AMHERST, Ohio — Kareem Hunt peeked through window blinds.
It was early Sunday evening when a reporter knocked on the front door of his mother’s house about 35 miles outside of Cleveland.
Stephanie Riggins, Hunt’s mother, opened the door. She closed it almost as fast when the reporter identified himself, making it clear to USA TODAY that uninvited guests were not welcome.
Watching from inside the house was her youngest son, with his signature braids and muscular 5-11, 200-pound frame. He is the star NFL running back who has kept a relatively low profile since he was placed on the commissioner's exempt list and released by the Kansas Chiefs on Nov. 30 after TMZ published a graphic video that shows Hunt shoving and kicking a 19-year-old woman.
Now not only is Kareem Hunt’s football career in jeopardy, but so is his reputation, even in a part of Ohio where he grew up being celebrated for his exploits on the field and where his father and other family members are known for something else — their extensive criminal records.
Hunt’s father, also named Kareem Hunt, has been arrested at least 35 times in northeast Ohio and multiple times on charges of domestic violence, according to records obtained by USA TODAY. Most of the felony convictions were for drug-related offenses. He was sentenced to a combined nine years in prison on nine felony convictions, but it's unclear how much time he spent in jail for dozens of misdemeanor charges.
On Friday, the senior Kareem Hunt, 47, is due in court for nonpayment of court costs, records show. The court appearance stems from a 2012 conviction for disorderly conduct and violating a protecting order, which prohibits an abuser from harassing a victim of domestic violence.
Yet until recently, the junior Kareem Hunt, 23, has avoided serious trouble and was on his way to another 1,000-yard rushing season for the surging Chiefs after he led the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie in 2017.
“I knew it was too good to be true,’’ Ava Hunt, Kareem Hunt’s great aunt, told USA TODAY. “I knew it, I knew it."
In April, Ava Hunt’s son, Rashan Hunt, was sentenced to 23 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. It was the latest blow for the family.
While Kareem Hunt grew up in Willoughby, a suburb of Cleveland, and ascended from a three-star prospect at South High School, to an NFL prospect at the University of Toledo and to a third-round draft pick by the Chiefs in 2017, several members of his family faced criminal charges.
“He’s a miracle,’’ said Lorenzo Hunt, Kareem Hunt’s cousin, who was sentenced in 2004 to seven years in prison for aggravated robbery and a felony firearm offense. He added that several family members squandered their own athletic potential. “For Kareem to make it, it’s not just validation for him, it’s validation for all of us who tried our hardest and failed or succumbed to bad situations and poverty.’’
Kevin Riggins, who family members and records say is Kareem Hunt’s uncle, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for drug-trafficking and other drug-related offenses. A cousin, Gregory E. Hunt, is serving a 12-year prison sentence for drug- and gun-related offenses.
Kareem Hunt’s older brother, Clarence Riggins, was sentenced to more than two years in prison after a 2014 conviction for criminal trespass, according to court records. Hunt’s mother was arrested in 2014 on charges of cocaine possession and pleaded guilty to driving under the influence, court records show. Hunt’s stepfather, Deltrin Kimbro, was sentenced in 2004 to eight years in prison for drug trafficking and related offenses, according to court records.
Four more cousins and another uncle have pleaded guilty to felony offenses, most related to drugs, according to court records. .
'All we know is to fight'
Even before Kareem Hunt admitted he lied to the Chiefs prior to TMZ posting the video of his Feb. 10 altercation with a 19-year-old woman at a Cleveland hotel, there were missteps.
In 2011, when Hunt was 16, he was one of four teenage boys in a car when a police officer in Willoughby approached because of suspicious behavior and discovered .38 grams of marijuana and a marijuana grinder, according to a juvenile report obtained from the Willoughby Police Department. The report states that the car’s driver, Matthew A. Hendricks, said the marijuana and grinder were his and his friends, including Hunt, had nothing to do with it.
The matter was referred to juvenile court, according to the report.
In 2015 while he was at Toledo, Hunt was suspended for the first two games of his junior season for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
But it was the TMZ video that resulted in national media comparing Hunt to Ray Rice, whose NFL career ended after a video was released showing Rice punching his then-fiance in the face and knocking her unconscious.
“You see the tape and it just kind of breaks your heart,’’ said Louis Ayeni, who coached Hunt at Toledo and is now an assistant coach at Northwestern, referring to the security video from the Cleveland hotel. “He’s so likeable and when heknows you, he’s a really giving, caring person. But his choices and his actions put him in this situation right now.’’
Kareem Hunt did not respond to multiple requests for comment made through his agent, Dan Saffron.
Though Hunt has not been charged with a crime, the NFL is investigating three incidents in the past year in which he allegedly was involved in physical altercations — with the woman at a Cleveland hotel in February, with a man at an Ohio resort in June and with another man at a Kansas City club in January.
Lorenzo Hunt said he sees a link between Kareem Hunt’s physical altercation with the 19-year-old woman and his family’s checkered history.
“The only thing that he has now is a resonance, just a small, tiny, little seed of all that anger, all of that trial and tribulation, all of that frustration,’’ said Lorenzo Hunt, 36, who is a professional MMA fighter and also said he works in security. “It’s in him. But it’s not of him. It’s pain from us. It’s not his. He got away.
