This is far from Hunter McKnight's first Survivor season. That's because the science teacher has spent years out in the literal field, constructing challenges and running Tribal Council with his own students as contestants. He hopes that knowledge, as well as experience and enthusiasm for the outdoors, will endear him quickly to his tribe. But will the 28-year-old be able to form some chemistry with someone who can be the brains to his brawn, or will biology take a turn, and the challenge predator winds up prey?
Read on for my interview with Hunter, and check in with Parade.com daily for interviews with this season's contestants and other tidbits. Survivor 46 premieres on February 28 with a two-hour premiere on CBS.
Related: Meet the Full Cast of Survivor 46
Interview with Hunter from Survivor 46
To start, give me your name, age, and occupation.
My name is Hunter McKnight. I'm 27 years old, and I'm a high school science teacher. Chemistry, human A&P. And I teach some digital media as well, but that's not really science.
Is Survivor something you've always wanted to do?
I actually wasn't even introduced to Survivor until I was a senior in college. I grew up. Growing up, I saw the show. I was like, "Oh, that seems really interesting." But it was reality TV, and my family was like," No, we're not going to do reality TV." Keeping Up With The Kardashians and stuff like that did not set a good precedent for [it]. [Laughs.] But whenever I saw it in college, my roommate was really into it. And so he played it for me. I instantly fell in love. And so he went back, because he was watching the live show. We watched all of season 28. Obviously, that's a great one to get you really hooked on it. And so then I fell in love with it. And I was going to be a doctor–this is a lot of stuff for you…
No, please! I actually want to get into that because I read in your io you were on the path to becoming a doctor, but then you decided to take your talents to the classroom.
Yeah, the more lucrative job of the two! [Laughs.] So I graduated semester early from college. And that was my fall semester of my senior year when I got introduced to it. When I graduated, I got to come to my hometown, and my sister was going on maternity leave. So I got to sub for her in the classroom, so I had the opportunity to really do that. And I was like, "Hey, I love Survivor." I've been a program director at a camp, and I said, "I want to do this with the kids before I go to medical school in the fall."
I ended up really loving getting to serve the kids and getting to do Survivor with the kids. And I was like, "Okay, it's obvious this is something that's just a lot of fun." I love being able to see kids and their highs and their lows. When you're a doctor, you only see them when they're sick. And they don't want to see you very long, and they only want to see you if they're sick. It just seemed like it fit more. I felt like the Lord was leading me that way. And so I had a full ride. I had direct admissions. I had all those things lined out, but ended up going a different way.
How do you think your students will feel about Mr. McKnight getting to play Survivor?
They don't know. They're gonna freak out. I couldn't tell. It's a small town; it would spread pretty fast. But that's pretty hush-hush. I can tell they're gonna lose their minds. I mean, I can only imagine. I want to tell them so bad because they would I would like to see the preemptive. But now they don't know yet.
You mentioned you came into Survivor with Cagayan. Did you end up instantly watching a bunch of seasons after that?
Oh yeah. We binge-watched it. Survivor was almost the reason I didn't have a 4.0 in college. We were taking gross anatomy during that time. You cut up dead bodies or whatever, a very intensive class. But we're in the lab cutting up bodies; then we're coming home and watching Survivor. [Laughs.] So I've watched through all that I can get my hands on. Then, whenever I had graduated and had all that free time that semester, I watched while making stuff to do with the kids.
To that point, give me a winner and non-winner you identify with the most.
I'll give you two. I'm gonna mix J.T. and Tyson. I can never say that I'm going to be like Tyson, but I really appreciate how he plays. He's able to make great relationships, but still play the game and still have fun while doing it. And he takes everything so lightheartedly. And that's pretty fun. I like that about him. J.T., he's just got the Southern in him, so I've got to relate to that. And so, put those two together, and that's what I'm trying to be.
I'm curious about that. Do you plan on playing up being from the South at all, considering how people usually stereotype Southerners as warm and friendly?
