It was an old, black car. That is all Robert Hunt really remembers.
He does not know cars because he does not drive and he does not drive because nobody was home to teach him how. Even when they were, there was only that old, black car and it had to take someone to work.
Robert was born in Wiergate, Texas — a town of about 450 residents, one stoplight and roads that began paved then suddenly became dirt — but that old, black car took him from Wiergate to Fort Worth shortly after his birth. His grandmother lived there, in a four-bedroom house that bore the weight of Robert’s mother, her sisters and their families. He stayed in a room with all the boys, in which usually six but as many as 10 were tumbling over each other at one time.
“I was really adamant about changing socks and keeping socks on,” Robert’s mother, Kathi Handy, said with a laugh.
Kathi did not plan Robert. As a mother of five, she was diagnosed with and treated for cervical cancer. Doctors had prescribed her contraceptives, unconvinced she could withstand another pregnancy. On August 25th, 1996 — her stomach had been swelling for months — she started bleeding heavily and believed the cancer had roared its return.
She was rushed to the hospital, but the news was unexpected. The nurse announced, with delight, that Kathi was going to have a baby. Kathi argued. A few hours later, she was holding her sixth child in her arms.
He did not have a name — yet. So the family that had rushed to his mother’s bedside put their heads together, grafting branches from various generations of their extended family tree: Robert for his grandfather, George for his great-uncle, Washington for his great-grandfather, Handy for his mother’s maiden name and Hunt for his grandmother’s maiden name.
Robert George Washington Handy Hunt, and they called him “G.”
By the time G entered first grade, he was back in Wiergate, attending Burkeville Elementary. He lived with his father, Ricky Gatson, his mother and his five siblings in a trailer near Cat Creek, already one cycle through the push and pull of a transient childhood.
Robert was a quiet kid, a peacemaker according to his mother and father. Kathi cannot remember stories of him misbehaving; Rickey does not recall him crying. He was still too young to understand that the lights only went on when his father had a job, that they could not go visit grandma because there was not enough money to pay for gas on the trip. His even temper seemed the product of his innocence.
In September 2005, Hurricane Rita hit east Texas. Newton County was declared a disaster area; the trailer park was defenseless. Robert’s family evacuated — the old, black car endured the trip — and they spent another two years in grandma’s four-bedroom house, another two sleeping with five of his cousins. When Robert was 11, they moved back to Wiergate — they found the trailer uninhabitable. The electricity no longer worked on one side and the ground underneath was no longer level. They relocated to a dilapidated foreclosure that Robert’s father found: holes in the floor and rats in the walls.
Robert was old enough to understand what had happened this time. But his sunny disposition did not break against the strain of natural disaster and an unrecoverable loss.
“I was very blessed,” Robert remembered. “I had nothing to complain about.”
In December 2010, Kathi had missed multiple calls at work — too many, all from the Newton Police Department. The ramshackle wiring in her house had started a fire; it had burned to the ground. They did not know if anyone was inside. Kathi knew that Robert and his brother were at school; for her four daughters and her grandkids, she rushed back home.
They were all safe. But for the second time, everything they owned was lost, and for the third time, they fled Wiergate for Fort Worth. The old, black car would not survive this trip, sputtering to a halt somewhere outside of Dallas. Robert had to call an old mentor from his school in Fort Worth to take them the rest of the way.
Robert remained in Fort Worth through junior high and into his freshman year of high school. He remembers the projects where his family lived as a rough place where he was regularly recruited for petty crimes or drug use. To avoid the unscrupulous crowds, Robert played basketball. He played it well, too -- big, quick on his toes, comfortable in the close quarters of the paint. Eventually, the junior high coach in Fort Worth caught word of Robert’s talent; he asked him if he wanted to try out for the team.
Robert said no.
Robert said no because he did not make friends at Fort Worth. His friends went to Burkeville High, back home in Wiergate. Robert did not plant roots in Fort Worth, join teams in Fort Worth. What was the point? His family was just going to return to Wiergate when they found tenable housing again. Permanence in Fort Worth meant accepting a future in the projects, among the crowds he was so desperate to escape. Permanence in Fort Worth would break the cycle of flight and return that he knew as life, for every time he had been pushed out of his home, he had eventually been pulled back to it.
Robert was certain that he was going back home.
And he was. He returned to the Burkeville school system for the third time as a freshman at Burkeville High, where all 81 students knew each other’s names and attended classes with the same nine teachers. When the Mustangs fielded their football team in the fall, Robert was one of the 18 men on the roster.
It was a white 2004 Mercury, a big van with dust coating the sides from the Wiergate roads that began paved and suddenly became dirt. It belonged to Dylan Rivero’s grandfather.
Dylan was a classmate of Robert’s. He was a parishioner at the same church and another member of the 18-man roster of Burkeville’s Division 2A program. They had both spent time in big cities — Austin, Texas for Dylan — and both were too poor to live anywhere else. When the two went out together, one often did not have enough cash for a full meal and the other would cover his bill. Dylan was small, and even in a town as familiar as Burkeville, he was bullied through his early years of high school; Robert was big, and that made the bullies go away.
Robert was big, and accordingly, he was playing offensive tackle, defensive tackle and even some tight end for the Mustangs. He started at center on the basketball team and averaged 18 points and 7 rebounds his senior year. He was as thunderous on the court and the gridiron as he was delightful off of it; among Burkeville and their competing schools, he was unmatched.
