When Kendall Hunter was 9 years old, Chaise McNeal, a youth football coach in Tyler, Texas, offered advice the former Oklahoma State running back will never forget.
“He was one of those mentors you listened to,” Hunter said in a telephone interview with The Oklahoman. “One thing he constantly told us: We shouldn't listen to other people, that if you work extremely hard you can accomplish anything regardless of the obstacles you face.”
Battling back from a torn Achilles tendon he suffered late last season, Hunter will be San Francisco's complementary back to four-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore when the 49ers play at Green Bay Sunday afternoon in an NFC wild-card game.
Temperatures at Lambeau Field could dip below zero with a minus-25 wind chill. For Hunter, a speed/power dynamo packaged in a 5-foot-7, 196-pound frame, it's another opportunity to prove he can overcome obstacles.
“I'm blessed to be in the position I'm in,” Hunter said. “I'm on a great team, playing for a great organization, great teammates and a great coaching staff. I'm just happy to be healthy again to help my team when I get an opportunity.”
The Achilles wasn't the first time Hunter overcame a major injury. His junior year at John Tyler High School, Hunter's right leg was gruesomely twisted. Screws and a metal plate were placed in his right ankle. Doctors informed Hunter he might never play football again.
Hunter not only played, he surpassed NFL Hall of Famer Earl Campbell's John Tyler career rushing record. An unheralded recruit, Hunter went on to become the fourth leading rusher in OSU history behind Thurman Thomas, Terry Miller and David Thompson.
“He's one tough little dude,” Gore told the San Francisco Chronicle. “You can tell he's grown a lot since he's been here. He's one of those players everyone on this team knows they can count on.”
One statistic — one fumble in 262 career NFL carries — portrays why coaches throughout his career trust Hunter. He rarely makes mistakes. He's also a solid blocker, adept at picking up blitzes.
A fourth-round pick in 2011, learning the offense on the fly in a lockout-shortened training camp, Hunter rushed for 371 yards his rookie year. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Last season he established career highs in rushing yards (473) and yards from scrimmage (668) before suffering the Achilles injury.
Hunter has 1,202 career rushing yards. This season he scored three touchdowns, including a scoop-and-score 2-yard return of a fumbled kickoff by Tampa Bay's Russell Shepard. Hunter's top highlight was a 45-yard, fourth-quarter run in a playoff-clinching Monday night win at Atlanta.
“Whenever you're coming off an injury you've got to prove that you're back to 100 percent,” Niners coach Jim Harbaugh told the San Francisco Chronicle. “But we always knew what Kendall was about.”
Hunter's future role is uncertain. Gore turns 31 next spring and has the second most carries of all active running backs behind Steven Jackson.
“Anything you want you've got to compete for and go out and do it,” Hunter said. “Nothing comes easy.”