FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Wayne Hunter remembers the phone call he received from his mother over a year ago, and the helpless feeling that followed.
The big New York Jets offensive lineman was stunned to find out at least six members of his family had been killed in the tsunami that struck the Samoan islands in September 2009.
“It was tough, man,” Hunter recalled Friday. “I had to lean on a couple of people to kind of walk me and talk me through that.”
Hunter was born and raised in Hawaii, but many members of his extended family are from the South Pacific nation of Samoa. The tragedy affected several NFL players of Samoan heritage, including Cincinnati’s Domata Peko and Jonathan Fanene.
“Being this far, I think it was good because I just wasn’t around all of that disaster,” Hunter said, “but it was bad because I was never really able to do anything.”
He was given a few days off from practice by coach Rex Ryan to do whatever he needed. Getting back to football was part of the healing process.
“It was a tough thing,” Hunter said. “Just crazy.”
He received plenty of support from the rest of his family, and relied on the fact that he’s been resilient all his life — on and off the football field. Hunter has also learned to be extremely patient during his seven NFL seasons, serving mainly as a backup lineman and blocking tight end.
This week, he’s getting the chance he’s been hoping for his whole career.
Hunter will start at right tackle for the Jets at Pittsburgh on Sunday, filling in for the injured Damien Woody. It will mark the first time Hunter is starting as an offensive lineman after two starts as a tight end, including once this season.
“I’m just happy it’s finally come,” Hunter said. “It’s been a long time. It’s going to be good.”
It’s also the first game in nearly three years that the Jets (9-4) won’t have all five of their starting lineman playing. No pressure, right? Hunter’s job will be trying to protect Mark Sanchez from the sack-happy Steelers (10-3).
“The next two days will be the longest two days of my life,” Hunter said. “That day can’t come soon enough. I’m excited and ready to go. I’m pumped.”
Ryan has called the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Hunter the best backup offensive tackle in the league. Now is Hunter’s chance to prove he can start, too, even if it’s temporary. Woody is hoping to return in time for the postseason — if the Jets get that far.
“I’ve said all along that Wayne is a tremendous football player,” Ryan said. “He could be a starter for a lot of teams in this league. It just so happens that he backs up two great tackles.”
With Woody and D’Brickashaw Ferguson getting all the playing time at right and left tackle, respectively, Hunter has had to fill in at spots along the offensive line, as well as line up as a tackle-eligible. It’s common to hear, “No. 78 is eligible” throughout Jets games.
“I think playing the jumbo tight end has kept me in the game mentally and physically and technically,” Hunter said.
He has never caught a pass in a game, but Hunter insists he’s got pretty good hands in case offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer ever thinks about throwing his way.
“I’m happy with being a blocking tight end, but I think Schotty knows that if I need to catch a pass, that’s an option,” he said with a laugh. “I haven’t dropped a lot of balls in practice.”
Hunter filled in when Woody was initially hurt against Houston on Nov. 21 and came on last week when the starter left against Miami. He gave up a couple of sacks to the Dolphins’ Cameron Wake, giving Hunter plenty to think about this week.
“I mean, it was hard,” he said. “I gave up a couple of sacks to him and he’s a good guy, but there’s no excuses. I’ve got to give Mark as much time as he needs.”
The 29-year-old Hunter, a former third-round pick of Seattle, was a defensive tackle in college who switched to the offensive line in his junior year at the University of Hawaii. He spent three seasons with the Seahawks and one with Jacksonville before a season-ending knee injury in 2006.
Hunter was out of football for a year while recovering until then-Jets coach Eric Mangini took a chance on him and gave him a tryout.
“I’ve got a lot of love for him,” Hunter said. “He brought me back into the league.”
And, Hunter has made sure he has stayed. Ryan recently said he loves Hunter’s toughness and said he would want him to be the first guy walking off the team bus to intimidate opponents.
“Absolutely,” left guard Matt Slauson said, laughing. “Wayne is able to flip a switch. In the locker room, he’s a great guy, just one of the guys joking around, laughing. Then, on the field, all of the sudden, he’s a madman, just crazy. You can see the look in his eyes, like, ‘Oooh, I’m not getting in his way.’”
Hunter plans to get in the way of Steelers linemen as often as he can Sunday.
“It’s great, not only because of all of that stuff from last year, but just being through the ups and downs of my career,” Hunter said. “It’s nice to be where I am right now, finally being able to start. Better late than never.”