“It’s like all of us, we fought so hard, that all we know is to fight. To see Little Kareem get out of there, we never even saw that he had so much of us in him until we saw how he fights for the other yard, how he fights for the extra inch, how he never quits no matter (if) you got 300-pound linemen holding on to you, trying to drag you down. He never stops. That’s us. That’s a Hunt.’’
The elder Kareem Hunt was a football star at Collinwood High School in Cleveland and later played in adult leagues, according to family members, who said the sport bound father and son. Or Big Kareem and Little Kareem, as they are still known.
“We used to go to Big Kareem’s games, Little Kareem, I’d carry him with me,’’ said Dixie Hunt Dorsey, Little Kareem’s great-grandmother. “When Big Kareem got the ball to the goal, Little Kareem was right with him. I wish I’d had a camera.’’
Chimed in Ava Hunt, Little Kareem’s great aunt: “He ran out on the field so he could play. He’d see his Daddy playing, and that’s what inspired him to play.’’
The elder Kareem Hunt declined to comment for this story other than to say, “I love my son.’’
Wearing a Chiefs jersey bearing his son’s No. 27 in February, the Big Kareem on behalf of his son accepted a “Hometown Hero’’ award presented by the Ambassador Brothers of Lorain County. And video taken by Ava Hunt shows Big Kareem and Little Kareem joking during a Fourth of July picnic this year as the father sat in a dunking booth and stayed dry as the son threw softballs that missed the target.
“I’m the quarterback and you the running back,’’ Big Kareem can be heard saying with laughter.
But by the time the junior Kareem Hunt was born in 1995, his father had been in and out of jail and Stephanie Riggins was the primary parent for the future NFL star. A few years later she moved him out of Elyria, which has a crime rate higher than 86% of the state's cities and towns of all sizes, according to neighborhoodscout.com.
Four years later they settled in Willoughby, about 50 miles northeast of Elyria, a town notorious for drug abuse and drug trafficking, according to Capt. Christopher P. Constantino of the Elyria Police Department.
Stephanie Riggins declined comment when reached by phone. But Lorenzo Hunt praised her efforts as a mother.
“What Steph did with Little Kareem was absolutely amazing,’’ he said of Stephanie Riggins, who has worked as a home health aide, “that she was able to rise above her station and provide for her son in such a stable fashion.’’
Kareem Hunt was playing linebacker at South High School until the team's running back got hurt. Just like that, Hunt was starting at running back — permanently.
During his junior and senior seasons, he rushed for a combined 5,204 yards and 83 touchdowns. But the hometown hero’s status is complicated in parts of Willoughby.
A bartender at The Wild Goose pointed to a spot on the wall where he said a photo of Hunt was taken down after TMZ posted its video.
“He’s a good kid,’’ said the bartender, who identified himself only as John. “Seems like he’s lost his way a little bit.’’
But around the corner at Frank & Tony’s Place, a server who said she attended high school with Hunt, defended him.
“I’ve never seen him get in a fight or any argument,’’ said Mariah Wilson, 27. “I think the general feeling from everyone is people make mistakes.’’
Support at home
Unbeknownst to most in Willoughby, Kareem Hunt was in his mother’s home in Amherst last weekend, according to Hunt’s brother, Clarence Riggins. Hunt purchased the five-bedroom, split-level house in June for $325,000, according to property records. Riggins said Hunt was with his girlfriend, Julianne Oser, who was a cheerleader when they met at Toledo.
“You know, he’s still smiling,’’ Clarence Riggins said of his brother. “He hasn’t let it break him, and he said he’s not going to let this break him and define him."
In the security video published by TMZ, Hunt can be seen approaching the woman and engaging in an argument before shoving her back with his right hand. Another man tries to restrain Hunt, while the woman approaches him and swats at Hunt’s face, making contact.
Rayshawn Watkins, Hunt’s friend, told police that the accuser began calling both him and Hunt the “N-word”.
“It took a lot for him to get there,’’ Clarence Riggins said of Hunt's altercation with the woman, whom Riggins says also spit in Hunt's face. “… But as a man, you don’t put your hands on a woman no matter what."
In the two weeks since Hunt’s release from the Chiefs, family and friends have rallied around him, according to his brother.
“The pastor was at the house when Kareem first came home,’’ Clarence Riggins said. “A lot of church people were there. We said a prayer for him and everything. He has a lot of support."
Hunt, who earned his degree from Toledo in criminal justice, has started counseling and anger management classes and has been in contact with the NFL, according to Riggins. He has cleared waivers and is a free agent, but while he's on the commissioner's exempt list he's barred from playing if another team signs him.
Among those who have taken a special interest in the situation is Duane Whitely, police chief in Elyria, where the elder Kareem Hunt has a long history with law enforcement. Whitely said he grew familiar with Hunt during his series of arrests.
Whitely has followed the younger Kareem Hunt’s progress from afar and praised Stephanie Riggins.
“It was a smart move for her, to get him out of here,’’ Whitely said of Elyria, “and move him to a different environment.’’
He said he was disappointed when he saw the video of Hunt but has not given up on the son of the father who was arrested as recently as August on charges of drug possession.
“My hope is that Kareem can turn this around, learn from it, not do it again," Whitely said. “If he can learn and grow, everybody deserves a second chance.’’