Fairy tales have to start somewhere.
Kareem Hunt didn’t imagine his starting with the one thing he never does. Nor would it lead to one of the splashiest debuts in NFL history.
He ended up running for 148 yards on 17 carries and racking up another 98 yards on five catches, finding the end zone three times, and igniting a Chiefs offense that handed the New England Patriots a 42-27 beating in the season opener.
His 246 yards from scrimmage were the most by any player in his debut since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
But it all started in a way that was foreign for him.
He lost the football once back in 2013, his freshman year at Toledo not long after he took over as the starter, but he recovered it. In 856 career carries over four years, he never lost a fumble.
Since then, ball-protection was as much his calling card as all the missed tackles he made happen with his elusiveness. It’s why the Chiefs had all the confidence in the world their offense wouldn’t miss a beat with the rookie in their backfield after Spencer Ware went down in the preseason with season-ending knee injury
Hunt had his number called on the Chiefs’ first play from scrimmage Thursday night. He knifed his way to an 7-yard gain, got wrapped up by Stephon Gilmore and Jordan Richards, then lost the football as Richards knocked it out of his grip.
Hunt was practically shellshocked.
“I don’t remember the last time I fumbled,” he said. “I think I was more in shock than anything. I couldn’t believe it. I got too lax with the ball. I thought I was going to be down and honestly it came right out.”
When Hunt went to the sidelines, he couldn’t hide his frustration with himself. Teammates tried to settle him down.
Offensive coordinator Matt Nagy tried to get Hunt to shake off the play, telling him, “It’s over with. Just forget about it. You know that [you are] better than that. Just go out and make plays.”
The next time the Chiefs got the ball, they went right back to Hunt on the first play.
“It showed me that they believed in me,” he said. “They wasn’t going to give up on me and just put me on the bench. Honestly it helped me out in keeping my head up and just going out and making plays for the team.”
He ripped off a 9-yard carry and never looked back
“I knew I couldn’t get down on myself,” Hunt said. “The guys on the sidelines stuck with me. Especially the defense, like, we got your back and just let me know that we’re going to be all right. Just forget about it and come back and make plays.”
With the Chiefs down, 17-7, in the second quarter, he came up with a 3-yard scoring grab that kept them in arm’s reach.
But it was in the fourth quarter, with the Chiefs down, 27-21, when Hunt exploded.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith checked off a one-on-one matchup on one side of the field to loft a ball over two defenders, hitting Hunt in stride for a 78-yard score that put the Chiefs up, 28-27.
“Once Alex threw a great ball over the middle, I knew I had to go get it,” Hunt said. “Once I caught it, there was no looking back. I knew we were down and I knew we needed seven quick. So I just had to keep running and finish off the run.”
He pushed the lead out further when he took a pitch from Smith and found the pylon for a 4-yard score that made it 35-27.
The same day Julian Edelman went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Chiefs lost Ware. Hunt said he was ready to step in, because he had done it before at the college level, taking over when a starter was injured.
“Honestly, I just worked all through training camp just preparing myself for this situation,” he said.
Doing it at Gillette brought back memories of his days in the MAC. He ran for 90 yards on 20 carries for Toledo in a win over UMass in 2015.
“I thought about it,” Hunt said. “I told people, ‘I already played here before.’ I didn’t think my first game would be back here in this stadium that I already played at in my season opener.”
No matter what, he said he’ll always remember how close he came to letting a storybook start to his career slip a way.
“I ain’t going to forget about that,” Hunt said. “I’m going to be cautious from now on.”
Watch: Hunt’s record-setting debut