The Mystery Man of Alabama

He can't lose. He can dead-lift nearly 600 pounds. He is Russell Wilson, but he is 18 years old. He is Johnny Football with his shoes on fire. If Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts is too good to be true, then, well, who is he?

By Lars Anderson

November 30, 2016

There he goes, the mystery man, striding across a grass field outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium on a Tuesday afternoon in Tuscaloosa. Wearing a light blue collared shirt and jeans, a backpack strapped to his shoulders, he glances left and he glances right, then picks up his pace. This is the gait of someone who has somewhere important to be.

Two Alabama students notice the most famous 18-year-old football player in America—It's him!—and quickly pull out their iPhones to record the sighting. A few seconds later, the students exchange high-fives and my-oh-my looks as the dreadlocked silhouette disappears into the growing autumn shadows. This is their Bigfoot moment.

The mystery man has at once been everywhere and nowhere since August. On Saturdays, he's appeared as the quarterback for the best team in college football, the first true freshman in 32 years to start behind center for Alabama. He's led the top-ranked Crimson Tide to a 12-0 record and a berth in the SEC title game this Saturday in Atlanta. He's already setting school records—on November 12 against Mississippi State, he became the first Alabama quarterback in history to pass for 300 yards and run for 100 in a single game—and he's on the short list of Heisman Trophy contenders.

But every other day of the week, he's been out of public view, unable to speak to the masses because of Nick Saban's ban on true freshmen interacting with the media. Just how unknown is the mystery man of Alabama? Ask Jay Barker, a former Tide quarterback who co-hosts a popular radio show in Birmingham, to name just two facts about him that don't pertain to football, and the 1992 national champion—who is as well-versed in all things 'Bama as anybody—looks at you like it's a math problem.

Jalen Hurts prays before a game against the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium on November 5, 2016, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (USA Today Images)

"Well—hmm!—let me think," Barker says. "I believe his mom just earned her master's degree? Is that right?"

It is. On his Twitter account in May, he posted a picture of himself with his mom, Pamela, a junior high school teacher, at her graduation.

"But honestly," Barker continues, "I don't think anyone really knows a lot about him other than what they see on the field and that he's been winning games."

So who on God's green earth even is Jalen Hurts?

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There he was, bounding across the glowing laptop of Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Tide defensive back's face pressed so close to the screen that his eyes hurt. Fitzpatrick had heard that a quarterback from Texas was going to enroll early at Alabama last January, and he wanted to check out his high school highlights on YouTube.

But it wasn't the quarterback on the field that dazzled him; he knew that Jalen Hurts was going to go viral in the weight room.

"You could tell that he wasn't going to be a typical freshman quarterback," says Fitzpatrick. "He was crazy strong, especially in his lower body. It makes him a powerful runner and he's got great balance. We could see right away he was different—very different."

On January 2, after being on campus for only three hours—he hadn't even finished moving into his dorm room yet—Hurts was already playing the role of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson on the scout team. The Tide were facing the Tigers in the national title game in nine days, and throughout Hurts' first practice, according to several players, he ran around the field like his shoes were on fire, consistently leaving defenders lunging at nothing but air. The performance charged the imaginations of many Alabama veterans, who wondered aloud—Daaaaamn!—what the future might hold for this kid.

"I couldn't believe how calm and relaxed he was in that first practice," says defensive end Jonathan Allen. "He was making guys miss left and right. He was the real deal."

Yet Hurts' actual college playing career had an inauspicious beginning: He fumbled his first snap in the 2016 opener against USC and the Trojans recovered. But as soon as he reached the sideline, he was so stone-faced that a few Alabama players wondered if the freshman even had a pulse.

"It was like he forgot about the fumble a second after it happened," Saban says. Hurts went on to throw two touchdowns and run for two more as the Tide rolled, 52-6.

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Jalen Hurts scrambles out of the pocket during a game against USC on September 3, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Images)

Hurts had reason to be flustered again two weeks later when his true freshman right tackle blew an assignment. An Ole Miss defensive end annihilated Hurts, sacking him and causing a fumble the Rebels ran back for a touchdown. The score put Alabama down 24-3.

How did Hurts respond? He never flinched and wound up throwing for 158 yards and running for 146 more. The Tide won again, 48-43.

Last Saturday in the Iron Bowl against Auburn, Hurts threw two interceptions in the first half, when one receiver ran the wrong way and then two receivers collided. With Alabama's perfect season hanging in the balance, he zigged and zagged for one four-yard touchdown run and then threw a perfect pass for one more. Hurts hasn't lost yet as a college quarterback: Tide 30, Tigers 12.

"I constantly have to remind myself," says former Cleveland Browns general manager and current Alabama radio analyst Phil Savage, "that we're watching an 18-year-old true freshman do all of this."

So who is Jalen Hurts, really? To find the answer, you must travel deep down in oil country, to a dusty town in Texas, where he blossomed into the quarterback Saban now calls "the most mature young person" he's ever known.

