By Will Burchfield
@burchie_kid

Kerry Hyder doesn’t have to wear 61 anymore. He could abandon the number the Detroit Lions assigned him when he was a practice-squad player in 2015. He could move on to something flashier, something more fitting for a defensive end. And no one would begrudge him the switch.

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But Hyder has no such inclination. For him, 61 is a mark of pride. It’s a validation of his journey. Every time he sees it, on his jersey, above his locker or next to his name, he is reminded of how far he’s come and how hard he’s had to work to get here.

Hyder used to be stuck with 61. Now he’s sticking with it.

“If I ever get lazy I just look at my number. At one point, I didn’t have a choice. I had to wear 61. So now I just use that as motivation,” he said.

In the span of three weeks, Hyder has gone from a Lions hopeful to a Lions star. His ascent began with an eye-opening performance in the final game of the preseason and has gained steam ever since.

Two sacks in Week 1. Another one in Week 2. Now, with Ziggy Ansah unable to play in Week 3, Hyder is poised to take the field as a starter for the first time in his NFL career.

He hasn’t risen before us like the sun in the sky. He has appeared out of nowhere like a solar eclipse.

And he intends to stick around.

“It feels great to see the work I put in and finally seeing it on the field. But we’re talking like the season’s over. I got a lot of work to do and I got a long hill to climb so I’m just still grinding,” Hyder said.

It would be easy to say no one saw this coming. It would be simple to suggest Hyder is proving everybody wrong. On the surface, that’s how the story reads.

He was an unheralded prospect coming out of college. He was called “bad-bodied” at the combine. “Undersized” and “not explosive.” He went undrafted in 2014.

He was then signed by the New York Jets, who buried him on the practice squad. A year later, he was dealt the same demotion on the Lions. And that’s likely where he was headed this year, until his last-gasp effort in the preseason.

Now he’s bullying linemen, terrorizing quarterbacks and stirring up the gridiron like a twister in the flesh.

Unpredictable? Not according to his teammates.

“Kerry’s always been doing that,” said fellow defensive end Devin Taylor. “Kerry is just a guy that got thrown here, got thrown there, and finally got his opportunity to shine and he’s been doing a great job at it.”

Though Hyder played in just one game for the Lions in 2015, he consistently stood out on the team’s practice squad. He was never the flashiest player, but the results were impossible to ignore.

“All during last year, anytime we were working offense vs. defense and he was on the little squad, he had a knack for getting to the quarterback,” said coach Jim Caldwell.

“He proved he could do it out here with the big guys, too.”

The Lions aren’t surprised. In a way, Hyder’s smooth transition makes sense. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin may have explained it best:

“They say if he bites as a puppy, he’s going to bite when he’s a grown dog. He’s doing that.”

Still, there’s something about Hyder. Something that defies logic. He isn’t exceptionally big and he isn’t exceptionally fast, but he is undeniably productive. Through two games this season – admittedly a small sample size – Hyder is tied for second in the NFL with three sacks.

“The guy is interesting because of the fact that he just finds a way, he has just an unbelievable motor. But also, he’s really slippery,” Caldwell said. “He doesn’t necessarily overpower you, but he can; he doesn’t necessarily run around you, but he can. He just doesn’t stop and we’ve seen that from him.

“We’re proud of him, proud of the way he plays. He’s a tough, hard-nosed guy.”

Hyder is bashful when discussing his own success. It doesn’t jibe with his humble personality. He laughs off references to his record-setting sack pace and brushes aside suggestions that he’s due for a raise.

So he wouldn’t broach the topic with Lions’ ownership?

“No, no,” Hyder chuckled. “That’s not my place.”

His self-effacing ways aren’t the reflection of a bruised psyche. Despite the slow start to his NFL career, Hyder never doubted that he could play at this level.

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“I always believed in myself,” he said.

But two years is a long time. And getting cut twice is an unsettling experience. It’s enough to make even the most optimistic of souls question their purpose. So Hyder admits these last two games have been particularly satisfying.