Well, I don't think I have a really big accent. And maybe you're like, "You do." I use "y'all," and I say stuff like that. It's not as sweet as J.T.'s. Yeah, no, I plan to play that up. I don't plan to advertise that I was going to medical school or that I've done this with the kids. I love being outside; I love camping. I'm gonna let that really show because I think that's some Southern attributes I think are worth it.
What's your favorite moment in Survivor history?
One of my favorite moments was Tyson coaching Coach not to wear his feathers to Tribal. It's just such a funny moment. Sometimes, I just go back and watch that one because it's so classic. It's just hilarious to watch. And you see Tyson genuinely cares for Coach in this. But he's hilarious in the way that he's sharing it. [Laughs.]
What's one life experience you feel has prepared you most for the game?
Well, it's so hard to say, because how does somebody get prepared for this? It's so different, and it's always changing. But where I teach is a little bit different than a regular high school. It's a boarding school, and kids come from all over the country. It's a small Christian boarding school for kids from broken backgrounds. So maybe their parents are incarcerated or have problems with drugs, or maybe the kids have had trouble or stuff like that. And so they come into my classroom. I've had kids from China and India in my classroom before. So it's really like a weird melting pot in the middle of Mississippi.
And these kids already have trust issues. The adults in their lives haven't really been great role models for him. So why should they trust me now? And I'm trying to say, "Hey, I know chemistry isn't gonna change your life. But it's important to do your best in everything that you do." And so I don't know if you'll find a more similar environment to what you'd find on Survivor. But I know in my classroom, I have people who are hungry, sleep deprived, tired, don't know each other, and generally just don't trust one another. And I get to convince them, "Hey, let's talk about atoms and what they do." And so sometimes it works. And sometimes it doesn't. But I learned very, very early on that if you want to be successful with teaching–which is influencing kids' lives–you have to listen to them first. And so you have to get to know people. And I want to implement that. Some of them want to talk about themselves, but I want to hear from them. [Laughs.]
How much are you playing with the ghost of Ron Clark over your shoulder? Do you have that similar sense of vitality you're going to bring to the show?
Yeah, I think there are a lot of attributes. If you're like, "I'm a doctor, so I'm gonna be good at this game now." Because patients want to live, they're gonna listen to you. Lawyers are like, "I've got this in a bag." Yeah, of course, your clients listen to what you say because you hold a lot in your hand. Teachers, the kids don't care. Have you been in a classroom recently? They're not worried about it. And so to have the ability to sway a classroom, I think, holds a lot of weight in a game like this. Not that I do it perfectly. Sometimes you flop, but that's when you learn.
In terms of preparation, I read that you build challenges. Is this for that Survivor camp you were talking about earlier?
So I do a Survivor with the kids. Like I put on. And, during COVID, you get the stimulus check money. I used it to buy a CNC machine, which cuts out puzzles. So I was able to build stuff very similar.
Wow, you did it before Carson ever could!
[Laughs.] Well, I didn't think to use a 3D printer. But a 3D printer would print them so small. Mine are pretty close to the right size. And so, during COVID, I had a lot of time, and I love being outside. And so I clear-cut a whole field and built challenges and stuff. I've got a Tribal Council tree house with rope bridges and stuff.
Listen, if you don't win this, a spot may open for you in the art department.
[Laughs.] I would go off on a tangent on that. But it's different than Carson. I think Carson's was for the intention of training. Mine was more doing it for the kids. I've practiced on them. The Final Five puzzle that they just did [in season 44], I had just built that for the kids to do in our last one that we did. So, yeah, I've built a few of them. But I know you can only practice so much. If it's a puzzle, that helps. But in terms of the other 70% of it, I don't know that I could have really.
What about some of those more dexterity-based challenges? We saw Matthew in 44 aces that snake maze by building it in his garage. Have you built those for the kids?
