After winning three state championships in high school at Carl Albert, J.D. Runnels went on to become a coaches' (and fans') favorite as a pass-catching, physical fullback at Oklahoma. During his four years, the Sooners made a pair of national title appearances and won the Rose Bowl.
Runnels was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the sixth round in 2006 and went on to be a part of the Bears' run to the Super Bowl after the 2006 season. After being waived by the Bears, then subsequently released by Tampa Bay, Runnels joined Cincinnati. Before the 2009 season, his second with the Bengals, Runnels was cut in a clip that made HBO's Hard Knocks documentary that followed the Bengals through training camp.
After giving up football, Runnels started doing personal training in Norman and recently opened a gym of his own in Midwest City.
Runnels has a 5-year-old son and reflects on his early days in football, his time at OU, his feeling on Hard Knocks and whether or not he would allow his son to play football.
I started playing football really early. My mom was ready to get me out of the house so I started when I was 4 or 5. I played in Oklahoma City in some independent leagues with the T-Birds. We started out really, really early and just kept it going and it paid off.
When I made All-State my junior year I figured I was going to be one of the best players in the state and I figured that colleges were going to come calling and obviously I was doing something right. When The Oklahoman picked me for that it kind of sunk in that this was going to be my ticket.
My brother Lenny graduated high school at like 135 pounds so he wasn't the biggest football player. He's 10 years older than me so when he left to go to college, my mom was used to cooking for two or three kids and now she's just cooking for me so I was eating a bunch and didn't want him to come home and pick on me like he usually did so I gained a bunch of weight. It was good. That junior year when I made All-State I also got selected to play with Athletes First, the independent basketball team, which back then was a pretty big deal. Coach Terry Evans was our coach and wanted me to be their starting point guard which was a huge, huge deal I thought. But I had this deal where I was starting at Carl Albert both ways and I just didn't think I could do both. Lenny tried to talk me into basketball but it just didn't work. It was probably in ninth or 10th grade when I finally got bigger than him.
I've had a lot of coaches that molded me. My first coach, coach (Benjamin) Steele with the T-Birds was very influential. He started me out with the game. My brother, Lenny Hatchett, who's at Edmond Santa Fe was big for me. I was a big basketball player coming up and he helped out with a lot of my athleticism. Coach (Gary) Rose at Carl Albert was huge. Coach (Tex) Rollins at Carl Albert was huge. Coach (Michael) Parker who was my tight end coach who's at SNU now was huge. A lot of them just kind of were — they all molded me in different ways. My brother was tough love. A lot of those guys were very, very disciplined. Coach Rollins is a former Army guy. Coach Rose has won nine titles — you don't get that without being very disciplined. They each had their own little deal with me. Coach Rollins gave me my toughness. Coach Rose showed me how to put everything together and then obviously Bob Stoops really got the best out of me through my four years in Norman.
One of my coaches — Matt Weber who is now at Ada — he was my offensive coordinator in high school and he gave me some of the probably best advice I could've ever gotten and I hadn't ever thought about it. He said, ‘J.D., when you get to that level, the way you're going to open people's eyes is you go take the biggest dude and you just knock the snot out of him. You just go hit him as hard as you can.' I remember I got in on one of my first scrimmages at OU and I was working with the second string. It was just two or three weeks into practice I got a hit on Lance Mitchell. It really opened Bob's eyes. One of the ways that he motivates kids is he shows you a little bit of interest and then you have to go and constantly do what he likes. To impress him and do that over and over again can be difficult but just taking that mentality of knowing what he likes and knowing that he liked a tough player, I was just out there hitting people the whole time and he really, really liked it.
I love watching guys like Trey (Millard), (Aaron) Ripkowski, Brody Eldridge, Matt Clapp. It's great. It's fun to know that fullback is still a part of our offense. It makes a difference with us having a two-back system. A lot of successful running games have two-back systems. You look at what Bama's done over the years — they constantly have a fullback in there. LSU and teams like that and in the NFL as well. A lot of those teams, when you get down to the goal line have a good fullback. It's fun to see it evolving and it's really fun to see those guys getting the ball now especially since I didn't.
The first day of pads was pretty intense up in the NFL. I remember looking over in the first day of pads and seeing on our defense, we had Tommy (Harris), Mike Brown, Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Nathan Vasher, Peanut Tillman. There were like seven Pro Bowlers over there. I was like, ‘This is pretty impressive.' Ron Rivera was our defensive coordinator and Lovie Smith sitting over there. It was pretty humbling having all those guys looking at you.
Making it to the Super Bowl in Chicago and celebrating on Soldier Field was the high point in the NFL for me. It just felt like that town had a burden off their shoulders. They hadn't been there since '85. It was pretty special.
I don't watch Hard Knocks anymore. I made the comment that somebody was telling me that Zac Taylor was on it that he coached at the Dolphins or something like that and I tweeted about it and somebody said, ‘Yeah, he was on Hard Knocks a couple weeks back.' Being in it, it's a cool show and all but it's pretty obvious the more you see the more you realize you don't know what goes on. There's so much. They can't cover everything. They can't be there 24 hours so they can't show you all the great plays. They can't show you all the bad plays. They're not going to show you what the owner doesn't want you to see. Having been there, you lose interest, especially being put in that predicament with the coaches and being cut on the show. For me, I know how well I had been playing. I'm glad they showed some highlights of me. You have to realize at some point that it's not all about talent and it's hard to come to that conclusion. I feel confident with people knowing that I didn't get cut because I (stink) basically. That's why I don't really don't particularly watch the show but I also don't hate it. I feel like a little bit of it is political when teams make roster decisions — who they have their money invested in and who's healthy at the right time and things like that.
When football started dying down, I had to figure out what I wanted to do after and I didn't know. It started with personal training but a lot of what I did was just training women. I got a couple of Carl Albert kids that were willing to drive down to Norman a couple years ago and start with me and it got me back in football and now I'm back in full swing with my gym back in my hometown. I just try and be really community-based and it's paying off. It's going really good. It's going better than I ever could've imagined, not just financially — for myself personally and just building a relationship with a lot of the kids around here that do have a chance to play college ball. It's just been really special to me.
Having played fullback worries me. It worries me a lot about my later life. I guess the big thing is a lot of people — people are going to make judgments about the (concussion) lawsuits and things like that. In my opinion, whether you work in a factory and get lung cancer, whether you work wiping windows on tall buildings and fall — whatever happens, if you're going to have a lifelong industry, especially in an industry that produces as much profit as the NFL does, they should do everything that they can for the players. It's sad that as a society, we look at entertainers as people who make a lot of money; you look at these players who get that high salary and almost forget that they're human. You forget that they have a family, that no matter what, they've earned that more than likely. I had to play for 18 or 19 years before I got a sniff at the NFL. That part kind of (stinks) but everybody's going to have their own opinion and there's mine.
I guess I would let my son play football if he wanted to. I've come a long way on that. Back in the day, right when he was born, I said, ‘No, absolutely not.' The way football's going, 10 more years and it's going to be a lot softer as it is now. It's not going to go back to being as violent as it was when we were in the I-formations with two tight ends. We'll see. If he wants to do it then I'll look at it then but it probably won't be tackle until high school.