“It feels good to know that I’m supposed to be here. I feel like to myself, I’ve gained a little confidence knowing that I can rush the passer in this league. So I’m just trying to keep at it and keep making strides,” he said.

As Hyder has risen to fame, he has deflected the praise that’s come with it. He credits his teammates for helping him along. He recognizes the coaching staff for giving him a shot. Most of all, and most sincerely, he points to his family for supporting him no matter what.

When Hyder was awaiting his fate before the Lions final cut day earlier this month – and getting released was still a very real possibility – his wife and young daughter helped keep him at ease. The following weekend, after Hyder’s two-sack performance in the Lions season-opener, they helped him celebrate.

Well, if one can call it that.

“I didn’t do anything, man,” Hyder said of his post-game revelry. “I just went back to the hotel and chilled out with my wife and daughter, they were waiting on me.”

Now that he’s finally making his name, Hyder’s biggest fans aren’t so much stroking his ego as they are keeping it in check.

“I have a great home base with my family – my mother, my father, my wife. They keep me grounded, make sure that I’m focused and stay on the goal and that’s to continue to get better and keep making plays,” he said.

Of course, Hyder seems like he’d maintain this sense of diligence either way.

“He’s a blue-collar guy. He’s not into the frills and things that come along with the game that oftentimes you find some young guys get caught up in,” Caldwell said. “He’s focused on his task. He’s always, I think, a goal-oriented guy who just scraps and fights and scratches and digs to try to get his job done. A very, very likeable teammate.”

It’s a sentiment echoed in the locker room. Ask the Lions about Hyder, and they’ll commend his ability on the field before singing his praises off of it.

“He’s a great player,” said rookie defensive end Anthony Zettel. “He’s a unique pass rusher, he sure can get after it. He’s also a really good guy, too. He really helps you out, really talkative and stuff, a good teammate.”

As the Lions march into Lambeau Field this weekend with a depleted defense, they are counting on Hyder more than ever. Two weeks ago, he could have relied on the element of surprise. Not anymore – the Packers have heard of Hyder. They know he’s coming.

“Yeah, he’s done a great job,” said Aaron Rodgers. “You look out there and see 61, that’s not always a defensive-end number. I can’t think of another guy wearing that number, but a high-effort player, he’s making a lot of plays.

“You’ve got to give him a lot of credit. Obviously, he never became a victim of his circumstances. He definitely must have a great work ethic and a lot of confidence because he’s really made himself into a solid player.”

Asked for his reaction to Rodgers’ comments, Hyder was as deferential as ever.

“I appreciate it. He’s obviously a great quarterback and he has a lot of clout in this league so I just appreciate him seeing my work,” Hyder said.

Then he laughed off the suggestion that Rodgers was trying to curry favor with the enemy ahead of their matchup on Sunday.

“I don’t know if he’s trying to do that,” Hyder demurred. “He’s just showing a little love to me.”

And Hyder will return it with nothing but fury, gunning for Rodgers while licking his chops.

“You always want to get to a guy like that, he’s a former MVP, he’s a great quarterback. So you definitely want to put that on your list of sacks,” Hyder said.

If Rodgers indeed becomes his latest victim, don’t expect Hyder to stage some showy celebration. Don’t expect him to pound his chest or flaunt his feathers or strut across the field. And certainly don’t expect him to dance.

“I don’t got no dance, man,” he laughed. “I’m just happy to be here, just happy to make some plays.”

Hyder’s story both resists the narrative and conforms to it. Unpredictable? Not quite. Inspiring? Absolutely. Through force of will and undying effort, he has forged his way onto an NFL roster and is mining the moment for all its worth.

Meanwhile, across the league, Hyder’s fan base continues to grow. It even includes the next target on his list.

“Those are the type of guys that you pull for,” Rodgers said. “Maybe not when you’re playing them, but the guys who work themselves up to an active role and make a difference.

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“Especially guys wearing 61 on the d-line.”