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Jalen Hurts reacts after a 33-14 win over Texas A&M at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 22, 2016, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Getty Images)

He used to be here, under the amber of the Friday night lights on this field just east of Houston. One year ago, Jalen Hurts led Channelview High to its first postseason in 22 years, and tonight, the memory of a quarterback unlike any other in school history still haunts the place.

It's homecoming at Channelview, and a mustachioed police officer is standing near the stadium entrance. He eyes the swelling crowd suspiciously and says he never talks to reporters, but he'll suspend his own rule for a story on the young man he wouldn't mind his own daughter marrying.

"This is Texas now, and if someone around here screws up, you will get hammered," the officer says. "I've known Jalen his entire life and I'm telling you, the kid is almost too good to be true. Never once did I ever hear of him not doing the right thing. He never got in any type of trouble. He's respectful, he works hard and he was a leader even when he was young. Ask anyone and they'll tell you the same thing."

John Moore, the Channelview baseball coach, is lugging a bag of bats and balls near the 8,000-capacity stadium. Moore remembers when Jalen was 10 years old and standing on the sidelines of his older brother's football games. Little Jalen would throw a regulation-sized ball over and over again as his father, Averion Hurts, who has been the head football coach at Channelview since 2006, looked on from a field nearby.

Even then, this was a boy who could spin a perfect spiral.

"I constantly have to remind myself that we're watching an 18-year-old true freshman do all of this."


"You could tell Jalen was going to be a special football player," Moore says. "Coach Hurts was always developing his sons and teaching them the game. That's why they both became such smart quarterbacks. They've been studying the game almost their whole lives."

One of Jalen's favorite activities as a child was playing imaginary football in the front yard. Alone and with a ball in his hands, Jalen would juke the family dog and sprint past trees, all the while spinning and eluding invisible defenders. He wanted to be like his big brother, Averion Jr., who is four years older and was Channelview's starting quarterback for two seasons.

(This fall, Averion Hurts Jr. was the starting signal-caller at Texas Southern. As a senior, he threw for 1,857 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 203 yards and three touchdowns.)

"Jalen looked up to his brother, and he wanted to become the best quarterback he possibly could be," says Malcolm Lockett, a journalism teacher at Channelview. "He was as determined as anyone I've ever seen to accomplish that goal."

So he began most mornings in high school by lifting weights with his father around 6 a.m. in Channelview's cramped weight room. Jalen often would lift again in the afternoon. And the results were staggering: At a powerlifting meet in the spring of 2015, he dead-lifted 585 pounds, squatted 570 and benched 275 more. Two springs ago during physical testing at Alabama, it should be noted, nobody on the Tide other than the offensive and defensive linemen squatted more than 555. Jalen was topping that at 16.

In track, he became a district champion at the shot put, an event usually dominated by future heavyweight college wrestlers, not by someone who is currently 6'2", 209 pounds. Oh, and he ran the 200 meters and the 4x200-meter relay, too.

Yet Jalen never acted like his accomplishments were extraordinary. This is the result, those in Channelview say, of being the son of a strong-willed coach who views humility as a kind of 11th commandment.

"Jalen never talked about himself and really just tried to keep to himself most of the time," says Francisco Castaneda, now a sophomore at Channelview. "I played on the freshman football team last year and it was clear to all of us that Jalen outworked everyone. He was our best player and our hardest worker."

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Hailey Walker (left), co-captain of the Channelview cheerleading squad, and Martin Partida, a tuba player in Channelview's marching band. (Courtesy photos)

"There is only one person I really look up to in my life, and that's Jalen," says Martin Partida, a junior at Channelview who plays tuba in the school's marching band. Partida is sitting in the top row of the bleachers watching the first quarter of the homecoming action between Channelview and Sterling High from Baytown, Texas. His face lights up as he discusses his idol.

"Jalen would help me in the weight room and encourage me, getting me to do things I never thought were possible," Partida says.

The Jalen Hurts fan club also includes members of the Channelview cheerleading squad. Hailey Walker, a co-captain, is preparing for her halftime routine—Go Falcons!—when she considers last year's starting quarterback.

"The thing about Jalen is that he remembers everything about you after he meets you just once," she says. "He's really smart and the girls really liked him. We loved his hair. It's just…wild."

Lockett describes Hurts, who was a National Honor Society student, as having "an old soul." During his senior year, Hurts had a free period during the school day. So would he leave campus and grab a bite to eat? Head home for a power nap?

"No, he usually just hung out with a few of us teachers," Lockett says. "We'd talk about anything that wasn't football-related. He has such an inquisitive mind. He's still a kid who likes to have fun—he loves to dance—but he's unbelievably mature. Football to him is not a social club; it's business. That's why I think he's been such a good fit at Alabama and playing for Nick Saban."

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There they were, the father and son sitting side-by-side in their West Virginia living room. Together they would watch hours of eight-millimeter film of the son's high school games. The father critiqued and instructed as the son listened intently, the X's and O's flowing from the coach's mind.

These one-on-one tutorials, which often lasted deep into the night as the pair hunkered down in front of the flickering black-and-white images, would transform the son into one of the top high school players in all of West Virginia. It was the late 1960s, and he was nowhere near the most athletic or the quickest, but this quarterback's football IQ was unmatched.

