PHILADELPHIA — By Jan. 8, 2018, Nick Saban had coached Alabama to four national championships, fully understanding that football was a ruthless game requiring remorseless decisions. On this night, he would make one of his most uncompromising.
A chance at a fifth title was slipping away at halftime. He decided to bench his star quarterback, Jalen Hurts, who was 26-2 as a starter and had led the Crimson Tide to two national championship games in his first two college seasons.
What followed was victory for Alabama and discordant feelings of celebration and staggering disappointment for Hurts. He later cried in his hotel room. But the public would not see this vulnerable side of him. Hurts cheered on the sideline instead of sulking. He never complained publicly. Nor did he leave immediately for another school, as many players surely would have done.
Instead, he forged his discouragement over that national championship game into resolve and came to describe the benching and his response as the game that “made me who I am.”
“I think it put on a pedestal who I was as a person,” Hurts, 24, said in an interview. “I don’t think it made me, technically, but I think it put on a pedestal the character that I was raised with. My father and my mother raised me to be a determined young man, a respectful young man, a man of character. I think in that moment, it was on display.”
This year, in his breakout N.F.L. season, Hurts has guided Philadelphia to a 13-1 record while becoming a favorite to win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award with his resourcefulness in the Eagles’ run-pass-option offense, studiousness, quiet but ravenous determination, unflappability, patience and resilience.
By many accounts, those traits were honed by his response to that dispiriting benching in the 2018 national title game and a restorative, affirming Southeastern Conference championship victory that Hurts rescued for Alabama 11 months later.
“I think those games were very important to who he is now,” said the Heisman Trophy-winning receiver DeVonta Smith, a teammate of Hurts’s at Alabama and with the Eagles. “He’s got that hunger. He comes in every day like he’s still trying to win the job.”
Eagles receiver A.J. Brown, perhaps Hurts’s closest friend, said his experiences at Alabama shaped him for what Brown called the “grimy business” of the N.F.L., where teams are “always trying to get somebody younger and faster.”
“He’s always fighting through adversity,” Brown said. “That’s who he is. It shows how he was raised. He’s always been calm, cool, collected.”
All athletic careers are built from numerous foundational experiences. Two influences seem particularly seminal for Hurts. At Channelview High School outside Houston, he was coached by his father, Averion Hurts Sr. Football served as day care for Jalen and his older brother, Averion Jr., who spent their summers and autumns at the school stadium and field house, first as ball boys then as quarterbacks. They learned a kind of stoicism, absorbing the admonition not to get too high or too low, to “keep the main thing the main thing.”
Also, Hurts acknowledges that the adversity he navigated at Alabama remains essential to the player he has become. He said he was “born for the storm and built to overcome anything in front of me.”
‘What do we do now?’
In the decisive game of the 2018 college football playoffs, held that January to determine the 2017 national champion, Alabama trailed Georgia, 13-0, at halftime at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Hurts had completed 3 of 8 passes for 21 meager yards.
Averion Hurts Sr., 54, measuring the game as a father and a coach, had a hunch.
He told Averion Jr., 28, a high school coach in Houston, “They’re going to pull him. I would.”
Saban decided to replace Hurts, a sophomore, with the freshman Tua Tagovailoa. The Crimson Tide needed more robust passing. Saban felt Tagovailova could better provide it.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” Saban told Hurts in the locker room. “But if we’re going to win this game, I think we might have to do it a different way.”
Having heard from his father countless lessons about being a selfless teammate, about the need for competition, about how respecting the game required an acceptance of its elation and dejection, Hurts swallowed his fizzing hurt and dismay. He stood on the sideline, rooting for Tagovailoa, telling him, “Ball. Play your game. Ball.”
Alabama recovered as Tagovailoa threw three touchdown passes. A perfect, arcing spiral from 41 yards to Smith in overtime gave the Crimson Tide a 26-23 victory. Hurts ran onto the field and hugged Tagovailoa.
Hurts smiled into an ESPN camera and congratulated Tagovailoa, saying, “He’s built for stuff like this. He’s got that ‘it’ factor. I’m so happy for him, happy for this team.” Asked how it felt to be a national champion, Hurts said, “It’s unbelievable. I dreamed about this.”
Despite the graciousness Hurts showed toward Tagovailoa, he experienced a stinging contradiction: He had just won a championship ring and felt joyous but, his father said, also pained, embarrassed.
When Hurts returned to his hotel room, he seemed fine then went into the bathroom and began crying.
“What are we going to do now?” he asked his father, who replied, “We don’t have any choice. We’ve got to fight.”
He had arrived at Alabama in 2016 as serious and precise about football as he was about his recipes for boiled crawfish and gumbo (always roux, never tomatoes), and had led the team to the cusp of a title.
But now Hurts had been replaced by Tagovailoa. It had been a complicated season. After a loss to Alabama’s archrival, Auburn, Hurts endured racial slurs, his father said. He had to change his phone number.
“That quickly, it’s like, OK, these people don’t love you,” Averion Hurts Sr. said. “They just love what you do when it makes them feel good.”
