After years of waiting, Hunter gets start for Jets

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) - Wayne Hunter remembers the phone call he received from his mother over a year ago, and the helpless feeling that followed.

The big New York Jets offensive lineman was stunned to find out at least six members of his family had been killed in the tsunami that struck the Samoan islands in September 2009.

“It was tough, man,” Hunter recalled Friday. “I had to lean on a couple of people to kind of walk me and talk me through that.”

Hunter was born and raised in Hawaii, but many members of his extended family are from the South Pacific nation of Samoa. The tragedy affected several NFL players of Samoan heritage, including Cincinnati’s Domata Peko and Jonathan Fanene.

“Being this far, I think it was good because I just wasn’t around all of that disaster,” Hunter said, “but it was bad because I was never really able to do anything.”

He was given a few days off from practice by coach Rex Ryan to do whatever he needed. Getting back to football was part of the healing process.

“It was a tough thing,” Hunter said. “Just crazy.”

He received plenty of support from the rest of his family, and relied on the fact that he’s been resilient all his life _ on and off the football field. Hunter has also learned to be extremely patient during his seven NFL seasons, serving mainly as a backup lineman and blocking tight end.

This week, he’s getting the chance he’s been hoping for his whole career.

Hunter will start at right tackle for the Jets at Pittsburgh on Sunday, filling in for the injured Damien Woody. It will mark the first time Hunter is starting as an offensive lineman after two starts as a tight end, including once this season.

“I’m just happy it’s finally come,” Hunter said. “It’s been a long time. It’s going to be good.”

It’s also the first game in nearly three years that the Jets (9-4) won’t have all five of their starting lineman playing. No pressure, right? Hunter’s job will be trying to protect Mark Sanchez from the sack-happy Steelers (10-3).

“The next two days will be the longest two days of my life,” Hunter said. “That day can’t come soon enough. I’m excited and ready to go. I’m pumped.”

Ryan has called the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Hunter the best backup offensive tackle in the league. Now is Hunter’s chance to prove he can start, too, even if it’s temporary. Woody is hoping to return in time for the postseason _ if the Jets get that far.

“I’ve said all along that Wayne is a tremendous football player,” Ryan said. “He could be a starter for a lot of teams in this league. It just so happens that he backs up two great tackles.”

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