Yeah, I've built some of those. It's not necessarily the snake; I had the one with the holes. I mean, whenever I do Survivor with the kids, I realize there are different components that they mash together. There's a balance part. There's a pushing something heavy part. There's carrying different stuff. And so I've mixed all those in. And, of course, whenever I'm building it, I'm just like, "Oh, let's see how hard it is for me to run across." I'm pretty good at balance. I don't know; I get carsick really easy. So maybe my inner ear's messed up too large or something. But yeah, I practice those different things just for fun.
Do you realize you essentially produced the teenage version of Survivor Jeff has wanted the last few years?
[Laughs] I know! Whenever he was announcing having a teenage version of Survivor, I was like, "I don't know, man. They're kind of emotional. Kind of a mess." But yeah, we'll take them out for a week. And I really want them to compete in this during the summer. So that's the incentive. And so it's like, "Look, I'll give like $1,000 to whoever wins." I make $27,000 a year. So it's not like I make a lot. I wanted them to play really well. We were coming from COVID. There was a lot of hype. I'm like, "I'm giving them $1,000." When the people in charge of school found out I was doing too much, they were like, "Whoa, wait a minute." [Laughs.]
So, have you picked up on anything from watching the kids play that you plan to bring into the game?
Well, I think so. And what's funny is we do our Instagram Live when we do our Tribals because the parents want to watch. The thing about Instagram Live is people can comment on it. And so all the moms are just typing away. They're all yelling at each other. [Laughs.] Like, "I'll see you later." [Laughs.] But I love to ask leading questions to get to the thing. And that makes the moms so mad, like, "Don't try to ruin their game."
To give you an example, the way I do it, to give you an idea, it doesn't end in a vote. Because it's high school, they're just gonna vote for their friends. So what they're gonna do is, as they get voted out, they can award advantages in the final challenge to somebody. And so it's a way [where] you have to be nice to people as you've got them out, but also it gives people who have played well an advantage. But I knew that the guys would get voted out early because since it's challenge-based, let's get rid of all the challenge people because that's what's gonna be most threatening. And so I had incorporated where they had these "duel tokens." And if you get voted out, you can play your "duel token"--you only get one–and you have to battle against the person who got the second-highest number of votes.
Jeff, don't listen to this part, please. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Yeah, no more of that kind of stuff. But the kids were just listening to the senior boys. And it drove me crazy, because I want to see all the kids successful. I built this into it to help them. Now y'all need to do what y'all need to do and vote them out! It was like five boys to three girls, and the girls kept going out one by one. I was like, "Alright, let's talk about this. What is your plan here?" But the parents of the boys did not like it. But it happens.
How do you think you'll be perceived in this game?
I know how I want to be perceived. Apparently, I'm one of the bigger guys out here, which I didn't expect to be. I didn't expect to be because, in my normal life, I coach. And so I'm surrounded by lots of other pretty big guys. And so I didn't think that I would be perceived as that. But all of a sudden, now that seems like how I'll come across. But I'm fine with that. I just really want to sell that I'm here to have a good time. I'll be fine being labeled as kind of like a meathead, doesn't understand the strategy a whole lot. Just go with the flow, has a good time, wants to climb the coconut trees and build cool shelters. That's what I want to be perceived as.
Is there a point where that perception is going to change?
Yeah. And even if that is a final Tribal Council reveal of what I do, how my life has shifted, and everything I am. Really, up until that point, you don't wanna flame out too early. There's a balance there. I have to do some finagling early in the game. I don't want to be the one to be pushing pretty hard. But I know that at least the pattern is people who aren't seen as challenge threats go off pretty early. But then right when the merge hits, it's like boom, boom, boom, it's open season on me. And so that's where I've got to somehow work that to where, even if it is open season on people that are perceived like me, there's more of us. I've got to make sure that there's a larger group of us. And then, from there, really try to take control.
What qualities are you looking for in a number one ally?
