BEREA — Kareem Hunt realizes his emotions will be “high” Sunday when he returns to Arrowhead Stadium in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. The versatile running back has a lot to process as his hometown team that provided a second chance prepares to face the team that drafted him.
He dreams about moving one step closer to the Super Bowl he missed out on a year ago after the Chiefs cut him in 2018 after a pair of off-field altercations. He knew the Chiefs were destined for greatness and anguished over not being part of the journey.
He considers his hometown so desperate for a winner and suddenly only two wins away from watching the Browns play in their first Super Bowl.
He thinks about his close friends on the Chiefs, including former MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes and All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, and how he wants to beat them with so much on the line.
Hunt called the reunion “personal” after he had two hard-charging touchdown runs Sunday night as the Browns beat the Steelers in the wild card round.
“I just mean it is a big game,” Hunt said Thursday. “I came in with guys over there. This is my first time playing against some of my best friends in the NFL. It is definitely going to be for bragging rights for the long run with my guys.”
“I am just happy that he is on this side, not the other side,” receiver Jarvis Landry said.
Hunt regretted missing out on the Chiefs’ run to the Super Bowl title last year, even expressing the disappointment to a police officer during a traffic stop last January. The Chiefs cut him in November 2018 when video surfaced of him kicking and shoving a woman, saying he had lied to them about what happened.
The Chiefs went 14-2 this year, are the AFC’s top seed and favored to repeat as champs. Hunt, 25, has the same goal for the Browns.
“That is motivation right there. Being able to go out here and work for my hometown and the Cleveland Browns and be in this position to have a shot so late into the season to bring a ring home, it would mean more than anything to me,” said Hunt, who grew up in Elyria before moving to the East Side and starring at Willoughby South High School. “I want to help bring a change in culture around here, and that is get a ring.
“My biggest goal coming into the NFL was to win a Super Bowl before I retire. They were able to get that goal, which they deserve. That is a good program over there, a good football team and good people.”
He’s texted his friends on the Chiefs this week and appreciates the support of coach Andy Reid.
“Those guys have always been in my corner,” Hunt said. “I could not ask for better people and friends, and I consider them family.”
Hunt knows the two organizations probably as well as anyone not named John Dorsey. When many doubted the Browns after the major letdown of 2019, Hunt envisioned this playoff matchup at the start of the season.
“Kareem talked about this game all year like he knew it was going to happen,” running back Nick Chubb said. “He is excited for it. I am excited for him. I am excited to watch him go out there and play. He is ready for it.”
“Honestly, I believed,” Hunt said. “I knew with the players and the coaches we have, I just believed that we can definitely make a run. I kept telling Nick that I have a feeling we are going to see them in the playoffs.”
Chubb and Hunt have grown close, and those on the Browns say Hunt’s changed since his days with Kansas City.
Dorsey, as general manager of the Chiefs, drafted him in the third round out of the University of Toledo and he won the league rushing title as a rookie in 2017 with 1,327 yards. Dorsey was in the same role with the Browns when Hunt got cut, then signed him in February 2019, giving him a second chance many didn’t think he deserved.
“They believed in me. They gave me an opportunity,” said Hunt, who was suspended for the first eight games of 2019. “I would like to thank the Haslams for sure for bringing me in with welcome arms.”
“I am extremely proud,” Chubb said of Hunt’s growth off the field. “Ever since I met Kareem, he has been a great person and a great guy who is definitely one of my best friends on the team. He is fun to be around also.”
Coach Kevin Stefanski was hired not long before Hunt’s traffic stop in which he admitted he would’ve failed a drug test. Owner Jimmy Haslam said it was “not acceptable” and Hunt’s “got to do better.”
“I will just tell you that he has done everything that I have asked of him since the moment he and I met,” Stefanski said Wednesday.
On the field that includes running with a determination not shared by many ball carriers. On his 11-yard touchdown run against the Steelers, he met linebacker Robert Spillane at the 4 and drove him 3 yards deep into the end zone despite other defenders joining the pile.
“Kareem ran pissed off,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said after the game. “He ran like he wanted to get to Kansas City.”
“Kareem every game runs very hard,” Stefanski said. “He runs violently. He does not want to be denied when he has the rock in his hands. His teammates love to fight out there with him and push the pile because they know he is constantly churning his legs and getting everything he can.”
Hunt said he always plays with anger but will probably have a bit more emotion this week.
“It means a ton to him,” Mayfield said. “I think that is going to permeate for our guys, as well, and they are going have those same feelings and want to play for him.
“It is like the give-and-take of Kareem is hurt that they are in the Super Bowl, but he was cheering for his guys but you know he wanted to be there. That is why he comes to work every day and works his ass off to try and get there with us now.”
Chiefs receiver Sammy Watkins may have provided even more motivation for his former teammate when he replied “I wouldn’t go that far lol” when someone on Twitter said the Browns would provide competition.
“We will just see them Sunday,” Hunt said. “We will let the play do the talking. There is nothing else to be said. If he believes that, we will see what he thinks after the game.”