But few college scouts crossed Wiergate’s one stoplight, so Robert’s dominance went largely unnoticed. A two-star recruit and the 467th best prospect in the state of Texas, Robert didn’t have any plans to play after high school. He didn’t have any plans at all.
“I don’t know … stay in Burkeville, get a job,” he thought then. “That’s how I knew God had a plan for me when I got to Louisiana-Lafayette.”
A defensive line coach from the university was in east Texas on the recruiting trail; Robert’s high school coach enticed him down to Burkeville with the promise of an athlete he would not believe. He took one look at Robert — 6-foot-5, 250 pounds in his senior year of high school — and invited him to a camp a few weeks later in Lafayette.
But Robert could not go. His family only had the old, black car, and it likely would not make the trip … again. He was not able to drive it anyway and his parents could not take off work.
“It was disappointing, but it was like, ‘Okay, I wasn’t gonna play college ball anyway,’” Robert said. “I didn’t think they really wanted some kid from Burkeville.”
Then Robert talked to Dylan. The camp was open to anyone, not just invited prospects — and Dylan wanted to go workout for Louisiana-Lafayette as well. So Robert pitched in what he could for gas, and he, Dylan, and Dylan’s grandfather loaded up the dusty white van and took off for Lafayette, less than three hours across the state line.
Robert arrived on campus in a white T-shirt, red athletic shorts and sneakers; everyone else wore performance gear, branded apparel, the trappings of the football elite. A coach wondered why Robert had not brought his cleats. Robert told him that he did not own any.
“They asked me what size I wore and I said 13 ‘cause I didn’t want them to think I was a freak,” Robert said, laughing. “I really wear a 15 or a 16. I had to squeeze my feet into these tiny cleats. They hurt so bad.”
Robert was a freak, though. He buried each walking Nike advert lined up opposite him in run-blocking drills, uprooted sleds and seated coaches with bags meant to serve only as visual cues. Every drill the coaching staff gave him, he had never seen before — but his retention and understanding could not be ignored. He was a coach's dream: a bull with a bridle.
Eventually, a grad assistant found then-Cajuns head coach Mark Hudspeth and insisted he come down to visit the offensive line group. Hudspeth remembers Robert as misplaced, appearing unathletic and overweight, blinking through the weirdest pair of glasses. Then he watched him play.
“This kid had the best feet I’ve ever seen,” Hudspeth said. “Like you wouldn’t believe — and he had never taken a set in a two-point stance, not a set.”
Never taken a set in a two-point stance. At Burkeville High, Robert had played exclusively from a three-point stance. When the recruits moved to pass protection drills later that afternoon and he was told to take a two-point stance, he hesitated, looked up, and put only two fingers on the ground.
By the time they got him around to the idea of a two-point stance, Robert was back to decleating Under Armour models. He did not exactly pass-protect — rather, he backpedaled out of his newfound stance before flipping the transmission and driving a would-be pass rusher into the turf. It was not pretty; it was not even right. But it foreshadowed what was possible with the right coaching.
Camp broke that night; Hudspeth met with Robert. He learned about his name — all five of them, actually — and his there and back again home life. He asked him about his plans after high school; if he wanted to attend the University of Louisiana-Lafayette to play football. Politely, Robert told him no. He did not have enough money for college.
Coach clarified: He was offering Robert a full-ride scholarship. Robert asked: What was a scholarship?
“I didn’t know what that meant,” he recalled, quieter now. “And when I did, you just realize that you’re gonna have a chance at something. And that changes everything.”
Robert had more than a chance at something; he had something special. With unfettered access to three meals a day for the first time in his life, Robert would gain 60 pounds in his first two years on campus, cutting down on the bad weight he did not know he was carrying. He fought for a starting tackle spot, lost the battle and started two seasons at guard before fighting again and winning the right tackle position.
This year, he earned a Reese’s Senior Bowl invitation, making him all but a lock to get drafted; he is considered one of the top Group of 5 prospects in all of college football. He will graduate Louisiana having started over 50 games; having won at least 26.
In high school, he won two.
Rickey does not own that old, black car anymore, nor does he remember the make or model. He is always buying cars that are too broken down for other families to drive and doing his best to keep their hearts pumping just a little longer. He remembers those car rides with Robert, however, with six kids strapped into the backseats, without enough money for a meal and gas for the trip. He remembers Robert’s love for church and his care for his friends as they struggled through the trap they shared
“God always had a plan for that boy,” Rickey says.
Just as much as Robert cannot imagine a life plan outside of football at Louisiana, so does he not question that what led to it: the disasters that displaced him, the poverty that pulled him back. It was part of the plan.
Julia Pasch is Robert’s girlfriend. He first caught her eye when he tried to lean against the netting of a pitching bullpen at Louisiana’s facilities, unsuccessfully. She speaks glowingly of Robert, as you’d hope and expect. Robert's best friend is her sister, Hannah — she's Robert's age and has Down syndrome. Robert says that he gets along well with Hannah because they walk at the same ambling pace in the park; Julia thinks its because they both love to eat and are equally, shamelessly bad at karaoke.
Julia has something that she calls “The Theory of Rob.” She talks about it with him regularly, as she still tries to figure it out herself. She says that God “had him in his hands throughout his whole life and just protected him from everything. And somehow, Rob just figured out how life was supposed to be. How he was supposed to treat others, how he was supposed to work hard.”
“I was very blessed,” he repeats. “My family, my friends, football and the scholarship. No, I don’t feel like anything. I just feel blessed.”