Well, there's a guy with a Mississippi tattoo on his arm. There's never been a guy from Mississippi play, and it looks like there's gonna be two on this. So I'm like, "We've got to work together!" He had he had an Ole Miss backpack on. I was like, "Okay, he could play for Ole Miss." But then he had the tattoo on his arm. But there's no way [he's on my tribe]. Because, if I was to pick, I guess he's the other big guy. There's no way we're on the same tribe. And so I was like, "I gotta hope he survives so I can work with him!" But yeah, I would love to have that. And I think if I can sell the "I just need somebody to help me with his strategy, and let me help you with the challenges, then we can maybe work together" and I can get that perception out there.
Are you not afraid to let Mississippi blood run through the streets? Would you be able to cut a number one ally if it came to it?
Yes. But I want to be the J.T. in the J.T. and Stephen. I want to bring the Mississippi to the end and just have a better shot at him. Not that again. If QB–I think those are his initials–is getting a lot of love, it's time to go. I'm sorry, but you gotta go. And what's nice is if that's the perception, then lots of people will be on board for that. And so it's an easy out, then. But if I'm the one on the lead, then I really got to hold tight to the Mississippi boy so that we can stick together. But he may not even have that desire at all to stick together.
Are there any other good vibes you're picking up from people preseason?
There's a girl who kind of looks like a younger version of Natalie. And it's so weird, like, how do you get good vibes? But you do. She seems to find things that are funny, similar to what I do. The girl with red hair and tattoos, she seems pretty cool. I like the vibe she's given off. There was one girl that I wasn't quite sure about. I feel bad talking about her. But it was only because she had sweatpants on that were *NSYNC. And I'm not sure of all the *NSYNC stuff. But it said, "No man, no cares." And I'm like, "Well, I'm a man." [Laughs.]
I don't know if I like that. Does that mean you don't want the man? So I was like, "I don't know about you!" So, I'm keeping an eye on her. But then I realized she's the only other left-handed person I've seen. So I'm like, "Maybe I can overlook the differences." We get to the beach, and I gotta find something to connect with you on. There's a guy with a Team USA bag, which is a weird flex. You couldn't pack something else? So we just have to know you're really good at something? [Laughs.] On a global level, you really are obviously good at something. We just have to guess what it is. So it's weird, that's threatening. That's the kind of people I need there. Because when the open season starts, now there's a college athlete here. There's Team USA over there. Let's not look at Hunter. [Laughs.]
Related: Everything to Know About Survivor 46
Let's say a boat shows up at your camp on Day 2, asking one person to go on a journey. How would you approach the situation?
I don't think I go on that. I'm not trying to hype myself up like, "Oh, look at me. I'm a great Survivor player." But I think people who can be dubbed challenge threats so quickly should not be overdoing it in pursuing other things. I will note, if we do the random draw, that's great. And it'd be awesome if I can go. But I know for my game, I think it may be kind of detrimental. But that's just a perception. And that's subject to change whenever we get out there.
On that note, how much do you plan on incorporating advantages into your game?
I would love to find some. But I'm not going to jeopardize my game to seek it out. The real pieces in the game aren't the advantages. It's the people. So if I can keep in good graces with them, then we'll be good to go, I hope.
How tough is it to juggle that, though? Considering the new era means there's a chance someone may have something that you don't. But that might even be fake!
That's the thing. You can't even get excited anymore. It's like, "I've got an idol, maybe. I don't know." And so, with so many tricks and turns like that, It's weird. I think we're actually getting back to just have to trust the relationships, and that's what it's got to be. I mean the people with the fake idols, nobody even used it last time. They just ended up going out. And the ones with the real idols, only a couple of them actually were played correctly. So what does an idol do other than get a target on your back? And I mean, did anybody use it on yourself to save themselves? Brandon did at the very beginning. Heidi didn't use it successfully. Carolyn used it for Carson, and it wasn't really used successfully. And so what advantage are these bringing?
Let's talk decision-making. Is there a typical process to go by when you try to make an important choice in your life.