There were career decisions to make. Hurts could transfer to another school, but because he was an undergraduate, he would have to sit out for a season under prepandemic rules. He wanted to get his degree from Alabama. Saban offered the possibility that Hurts could regain his starting job. So he stayed.
“Competition has always been very important to me,” Hurts said.
But as Alabama’s 2018 regular season opened, Saban named Tagovailoa as Alabama’s starter. Hurts walked to the office of Mike Locksley, then Alabama’s offensive coordinator and now Maryland’s head coach. It was the first time that Locksley had seen him show any real emotion.
“I was 26-2 as a starter and now I’m not the starter anymore,” Locksley recalled Hurts saying, tears in his eyes. “What do I tell people? How do I explain this? How do I walk around campus?”
Locksley felt at a loss to comfort Hurts, telling him, “Compete and let life it run its natural course. It usually rights itself in some way.”
‘This is your time.’
On Dec. 1, 2018, in the SEC championship game, nearly 11 months after being benched, Hurts found his redemptive moment against the same opponent, Georgia, in the same venue, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Through that season, Hurts had dutifully honed his passing technique as a backup, understandably frustrated but fully grasping the nature of the business as the son of a coach, Locksley said. “He didn’t like it but he respected it.”
As they rode a team bus to the stadium, Locksley said, Hurts asked him presciently, “What if the roles are reversed today? Get me in.”
With just over 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and Alabama trailing by 28-21, Tagovailoa left the game after one of his own linemen stepped on his right ankle.
As Hurts entered, Saban told him, “This is your time.”
Locksley, upstairs in the coaches’ box, asked Hurts what kind of plays he preferred near Georgia’s goal line.
“Give me some of that Brees stuff,” Hurts replied, referring to Drew Brees, then the New Orleans Saints quarterback, and using a spicier word than stuff.
Hurts threw a 10-yard touchdown pass and then the extra point tied the score. Then, with 1 minute 4 seconds remaining, Locksley deviated from the game plan and called for a quarterback draw. Hurts ran 15 yards to the end zone, crossing the goal line for a 35-28 victory and powering through a defender who tried to wrangle him down by the neck.
It was not unlike the times when Hurts ran through the yard as a boy, playing imaginary football games, juking past trees, his sister, the family dog. Alabama was returning to the College Football Playoff, headed toward a fourth consecutive national championship game.
Later, Hurts said to Locksley, “I told you, all they had to do was give me a chance.”
“It was on display who I was, what I stood for,” Hurts said of the comeback victory. “For me, it was no surprise.”
Having received his degree in communications with a season of N.C.A.A. eligibility remaining, and still behind Tagovailoa on the depth chart, Hurts transferred to Oklahoma in 2019 to secure playing time ahead of the 2020 N.F.L. draft. He thrived in a wide-open passing attack and finished second in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy behind Louisiana State’s Joe Burrow. He told reporters he had become “wiser, better, stronger” during his career at Alabama.
‘This guy is steady no matter what the situation.’
When Philadelphia selected Hurts in the second round of the 2020 draft, familiar questions arose: Could he throw accurately enough and read coverages sufficiently to be a franchise quarterback? Even after Hurts supplanted Carson Wentz late in his rookie season, then played a full season as the Eagles’ starter in 2021, team officials seemingly remained unconvinced.
Last off-season, Philadelphia reportedly explored acquiring two other quarterbacks, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson. Watson and Wilson have not recaptured their former standing, while the Eagles have gone all in with Hurts, added Brown from Tennessee before the season and built a Super Bowl-aspiring team with the best record in the N.F.L. Though the right-handed Hurts sprained his throwing shoulder in Week 15 he is still expected to be ready to lead the Eagles through the end of the regular season and in the playoffs.
Importantly, Hurts is playing in the same offensive system for a second consecutive year, a luxury of continuity he has not had since high school.
“Because of what he went through at Alabama, he knew how to keep his head up, keep grinding,” Locksley said. “That was very beneficial to where he is today.”
In the SEC, Hurts played in many stadiums with larger capacities than N.F.L. stadiums, before fans who were just as obsessed as Eagles fans, facing scrutiny that was just as intense, perhaps especially in a state like Alabama where there are no professional teams to divert rooting passions.
“He’s built for the journey, no question,” Averion Hurts Sr. said. “He’s come through everything. He’s never been stuck in the storm. He’s gone through the storm.”
On Nov. 20, as Philadelphia trailed Indianapolis by 10 points in the fourth quarter, Eagles Coach Nick Sirianni told Hurts, “Be who you are.”
“I got you,” the unruffled Hurts replied.
The Eagles rallied for a 17-16 victory as Hurts threw a 22-yard touchdown pass and ran to the end zone on an 8-yard quarterback draw, long-jumping across the goal line.
“It smacks you in the face every day like, man, this guy is steady no matter what the situation,” Sirianni said.
Yet, beneath that unflustered exterior, Brown said after Philadelphia defeated Green Bay on Nov. 27, Hurts still seems to be trying to “prove doubters wrong.”
“He always has a chip on his shoulder,” Brown said. “I’m talking about like a big chip on his shoulder.”
Hurts has since acknowledged, “I carry my scars with me everywhere I go. I don’t forget.”