The Cincinnati Bengals’ two second-round picks and third-rounder were in town Saturday to meet their new coaches and tell the media a little more about themselves during a joint press conference.
But running back Giovani Bernard and safety Shawn Williams did a lot more listening than talking as most of the questions were directed toward defensive end and Estonia native Margus Hunt.
“I’m learning so much about this guy right now,” Bernard laughed.
There’s a lot to learn.
Born in Estonia, Hunt became a national hero when he won gold medals in both the shot put and discus at the World Junior Championships.
“That was a problem,” Hunt said. “When you come from a country with 1.3 million people, there’s a lot of pressure to win in the Olympics. I had to get out.”
He moved to America and enrolled at Southern Methodist University, but by the time he got to campus the school had dropped the track program. So the 6-foot-8, 277-pound Hunt accepted an invitation to try out for football, a sport he knew absolutely nothing about, as a way to stay at SMU.
The decision drew the ire of the folks back home in Estonia.
“Some people called me a national traitor,” Hunt said.
After teaching himself English by watching “Friends” and action movies, Hunt used the Madden video game to get familiar with the basics of football. Five years later, he is set to become a millionaire after the Bengals drafted him in the second round with the 53rd overall pick.
“It’s been a weird roller-coaster ride to say the least,” Hunt said. “Six years ago I was sure I’m going to be at the Olympics in 2012. You never know what life is going to bring you. You just go with the decisions at hand and work your butt off and keep going.”
Hunt led SMU with eight sacks as a senior, and 12 of his 31 tackles were for losses. Five of his 11 quarterback pressures led to interceptions, and he also finished his college career with 17 blocked kicks.
“His Combine was unbelievable,” Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said. “He was right near the top of every category.”
In addition to track and field, Hunt also was involved in soccer, swimming, cross country skiing and basketball.
“I did enjoy basketball because our No. 1 play was the alley-oop,” he laughed.
Hunt also plays piano and graduated SMU with a 2.7 grade-point average and a degree in sports management.
“He’s going to be an interesting guy, and we’re going to work his butt off,” Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes said.
Bernard brings some additional international flavor to the Bengals thanks to his Hatian heritage. His parents immigrated to American when they were in their 20s, and Bernard, who speaks fluent Creole, used to visit his relatives on the island regularly.
He was set to make a visit in 2010, but then the earthquake struck.
“My family was definitely affected,” he said. “A lot of the homes that they owned there were demolished. They had to find ways to make tents. It’s still a process. That definitely hurt our family, but at the same time I couldn’t let that affect my game. I knew what I had to go do. I’m just trying to make my family proud and give them something to smile about.”
Bernard’s father, Yvens, owns a dry-cleaning business in Boca Raton, Fla. He refused to take Friday off and nearly missed his son being drafted, arriving to the party at the Eden Rock hotel in Miami 20 minutes before the Bengals announced the pick.
“He owns it, so he could have given himself the day off, but that’s just how my dad is,” Bernard said.
He credited his dad and his older brother Yvenson, who played at Oregon State and signed a free-agent contract with the St. Louis Rams before playing for Saskatchewan in the Canadian Football League.
The 5-foot-9, 206-pound Bernard is one of the top rushers in North Carolina history after playing just two seasons. He had 1,253 yards as a freshman and 1,228 last year. He scored 33 career touchdowns and was an equally big threat as a receiver out of the backfield.
The other player on the dais, Georgia’s Shawn Williams, had a much more traditional path to the NFL, although there were some uneasy feelings in the weeks leading up to the draft.
No team called him to make a visit, and the interview he had with the Bengals didn’t go well.
“It was just kind of weird, some of the questions they were asking,” he said, referring to queries about presidents, foreign capitals and some memory exercises. “I was expecting to talk football. That’s what kind of threw me off.”
He watched the first two and a half rounds wondering when a call was finally going to come.
“When the phone finally rang, I was like, ‘Please don’t be that call where they say we’re thinking about you,’” he said. “When they said they were drafting me, I was like, ‘Yes!’ ”