That's because Nick Saban, the former starting quarterback at Monongah High in West Virginia, is the son of a coach, too. His father, known as Big Nick, coached the Idamay Black Diamonds in their local Pop Warner league. Big Nick pushed his players hard—he always announced the start time for practice but never the ending time—and was a perfectionist. If his only son threw a touchdown pass, Big Nick always had a complaint: The ball didn't travel in a tight enough spiral, or he had failed to look off the safety before unleashing the pass. His chief concern was for his son to maximize his potential. Many of the simple phrases the father repeatedly counseled—Invest your time, don't spend it!—remain in the son's repertoire today.

Jalen Hurts warms up before a game against Tennessee as Alabama head coach Nick Saban watches on October 15, 2016, in Knoxville, Tennessee. (AP Images)

Saban has always wanted another son of a coach to guide his team. Why? "They don't get rattled very easily, for one thing," says Savage, the radio analyst. "Sons of coaches have a depth of knowledge that other players don't have just because they've been around the game their entire life. It's almost like having an extra coach on the field."

Is it possible that Saban sees a bit of himself in his freshman's clinical approach to the game? When this famously serious coach speaks of Hurts, he tends to grow more passionate than usual, even showing off his one and only tell: Saban's face softens, he rubs his eye a little and you can spot the thinnest of smiles.

"Jalen is very self-critical, so when you bring something up to him, it's kind of like, 'I get that,'" Saban says. "Maybe it is because his dad was a coach—I don't really know—but he's one of the easiest guys to manage in that circumstance that I've ever been around at his age."

Saban's vision of his ideal college quarterback came into sharp focus on November 10, 2012. That was the afternoon Johnny Manziel passed for 253 yards and rushed for 92 more in Texas A&M’s 29-24 upset of top-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Ever since that loss, when Manziel improvised his way to two touchdowns and several there-goes-that-man plays, Saban has been searching for a QB who beats defenses with his feet as much as his arm.

Blake Sims was a dual-threat quarterback for Alabama in 2014, but he wasn't a polished passer and he often struggled in zone-read running plays. Enter Hurts, who flourished running the zone read at Channelview as a senior when he rushed for 1,391 yards and 25 touchdowns while throwing for 2,384 yards and 26 touchdowns. ranked him as the seventh-best quarterback in the nation. Saban preaches a simple message—Don't think you have to make something bigger than it is!—in multiple one-on-one conversations with his dream quarterback each week.

"Maybe it is because his dad was a coach—I don't really know—but he's one of the easiest guys to manage in that circumstance that I've ever been around at his age."


"The jump from high school to Alabama is so much bigger than the jump from Alabama to the NFL," says Barrett Jones, a former offensive lineman for the Crimson Tide who the Rams picked in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft and who now plays for the Eagles. "So what Jalen is doing is truly incredible, adjusting to the speed of the SEC. And he's basically learned an entire new language in a few months, because that's what it's like when you're trying to understand the offense at Alabama. I don't know if people understand just how difficult that is."

Hurts is suddenly three games away from achieving something no true freshman starting quarterback has done since Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway in 1985: winning a national championship.

Do you understand now, the mystery of a man who makes the impossible possible?

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There it went, a beautiful long ball spiraling high into the cool southern night. It was November 19, Chattanooga was in town, and Hurts had covered 60 yards in the air, hitting Calvin Ridley's arms perfectly in the end zone. This was the kind of precision rainbow that will be expected of Hurts in the College Football Playoff.

Hurts ran down the field toward Ridley. He didn't pump his fist or even look into the crowd. Once he reached his receiver, Hurts calmly shook Ridley’s right hand—the two looked so professional they could have been completing an aluminum siding transaction—and then he headed straight for Saban, who counseled his young quarterback on what he could have done better on the scoring drive.  

At least one NFL scout already compares Hurts to a young Russell Wilson. "He's got an NFL arm and great escapability, but he's still a work in progress in the passing game," says the NFC scout. "He's the kind of player Bear Bryant would have loved: tough and smart and a total team-first player. The NFL will be watching him closely for the next few years."

After the final whistle blew in Alabama's 31-3 victory over Chattanooga, Hurts spoke to a few players near midfield for about 30 seconds, then turned toward the Alabama locker room. He started to jog. Around him, players from both teams approached for a handshake, but still he cantered on like a man who had somewhere important to be, because 18-year-old Jalen Hurts is a very important man indeed.

He neared the tunnel that would take him into the catacombs of the stadium. Above him, in the front row of the north end zone, a dozen kids clad in crimson shirts chanted his name: Ja-len! Ja-len! Ja-len!

There was still so much that he needed to do on this night—coaches to speak to, film to watch—and the quarterback never raised his gaze. Looking straight ahead, a liquid glimmer of intensity in his eyes, he disappeared into the locker room.

He looked nothing like a freshman. He looked like what he is: a man in full, already.

Lars Anderson is a senior writer at B/R Mag. A 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, Anderson is the New York Times best-selling author of seven books, including The Mannings, The Storm and the Tide and Carlisle vs. Army. Anderson, also an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama, lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, April, and their son, Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsAnderson71

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