WASHINGTON, May 16 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – So extraordinary are the physical talents of Estonian athlete Margus Hunt, that US media commentators have likened him to some fictional creation of a sports video game.
So it’s perhaps fitting that Hunt, who was drafted last month to play in the National Football League (NFL), learned some of the finer points of American football by playing “Madden NFL,” the video game standard-bearer for this quintessentially American sport.
“I was playing it to get a broader overview of the game itself,” Hunt, 25, told RIA Novosti this week in a telephone interview from Cincinnati, where he took part last weekend in a mini-camp for the Cincinnati Bengals, which selected him last month in the second round of the NFL draft with the 53rd pick.
Despite being a relative newcomer to American football, Hunt looks set to become just the third player from the former Soviet Union to be drafted and play in the NFL thanks to his physical and athletic prowess.
A defensive end standing 6-feet-8-inches (203 centimeters) tall and weighing 277 pounds (126 kilograms), Hunt awed scouts in pre-draft workouts with athletic feats like running a 40-yard (37-meter) sprint in 4.6 seconds and reeling off 38 consecutive bench press repetitions of 225 pounds (116 kilograms).
The website CBSSports.com called him the No. 1 athletic “freak” in US college football last year.
Hunt’s route to the sport was circuitous, as one might expect from someone born and raised in a part of the world where footballs are round rather than oblong.
He was born in Estonia in 1987, just four years before the Baltic country secured its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union, and grew up in the small town of Karksi-Nuia, near the Latvian border. Soccer was his first love, but he moved to track and field at around age 12 and went on to become a junior world champion in the discus and shot put.
Hunt moved to Dallas, Texas, in 2007 to train with renowned track-and-field coach Dave Wollman at Southern Methodist University (SMU), but the university had discontinued its men’s program for the sport three years earlier.
“I only had the financial support to go for a year, and after a year I had to figure out what to do next,” Hunt told RIA Novosti.
The solution presented itself when coaches for the struggling SMU football team coaxed him into trying out for the team. Hunt’s physical abilities impressed the coaches enough that he was offered a scholarship, allowing him to stay in Dallas and giving him a new outlet for his strength and speed as a defensive player: hitting people.
“I really love the physical part of the game,” he said.
Hunt immediately made his presence felt on the field, earning several Conference USA honors and becoming a specialist in blocking kicks thanks to his height and his jumping abilities, finishing his college career with 17 blocked kicks.
Back home, Hunt says, he caught flack initially from his fellow Estonians for ditching track and field in favor of American football.
“That’s the sport to do in Estonia, so I didn’t get the best comments,” he told RIA Novosti. “Eventually things kind of calmed down. Now people see the bigger picture. It’s brought Estonia on the map in some circles.”
Only two other players born in the former Soviet Union have ever played in the NFL, one of whom is a fellow Estonian.
Michael Roos, an offensive lineman with the Tennessee Titans, was born in the Estonian capital of Tallin but moved to the United States with his mother and two siblings in 1992 at the age of 10. Igor Olshansky, who was born in Soviet Ukraine in 1982 and moved to the United States seven years later, played defensive end for several NFL teams after being drafted in 2004.
The NFL is by far the most popular professional sports league in the United States, dominating television sports ratings and bringing in some $9.5 billion in revenues last year, and Hunt said he is anxious to get on board although he still hasn’t signed a contract with the Bengals.
“I know how big this game is in this country, so I’m really interested to be a part of this,” he told RIA Novosti.
Hunt said his family back in Estonia has been incredibly supportive of his new career pursuits and that his mother, a former track-and-field athlete and speed skater, has even brushed up on the rules of American football and developed a taste for the sport.
“She gets really pumped up watching the games,” he said.