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SUPER BOWL XXII : When Dan Reeves Talks, Hunley Had Best Listen : Broncos' Linebacker Gets Taste of the Spur

January 25, 1988|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — As he plunked himself on one of Dan Reeves' office chairs six weeks ago, Ricky Hunley half-knew what was about to happen. Hunley had seen the charts, the ones that hang inside the Denver Bronco meeting room. He could read the numbers, for goodness sakes. And if he could read them, so could everyone else.

Tackles . . . Down.

Hustle points . . . Down.

Factor points--the number of times Hunley, an inside linebacker, made a positive impact on a play . . . Down. A lot.

So here he was, the costliest, most publicized, most awaited Bronco player since John Elway arrived here in 1983, glued to a chair like some sixth grader waiting to see the principal.

Reeves glanced up from his desk and then, in that tight South Carolina drawl, told Hunley, in so many words, that he stunk.

"I don't think you've been playing as well as you can play," began Reeves. "If you don't get any better, then I think someone else should have the opportunity to play."

For a moment, Hunley was speechless. After all, nothing like this had ever happened to him in football. He had always been the best, the brightest. Once, a baseball coach had challenged him, much as Reeves was challenging him now.

"Betcha you can't hit a home run," the coach said as Hunley left the dugout.

He did, of course. "I knocked that sucker out of the park," he said.

But this was different. This wasn't Little League. This was Big Time.

Back in 1984, the Broncos had presented Hunley with a $1 million salary spread over four seasons, a $1.725 million signing bonus, an $800,000 loan, $60,000 worth of roster bonuses. To the Cincinnati Bengals, the team that had chosen Hunley seventh in the entire 1984 draft, the Broncos coughed up a first- and third-round selection in 1986 and a fifth-round pick in 1987. Responsible for initiating the trade and constructing the contract was none other than Bronco owner Pat Bowlen.

Which made this little chat with Hunley so difficult. Two seasons earlier, Reeves had described Hunley's status as "either-or." Either Hunley became a starter, or Hunley risked becoming an ex-Bronco. Simple as that. Even Bowlen had dropped a hint or two of dissatisfaction with Hunley's progress, or absence of it.

Hunley listened to this latest speech of Reeves and then, in a soft, determined voice, delivered one of his own.

"Coach, whatever it takes to get the job done, I'll do it," said Hunley.

And that was that. The meeting finished, Hunley returned to the Bronco locker room. Reeves returned to work, wondering perhaps if Hunley had spoken from the heart or simply recited something from the book of player cliches.

Now, as Super Bowl XXII approaches, he knows.

It was from the heart.

This, it turns out, is the Hunley way. Always has been. Always will. Learned it from his mother, Scarlette, Hunley did. A proud, stubborn woman who had 10 children of her own and another 40 or so foster children during the last 20 years, Scarlette Hunley taught Ricky to speak his mind, to cling to his convictions.

So Hunley speaks his mind, creating this vast separation of friends and foes. "You've got some people who love me, some people who hate me," he said after a recent practice. "That's the way it was with my mom, either you love her or you hate her. She didn't bite her tongue. She didn't go out of her way to please anybody."

And Hunley clings to his convictions as if they were precious jewels, like the time he told the Bengals to take a hike during bitter contract negotiations. Want to know why? Wasn't money, said Hunley; it was mother, his mother.

The way Hunley tells it, a member of the Bengal management phoned Scarlette one day and said her son risked injury if he failed to arrive at training camp on time. So, of course, Scarlette passed the conversation along. And, of course, Hunley became furious.

"You don't tell a mother her kid's going to get hurt when he comes into camp," Hunley said.

Later, Hunley asked Bengal front office types about the phone call. They denied it.

"By denying it, in essence, he called my mom a liar," said Hunley. "I said, 'No matter what you offer me, or what you say, I'm not coming to Cincinnati.' And that was it."

This was after Hunley and his agent, Howard Slusher, had submitted, said the Cincinnati Enquirer, a 30-page list of contract demands that included automobiles, life and health insurance policies and real estate. Bengal officials, stunned by the demands, said that they had never seen a more complex contract package.

So along came the Broncos and Bowlen. Bowlen got the linebacker he wanted. The Bengals got three high draft choices. Hunley got a new team.

This is where everyone was supposed to play happily ever after. Except that Hunley's mega-bucks contract upset some Bronco veterans. And it didn't help that Hunley spent most of his time on the sideline.

"He was very highly paid and he didn't play much at first," linebacker Karl Mecklenburg said. "I think some players resented that."

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