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Rodney Gunter's persistence leads to role on Cardinals' D-line

Rodney Gunter made a splash in his first game action in an NFL uniform, sacking Chiefs backup Aaron Murray for a safety in the Arizona Cardinals' preseason opener on Aug. 15.

The rookie's next sack came 99 days later, on Nov. 22, in Arizona's Week 11 win over the Bengals.

That's a long time between sacks for someone who led Delaware State in that category in each of his final three college seasons. But Gunter -- who'll have a chance to get another this week on "Thursday Night Football," when the Cards take on a Vikings team that has surrendered 35 sacks, seventh-most in the NFL -- knows greatness takes persistence. It's what defined his road to Arizona and what will ultimately give him the opportunity to become a sack-happy nose tackle in the NFL.

While Gunter was growing up in Florida, the odds were against him. He played just one season in high school, because he worked 32 hours a week to help support his single-parent family. But even when he wasn't part of a team, he stayed determined.

"Despite me not playing three years, I still had that belief that I was going to play football after high school and going to the NFL," he said in an interview last month. "It was a great feeling to finally be able to play. I felt like my dream was still on a roll."

Gunter's path led him north, to Delaware State -- the only school to offer him a football scholarship. There, he was a four-year starter and totaled 188 tackles, leading the Hornets in sacks in each of his final three seasons. Despite his efforts, he wasn't ranked by the NFL's main scouting services and wasn't invited to participate in the NFL Scouting Combine.

That didn't squash his spirit, though.

"I was determined," Gunter said. "Every workout, tryout, interview, everything; I gave it my all and wanted to make an impression. The first impression is how every person will remember you. I was determined to have a great outcome and feedback from teams."

And when he was granted a private workout by Cardinals vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough and general manager Steve Keim, Gunter left an impression -- a good one. Arizona defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, who conducted the workout on a field between an orchard and a graveyard near Haines City, Florida -- where Gunter went to high school -- was so impressed with Gunter that the Cardinals moved up in the fourth round of the draft to select him.

"That feeling was unbelievable," said a humble Gunter, who was the first non-combine invitee selected in the 2015 NFL Draft. "When I got drafted and took that phone call, I was in shock for a couple of minutes and I passed out. My family told me it was true."

The opportunity to play for the Cardinals is something Gunter hasn't let pass by. When sixth-year pro Corey Peterswent down with a torn ACL in August, Arizona called on Gunter. He's filled the void and soaked up every bit of advice his fellow defensive linemen have had to offer.

"All the veterans on the D-line give me guidance," Gunter said. "As far as mentors, I look to Frostee Rucker and Calais Campbell. They also teach me to be a professional off the field. I tip my hat to those guys because they've been doing this a long time."

Gunter is just one member of the Cardinals' fourth-ranked defense. Having recorded 10 tackles and one sack in 12 regular-season games -- nine of which he's started -- Gunter knows he's going to continue to get better.

"My day, my time is coming to have a breakout game and season," he said. "Right now, you know, I'm learning from the veterans and getting better. I'm trying to perfect my craft."

And with his ever-constant persistence, there's little reason to doubt him.

Follow Brooke Cersosimo on Twitter @BCersosimo.

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