That's an interesting one. I don't really know, I usually spend some time thinking thinking about it. I'm trying to think of a big decision I've made recently and how I went with it. I usually go with the flow of it. If that is how it feels like it needs to go, then that's what we're doing. So you can work things out and finagle things to make it go your way. But in terms of just making decisions, I think I will take a step back and kind of check it out, but then dive right into it.
Is there a decision you remember watching from Survivor seasons past that you lamented?
Flashback all the way to my first experience with Survivor. I was watching Blood vs. Water that Tyson won. Now I'm a big Tyson fan. I was not a Tyson fan then, because I didn't know how the game worked. He just seemed so mean, but I realize he's hilarious. Also, that season is not the funniest Tyson season. It's the previous one. But I remember getting so annoyed at them for not trying harder on Monica. Whenever Tyson and Gervase sit out and Monica chooses to compete in the whole challenge. I was like, "Why?" And I was pointing out the obvious fact that there's a difference in you and thenl. It was probably misplaced. Again, it was early. But I remember taking my hat and throwing it on the ground and being like, "What are you doing?" And my roommate's like, "Bro, you need to calm down. It's not that serious."
Oh, and another one. I can't remember, one of the girls that frustrated me is when Dom and Wendell went to the end. She drove me crazy. It was like, "Do something! You're not gonna win this." It infuriated me. Props to Wendell and Dom for playing the way they did. But like that drove me crazy. I play to win. That's what I want to see. And you were not playing.
What's your hottest Survivor take?
I believe that Natalie deserved to be Russell. I know there's a lot of controversy there. But she played the game to win. I don't know how hot of a take that is. But when I went back and recently rewatched it. When I first watched, I was like, 'Oh, Russell did a lot of it." Looking back at how Natalie handled relationships and really played the game. That first vote against Erik was all her. That was the vote that had to happen to open up the rest of it. And then he goes to final Tribal Council and talks for her! Hypes her up. So, after rewatching it, I was like, "Oh yeah, Natalie's legit."
What celebrity or fictional character would you want to come out for a Loved Ones visit?
I actually joked about this. Whenever they're asking us our favorite celebrities, I said my favorite actors and actresses are Selena Gomez and Jennifer Lawrence. And I was like, "If you could bring them out on the family visit, that'd be great." [Laughs.] But I don't know if that's actually my answer. See, I like to really think about these kind of ones. So maybe I'm not a "fly by the seat of my pants" kind of guy that I thought! I don't know, who's a fun person? Tyson would be fun. It would be fun to meet him.
That makes sense. You begin with Tyson, and you end with Tyson.
[Laughs.] Plus, maybe get some advice in there. It would not be John Cochran; I can tell you that much.
I don't know, that whole like "go out and visit with John Cochran" was kind of a weird thing to me. Did you hear about what season 41 was gonna be?
Yes! With Rick Devens and the Trading Post.
I was like, "...oh. Okay, man. That's interesting."
Alright, come on out, Rick!
[Laughs.] I'm so sorry. I was about to say it's a great idea!
Finally, what's your emotional cocktail right now? How are you feeling as the big day gets closer and closer?
It's weird. I was thinking about this on our boat right over here. And I was like, "I do not wanna get voted out first. I do not want to get voted out early. I want to make it pretty far." But you're asking for more difficulty. The longer you stay, the harder it is gonna get. And I was like, "Okay, well, let's do it." This is all fun. But this is not me, being confined and the cameras. I want to get on that beach, and I want to build a shelter. I want to climb a coconut tree. I want to swim. I want to meet the people.
That's one of the hardest things that I'm realizing: When people share experiences, it's bonding. And we've shared a lot of experiences, but the bonding hasn't happened because you haven't talked about it now. They got to sleep in these tents that have sat on top of a hill in the sun for eight hours. And so get in there, and it's like an oven. And you're like, "Oh, my goodness. Can we get some air in here? It'd be better to sleep out there!" Which is just funny. You can laugh about it. Or the plane ride or boat ride over here. And so I want I want to start sharing experiences with these people. And so I'm just ready to get started. I'm excited.