The trip wasn't easy to begin with, with Brentson Buckner having to catch a red-eye to Atlanta and then flying to Orlando just to begin the drive to Haines City, Florida.
The Cardinals' defensive line coach was looking to work out Rodney Gunter, a player from tiny Delaware State with whom the team had become more and more intrigued. So here was Buckner, plugging in the GPS coordinates in his rental car and dutifully driving "past Disney" and then another 70 miles before he was told to exit and then make a left. That's when Buckner thought, "Hold up – there's nothing back here."
Buckner saw some houses and a couple of stores, but by now, he understood how Gunter might not have been on the radar. Unable to find the practice field, he called Gunter, and was told he needed to head down a dirt road. He could find the field between an orchard and the graveyard.
"I'm thinking, 'This is a practical joke,'" Buckner said. "But it was one of those recruiting trips you hear guys talk about all the time, in the middle of nowhere. It was like in (the movie) 'Blue Chips,' when Nick Nolte went to find Shaq. It
just showed you, you can find talent anywhere."
The workout was the turning point for the Cardinals to zero in on Gunter, who became the team's surprise fourth-round pick despite not being invited to the Scouting combine or any of the many post-season college all-star games, and despite playing for a poor Delaware State team, which finished 2-10, in the tiny Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference.
Gunter's football career got caught up in real life. He played just one year in high school because he was busy working 32 hours a week after school as a dishwasher and waiter at nearby Spring Haven Retirement Home, helping pay the household bills for his single mother and two younger brothers.
Life without football "was killing me inside," Gunter said, and by the time he got back on the field, it was enough to earn only one scholarship offer, to Delaware State. With minimal coaching, Gunter notched seven sacks as a senior but it wasn't enough to get the two NFL main scouting services – BLESTO and the National – to rank him. It meant no Scouting combine and little exposure.
Cardinals Northeast area scout Zac Canty first noticed Gunter in the fall. That led to looks from fellow scout Luke Palko and director of college scouting Dru Grigson. Gunter was on the Cardinals' radar.
Flash-forward to the spring, when Cardinals vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough saw Gunter's tape. McDonough likes to watch video on every player the Cardinals rate with a draftable grade. He was down to his last five when Gunter came across his screen.
McDonough had seen a handful of defensive linemen already like Gunter – decent size, a decent 40-time from a small school. "Usually you don't think much of them, put your late-round grade on them and move on," McDonough said. "This guy was different. He played different than the rest of those guys. He looked like a real NFL player."
McDonough sat up in his chair. He quickly made sure General Manager Steve Keim also looked at the 6-5, 305-pound Gunter. Then Buckner was dispatched to figure out what was real.
Buckner forced himself not to have any expectations during his long and winding journey to Gunter's workout. He had done this before, worked out a small school kid who couldn't quite live up to a myth. The school might say Gunter was 6-5, but maybe he'd be 6-2. They'd say he was 305 pounds, but he was probably more like 275.
But at the field, Buckner watched Gunter get out of the car, and realized he was indeed 6-5. His frame looked 275, but Gunter told Buckner his scale that morning said 305 and Buckner was impressed by the body type. Then on this Sunday morning – "I missed church because of the workout," Gunter said – Buckner put the kid through a rough hour.
"It was very intense, drill after drill," Gunter said. "He gave me a few breaks here and there but I just kept going at it. I had the desire to finish. I wanted to give my best effort."
Gunter left an impression. After eating afterward – the two went to the Denny's, next to the gas station – Buckner was anxious to endorse everything everyone else in the Cardinals' front office had thought.
"I wanted to come back and tell somebody I might have seen one of the best defensive line prospects in this draft," Buckner said.
"I don't know why he wasn't on the radar but from a natural ability, he's got everything you want," Buckner added.
The research continued. The Cardinals found out that Gunter had worked to help support his family, and that his hometown was important to him. He checked the boxes both as a player and a person.
"The more information we compiled the higher he moved up on our draft board," McDonough said. "Again, we didn't want to invent a player late in the process. That can get you in trouble. But all the reports meshed.
"You don't want to be naïve to the fact it was Delaware State and he wasn't at the combine. You don't want to trick yourself into thinking you are smarter than other people. But once the film was on, it was pretty evident he was an NFL-type player."
Gunter admitted he was down at the outset of the draft process, wondering if anyone would be interested. He knew as the draft grew near – and he was invited to
The Cardinals' rookies take part in the first day of rookie minicamp
visit 10 teams, although not the Cardinals – he had become a "hot commodity."
Still, it didn't prepare him for draft day.
McDonough wanted Gunter, but as with every draft, getting the player you want isn't always possible. McDonough said in this draft, the Cardinals were actually on the phone with a player only to have him taken by the team drafting in front of them.
In the case of Gunter, they had heard other teams might be interested. They used information and guesswork to figure they needed to get him in the fourth round, earlier than anyone projected and earlier than Gunter expected. With two fifth-round picks, McDonough admitted he was "nudging" Keim to trade one of them to move up just to secure Gunter.
Instead, Keim dealt a sixth- and a seventh-round pick to move up. The Cardinals called a stunned Gunter to tell him he was coming to Arizona.
"I hit my knees praying," Gunter said. "It was unreal. I passed out for, like, three minutes."
The NFL world was surprised even as the Cardinals heard from another team telling them it would have drafted Gunter in the fourth round if the Cardinals had not.
Gunter is raw, Buckner said, but he has a lot of the defensive tools that coaches usually have to teach young players. With his size and athleticism, the Cards are convinced he's got a chance to be a very good 3-4 defensive end. It just took a little more work to get him to Arizona in the first place.
"They really convinced me no matter where you are, what conference you play in, if you are a player, they will find you," Gunter said.
If he's a player, Buckner has his own "Blue Chips" moment.
"It was well worth the trip," Buckner said.