’ And that was it.”
This was after Hunley and his agent, Howard Slusher, had submitted, said the Cincinnati Enquirer, a 30-page list of contract demands that included automobiles, life and health insurance policies and real estate. Bengal officials, stunned by the demands, said that they had never seen a more complex contract package.
So along came the Broncos and Bowlen. Bowlen got the linebacker he wanted. The Bengals got three high draft choices. Hunley got a new team.
This is where everyone was supposed to play happily ever after. Except that Hunley’s mega-bucks contract upset some Bronco veterans. And it didn’t help that Hunley spent most of his time on the sideline.
“He was very highly paid and he didn’t play much at first,” linebacker Karl Mecklenburg said. “I think some players resented that.”
Said Bronco linebacker coach Myrel Moore: “I think it’s the same situation like (Seattle Seahawk rookie linebacker Brian) Bosworth is experiencing. Those people that have come in under some sort of adverse conditions, or controversy, or limelight, or high publicity . . . they’re automatically put in a realm of performance for a young person . . . that you’re asking almost the impossible.
“That’s really tough on a kid. That’s really hard.”
Adding to Hunley’s troubles were the rumors out of Broncoland. Let’s see:
--Bowlen angered Reeves and Bronco assistant coaches by pushing for the trade.
--Certain Bronco coaches contemplated resigning.
--Hunley and Moore argued over playing time.
--Hunley was a certified bust.
--Hunley didn’t have a clue how to play in Denver’s structured defense.
No one knows for sure about the first two. In a 1986 interview with The Denver Post, Reeves said that the decision to acquire Hunley “was made here by me. If it doesn’t work out, then I’m the one who made the bad deal. (Bowlen) was the one who made the decision that we could afford him and we could sign him and those type of things.”
As for the relationship between Hunley and Moore, things are fine now. But there was a time when Hunley adhered to that speak-your-stuff once too often. He thought he should play more; Moore didn’t think he was ready. Moore won. Hunley apologized.
And the certified bust? A bit of an overstatement. Hunley came from the University of Arizona, where coaches allowed him almost total defensive freedom. With the Broncos, said Moore, Hunley was forced to do less free-lance work. It took time.
“He’s handling it well,” Moore said. “He went through it a lot better than Bosworth went through it, let’s put it that way.”
Or let’s put it another way: Hunley tends to bring some of the difficulties on himself, especially this year.
“They say some . . . things happen in business, things you like, things you don’t like,” Hunley said. “It’s all part of that roller coaster ride, the ups and the downs. I’ve had a serious ride this year. I rode the Loch Ness monster.”
When veteran offensive linemen Dave Studdard and Billy Bryan crossed union lines during this season’s player strike, what Bronco representative said, “They stabbed us in the back. They spit in our eye?”
What Bronco player representative, wearing a Mickey Mouse sweat shirt, attended a Reeves press conference during the strike? What Bronco player representative, wearing a Mickey Mouse sweat shirt, was then told in a tone as menacing and intimidating as Reeves watchers have ever heard, to immediately leave the press conference?
What Bronco player hires a Hollywood publicist?
What Bronco player throws a local reporter into tackling dummies at least once every few weeks?
That’s right, Hunley.
Hunley later apologized for his remarks to those Bronco players who crossed union pickets. He appeared contrite when Reeves told him to leave the premises. He hired a press agent, he said, not only to increase his marketability, but to help coordinate his work with the Ricky Hunley Foundation, an organization dedicated to aiding Denver foster parent programs. He playfully pushes Denver Post beat reporter Joe Sanchez into the soft cushions out of fun, nothing else.
But you can see where Hunley’s actions don’t always translate well. More times than not, Hunley leads with his mouth and ends up paying for it.
Before the strike, Hunley averaged 13 tackles a game. After it, after all the name calling and what not, Hunley averaged about eight until Reeves called him in. Against San Diego, Hunley had one solo tackle. Against New England the following week, he had three.
“At the time, I knew I wasn’t getting to the football,” Hunley said. “I knew I wasn’t playing well. I had a calf pull or strain, or whatever. It’s a reflex muscle. You can’t react as fast. I knew I wasn’t.
“I would find myself running after a guy and I couldn’t get him. Those are plays I could make all throughout my career. It just wasn’t there. I was reaching, grabbing. I thought I was weighing too much, gotten slow, I didn’t know. When you’re out there, into the game, you don’t think about being hurt or injured. You just want to play.”
Said Moore: "(The strike) took a big toll on him, especially being the player rep. He didn’t come back playing football the way we like to see it played. It took about three, four games before he was back into any kind of a pace that we like to have.
“But these last three ballgames, four ballgames that he’s had, have been spectacular.”
That, of course, would coincide with the Reeves edict. And contrary to popular notion, Hunley wasn’t the only one invited to take a seat while Reeves lectured. Moore said that eight Broncos in all were warned about their performances. But unlike the other seven, Hunley’s meeting was made public, an uncharacteristic move for Reeves, who usually treats such conversations as private trusts.
Hunley’s reaction? “How could I react?” he said. “Like a man. No fool in his right mind would challenge a coach.”
Reeves’ public statements, while surprising, didn’t come as a complete shock to those slightly more familiar with his coaching tactics.
“Dan’s a smart guy,” Mecklenburg said. “Dan knows what can motivate individuals. If he had done that with me, I don’t know if I would have reacted as well as Ricky did. That’s the thing about being a good football coach, that you know how to motivate individuals. I think it was more of a motivational tool rather than any real attack on Ricky.”
Said defensive end Rulon Jones: “I think (Reeves) did what he thought was right. For Ricky, it must have the right thing because Ricky’s really responded.”
Whatever it was, it worked. Hunley has begun to fulfill all those expectations--Bowlen’s and his own. And a long list it is, too.
“I only say things that I know I can do,” Hunley said. “If I can’t do it, I’m not going to say it. I can’t fly, but I can crawl. I can beat you to that gap. I’ll hit you when I get there. You might knock me down, but I’ll get up and I’ll hit you.
“I think I’m capable of having a better year, a better season,” he said. “I know I can play a lot better than what I’ve been playing.”
There he goes again, just like his mother. One day he’ll learn. Or maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll keep peppering the world with opinions, then stand there and take the consequences. Now that will make Scarlette proud.