By Kristian Dyer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – It would be hard to imagine a player going through more grief over the past year than former Jet and current Rams tackle Wayne Hunter, who was shipped to St. Louis on Monday night for Jason Smith. After signing a four-year extension with the Jets last summer, Hunter was handed the starting job based solely on his solid performances to close out the 2010 regular season and playoffs.
It was a promotion that many Jets fans and pundits alike felt he wasn’t ready for.
Hunter struggled throughout the year to find consistency, becoming the favorite whipping boy of Jets fans and an offense that failed to move the ball effectively. Rarely did Hunter sidestep the issue, owning up to his mistakes and his role in the Jets’ issues along the offensive line.
So on Aug. 18, when Hunter made his preseason debut against the Giants and gave up three sacks, it should be no surprise that fans hopped on him and let him have it. After the game, Hunter, true to form, talked about needing to improve. Days later, he was demoted to a backup role and the unheralded Austin Howard became the starter.
After starting all 16 games last year, Hunter could very easily have lashed out at the decision or even crawled into a shell and shun any role on the team. The fans bashed him, the media questioned him and his own team seemingly turned their backs on him. It wasn’t for a lack of effort that Hunter lost his starting spot, but there he was, a veteran who lost a position battle to a player with just four games played and one start in his NFL career.
But to his credit, Hunter didn’t sulk.
Instead, he became a constant at the side of Howard, pulling the player close by during practice to talk through technique and lend some veteran’s wisdom. There was Hunter, helping along the young player who just took his job on the team and putting team first over personal pride. The day last week when the change in the depth chart took place, Hunter walked Howard out the door of the locker room following his media session, teasing with him about all the attention he was getting.
There was no hatred, no gripes, no animosity. It was just Hunter being a good teammate and an even better mentor.
Then after Sunday’s game, Howard credited Hunter for continuing that role in the Jets’ loss to Carolina, saying that he continued to get insight and advice throughout the game from the man he just replaced at right tackle.
A lot of things can be said about Hunter and his 23 games started over the past two seasons, but in how he handled the ascension of Howard it became clear that Hunter was the personification of class. Jets fans may not care about anything other than performance on the field –- and perhaps rightly so –- but not every person can handle the past 10 days as well as Hunter has.
He exited with class and, above all, had a team-first mentality in putting the development of Howard ahead of any personal slight. In exiting the team on Monday night, there was no angry tweets or sour grapes. It was just a player moving on -– perhaps mercifully so –- away from the boos and jeers of MetLife Stadium.
Hunter may be remembered only for the travails of 2011, when he was bashed from all sides for his play on the field. But the true measure of Hunter will be in how he handled losing his starting job, and how he did his best to impart knowledge to the player who supplanted him. It was pure class from Hunter as he went out the right way.
And hopefully, someday, his four-year legacy with the Jets will be measured by the man he showed over the past 10 days, and not just his rough 2011 season on the field.
Kristian R. Dyer covers the Jets for Metro New York and contributes to Yahoo! Sports as well as WFAN. He can be followed on Twitter here.
Jets fans, although Hunter didn’t turn out to be the player that you hoped he’d be, do you still respect him for the way he went out? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below…