12-year old Hunter Paulin made a full recovery from surgery this summer and joined defensive coordinator Joe Barry on the field at training camp Sunday to celebrate.
Before his sixth open heart surgery, one that would require yet another trip to the hospital and plenty of rehab to follow, Hunter Paulin stood at the end zone of the Redskins' Indoor Training Facility in Loudoun County, Va., to take in a team practice.
After undergoing his sixth heart surgery this summer, Hunter Paulin took up defensive coordinator Joe Barry's offer to visit Redskins training camp.
By its conclusion, just as the euphoric highs of seeing his favorite players began to blend with the burden of his looming reality, defensive coordinator Joe Barry stopped by to greet Hunter. Shortly after learning about his condition, Barry made him a promise.
"I said, 'Hey man, if you attack your rehab, if you're 100 percent healthy by the time we go to training camp, how about we go hang out with me for a day?" said Barry, hoping some motivation might help his recovery.
Just a month later, Hunter, 12, received another successful surgery, one doctors hope will be his last to combat the congenital heart failure that has consumed his life. Several days after the operation, Hunter awoke from his recovery, feeling strong and healthy and with one goal in mind.
"I woke up and was like, 'Mom can I go to camp now?" Hunter said. "I just couldn't wait."
"When he was invited, [Barry] actually said to Hunter, 'Can you tell me about the recovery process?' And Hunter's first words were, 'It's painful,'" his mother, Wendy, said. "And then he said, 'Why don't I help give you something to think about?' It really meant a lot to Hunter and he mentioned it several times in the hospital. It gave him something else to focus on."
Hunter would have to wait a couple more weeks to fulfill Barry's promise, which culminated on Sunday at the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center in Richmond, Va., where Paulin, along with his mother, brother and grandmother, travelling from Indian Head, Md., stepped across the roped-off boundaries and onto the sidelines.
The Washington Redskins conducted their fourth day of training camp walkthrough practices Sunday, August 2, 2015, at the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center in Richmond, Va.
As players took the field for morning walkthroughs, Barry acted more like an assistant coach than a chaperone, letting Hunter lead some defensive huddles and feed him plays to relay to the team.
"He had me do some of the signals and tell him some of the plays," Hunter said. "It was awesome. I had a lot of fun."
But don't be fooled. Hunter wasn't on the field oblivious to the blur of burgundy -- players and coaches shouting, audibling and running – as he stood and observed. He came prepared, which is to say he diagrammed his own hand-drawn defensive play he had been planning to show Barry weeks in advance.
Maybe Barry was expecting a few X's and O's and a line scribbled here and there. Nobody could have anticipated anything more. Instead, he received something closer to the plays in his binder.
"Terrance Knighton goes on a stint and the safety plays deep coverage," Hunter told a few reporters, using his finger as a guide for his diagram. "The other safety drops down and while the corners are playing man, Terrance Knighton takes on two [defenders] while Stephen Paea runs through the middle and he either gets a sack while Junior Galette and Ryan Kerrigan blitz."
Barry was moved.
"I made no promises if I'm putting the play in," he said, entertaining the possibility based on Hunter's scrupulous homework. "It was sound. He had 11 guys. He had everyone's name. Everyone diagrammed. It was impressive."
This type of detail was no surprise to Wendy, who has fostered a football family since he was born. They became affiliated with the Redskins when Hunter was chosen as an NFL Play 60 Super Kid in 2013 for an essay he wrote, giving him the opportunity to attend that year's Super Bowl.
Because of his condition, which requires blood thinners, Hunter isn't allowed to play any contact sports. He remained in high spirits explaining that, as if those impediments have only helped the pivot towards his professional goal.
"I want to be a coach," Hunter said, spoken like the career were an obvious one to peg for a 12 year old.
"He gets really involved with the plays and all the details involved," Wendy said. "I think there's other avenues for him to get into the sport than actually being out there on the field, and he knows that."
That's a ways off though. Hunter is still just a kid, and Sunday, the first time he was cleared to run around by doctors, he looked like one again. He received autographs and spoke to his two favorite players on the team – Robert Griffin III and Ryan Kerrigan – and ran through some training ladders on a side field.
"I think especially now, we've been in camp for four days, it's hot, guys are sore, [you] start feeling sorry for yourself. And then you see a kid like this that has gone through what he's gone through," Barry said. "Our players were great. They embraced him, broke down the huddle defensively. Stories like that are phenomenal."
And it's one the Paulins pray continues for a long time. Wendy admits that Hunter's heart condition can never be fully cured. But no surgeries are planned right now. He's on his feet again, he's smiling and he just fulfilled a promise he never though he would make.
Right now, things are whole again.
"I think as a family, you either come together or it breaks you a part," Wendy said. "And we came together."