Florida State safety Tyler Hunter back on field after long, tough path

For Florida State strong safety Tyler Hunter, standing on the sideline was as stressful as the physical pain he endured from a bulging disk that required surgery.

Hunter, who suffered a serious neck injury in the third game last season, sometimes would jog back to the locker room rather than watch his teammates as they rolled through the season.

“I had to watch on TV,” he said. “It was tough on me.”

Which is why Hunter, a junior, looked forward to the start of camp as much as any player on the defending national champions. Hunter was cleared for non-contact drills in the spring. But this month, he was OKd to resume his career in full, contact and all.

“He was like a kid on Christmas, when you first start to know that Santa Claus was coming,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Just watching his face. … For me as a coach, it’s very rewarding.”

He was hurt while covering a kickoff in a 54-6 victory over Bethune-Cookman. He walked off the field but knew — because he lives with a condition called cervical spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal — that his football career could be in jeopardy. Hunter recalls having the same pain twice in high school, but not to this extent.

Two days later he was told he should not play football again. Then, after tests and consultations with specialists, Hunter learned he would not have to give up the game. But first he would need surgery, which he had Oct. 8 in Chicago.

“It was real difficult,” Hunter said. “Just going through what I was going through with the injury and not knowing if I was going to play again.”

Hunter, who was able to take a redshirt season because the injury occurred so early in the schedule, rested for a month after the surgery while wearing a neck brace. A month later he was running on the treadmill. Slowly he resumed lifting weights, and eventually he was cleared to do everything except put pressure on his back.

With the pain shifting from his back to his heart, Hunter filled the void by mentoring the Seminoles’ young defensive backs. He became so involved that Fisher likened it to having an extra coach. Hunter worked especially closely with freshmen Jalen Ramsey and Nate Andrews.

“He was teaching us everything,” Andrews said. “He knows the whole playbook. If you get it wrong, he tells you what to do.”

That came from four years in the system. Hunter (5-foot-11, 200 pounds) was a three-star recruit out of Valdosta, Ga., who worked his way up the depth chart, first playing on special teams as a true freshman, then as the nickel back as a sophomore and cracking the starting lineup last season.

“He has a lot of heart and he loves the game,” said cornerback P.J. Williams. “Being able to see him out there practicing with us and running with us is real good, especially after what happened to him last year.”

Hunter wore a non-contact green jersey during the spring. Although he said he was involved in inadvertent contact in March, it was nothing like he craved.

“I wasn’t really worried,” he said. “I play football. You got to be tough and physical to play football. I like to run into people.

“I’ve been ready to hit people since the day after I had surgery.”

There were no limits starting this month. Hunter, who returns to his starting position in a secondary some believe is the best in the country, was flying around again.

“That guy was full speed, 100 mph in practice every day,” said Fisher, who is preparing for FSU’s opener Aug. 30 against Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas. “When you miss it, you knew you loved it but you didn’t realize how much you truly loved it.”