Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Jalen Hurts: A Lesson in Character

It has been said that sports don't develop character -- they reveal it. 

Last night, Alabama trailed Georgia at the half.  While the entire team didn't execute well, the focal point of that execution became the Crimson Tide's quarterback, Jalen Hurts.  It just wasn't Hurts who wasn't playing well on offense for the Tide -- his blockers had their mistakes and his receivers had trouble gaining separation.  But Hurts didn't do as well as he normally did, and the Georgia defense did a good job of frustrating Alabama and its running game. 

So, if your running game isn't working, you have to pass the ball.  Well, Hurts isn't known as the best passer in the world, and the Alabama coaches had a decision to make -- stay with the guy who is a team leader and had gotten you this far, or call a huge audible and replace him with a freshman who hadn't played a down of consequence in his career.  That freshman, though, is better at throwing the ball, and the Alabama coaches thought that the change was justified.  We all know what happened afterwards -- the change further cements Nick Saban as a coaching legend, and the freshman substitute had a fairy-tale like game that climaxed with a flawless TD pass on fourth and long at the end of the second overtime to give Alabama its sixth national championship in nine years.  All of that has been written about a lot and many stories will continue to focus on this exciting game and the coaching of Nick Saban.

But suppose you're the quarterback who won 25 games in two years, including a national title as a freshman, played in the national title game last season and then gets benched.  Ironically, his name is Hurts, and there is nothing more than can hurt the psyche of a young man then to be yanked from a game -- the national championship game -- before a live audience of millions of people and with family and friends in attendance.  Yes, that has to hurt.  Young men could get angry, feel frustrated, humiliated, disappointed, upset that they were not getting a chance to redeem themselves, could question themselves, their coach's loyalty to them, the fairness of it all and whatever other emotions could boil over at such a critical juncture in their lives.

Jalen Hurts didn't.  He remained engaged on the sideline.  He remained supportive of this team and very much encouraged his back-up and gave pointers about different coverages.  Jalen Hurts did not play the role of the wounded turtle and retreat to his shell.  He stood tall, summoned the strength and emotional fortitude to know that he is part of a team and something bigger than himself, that a starting position is not an entitlement, and a whole bunch of other thoughts and emotions that went into the algorithm in his head that instructed him, "you are a leader, you have been a leader on this team, your team needs you to continue to lead, especially when the team is behind.  Stand tall, be supportive and continue to lead.  You might not be the quarterback on the field right now, but you are still a leader."

Alabama could have wilted after the half or after it found itself down 20-7 with six minutes and change left to go in the third quarter.  But the Crimson Tide had one more high tide left in them and kept finding the energy and determination to overcome disappointments within the game (an interception tossed by the back-up, a missed field goal at the end of regulation that would have won the game for them) to win the game. 

Jalen Hurts, the quarterback, was not on the field for almost all of that time, save one play where he ran the ball to set up the field goal attempt at the end of regulation.  Jalen Hurts, the leader, was all over that field in spirit, helping his team win in any way he could.  Sure, Jalen Hurts did not throw the game-winning touchdown pass, but he emerged a winner in multiple ways last night -- as a person of tremendous character, and with his second national championship ring.  Okay, so he didn't play at his best level last night, but it would be hard to imagine that he ever has led any better or revealed aspects of his character any better than he did last night.

Alabama wins for a reason.  Sure, the Tide can recruit with the best of them.  Other schools recruit well too.  But it's the culture of maturity and accountability that distinguishes the Crimson Tide from any other program out there.  The Tide have about eight players who will leave early and get selected in the early rounds of the NFL draft.  Jalen Hurts will not be one of them, and it's unclear right now what his future in football will be -- as a quarterback at Alabama, as a quarterback somewhere else or playing another position at Alabama.  And most people will not remember how he took his disappointment on Monday night; they will remember how his back-up -- a freshman from Hawaii -- took over in the second half and helped lead the team to victory.  But deep down, the person to whom Jalen Hurts has to answer -- himself -- should know that how he acted last night was extraordinary.

It's fun to watch exciting games with theatrics, lead changes and dramatic endings.  It's even more rewarding to watch them when you see young men dig deep and reveal a part of themselves that is truly amazing.  Jalen Hurts did that last night, and the Alabama nation should be thankful for it.

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