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Roll Payback: Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and the Weight of a Dynasty

As the first true freshman quarterback to start under Nick Saban, Hurts won every game until the one that mattered most. Now back in the playoff facing down a rematch with Clemson, he knows that he’s a symbol for many, but that he can’t succeed unless he remains true to himself.

Jalen Hurts Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Cindy Dugar was wary. While at dinner last December at a Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen on the east side of Houston, a stranger approached her and her grandson at their table and asked him for a picture. Dugar, the grandson remembers, protested: “Well, he’s out with his grandma …”

Her grandson understood her hesitation. He’d earned a high profile locally while playing quarterback at Channelview High in the largest division of Texas high school football, but not the national recognizability that now seemed to regularly encroach on his private life. He’d learned quickly that not even the Friday Night Lights fame of Texas ball compared with where he played now. There’s an old joke in Alabama that seemingly everyone tells, and that seemingly everyone acknowledges isn’t really a joke: The three most important people in the state are the Crimson Tide quarterback, the Crimson Tide coach, and the governor, in that order.

Last season, Dugar’s grandson became the first true freshman quarterback to start under Nick Saban — the first, in fact, to start in 32 years for Alabama, stepping into a small and passionate universe that parallels and co-opts the national college football scene that the Crimson Tide so regularly dominate. At 18, Jalen Hurts became a cultural touchstone for Tide fans.

“Most people live ordinary lives,” says writer Gay Talese, an Alabama alum. “Most people are hard-working people who struggle to make a living, who don’t get any credit for doing a good job. Most of them are anonymous. Most of them never get a chance to make a speech. … The Alabama football quarterback becomes a symbol of hope and finesse. He fills in the blanks in our lives. He gives us something to cheer about, to live for, to identify with, like a great leader in wartime.”

At Pappadeaux, Hurts calmed his grandmother and posed for the picture with the inquiring fan. Recounting this story in mid-November while sitting in a leather chair at a long, wooden conference table at the Crimson Tide football complex, Hurts grins uncharacteristically as he reflects on the conversation he had with his grandmother nearly a year ago. His arching eyebrows disappear under a beanie adorned with the school’s iconic “A.”

“I had to tell her, ‘Granny, I deal with this every day,’” the now-sophomore says. “‘Every day, this is what I have to do. And you ain’t there every day, so I know how to handle it by myself. I ain’t that little kid asking for milk and cookies no more. I’m a big kid, I’m grown.’ And ever since then, [she] understood that.”

His parents and siblings came to understand it too, as Hurts’s name became well-known not just in the South, but among college football fans nationwide. Now, Hurts has returned to the sport’s biggest stage a year after he won every game except the one that mattered most. He’s 19, but he’s the avatar of a dynasty, trying to shoulder the weight without letting it change how he acts. He’s a symbol for many, but needs to remain himself.

“Can’t let it change who I am,” Hurts says. “Can’t let it change how I play.”

On January 1, Hurts will roll the Tide into New Orleans for the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, where Alabama will have a shot at advancing to the national championship. Getting to the title game for the sixth time in nine seasons will require first beating the Tigers, who stunned then-undefeated Alabama on a last-second touchdown pass in last season’s national championship game. The Alabama-Clemson rivalry has defined college football in recent years, with the Tide beating the Tigers for the championship to cap the 2015 season and the Tigers returning the favor the next campaign. Hurts wasn’t at Alabama for that first playoff showdown with Clemson, but the loss to the Tigers last season was the first of his college career. Now, Hurts is ready for the rubber match of the playoff trilogy.

Jalen Hurts looks to pass against the Clemson Tigers in the 2017 College Football Playoff championship game
Jalen Hurts looks to pass against the Clemson Tigers in the 2017 College Football Playoff championship game.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It wasn’t clear that Hurts and Co. would get that chance after losing to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, tarnishing their perfect record and chance at another SEC title. But the selection committee made Alabama the lone team in the playoff field to not win a conference championship, placing the fourth-seeded Tide ahead of two-loss Big Ten champ Ohio State and into the field alongside no. 1 Clemson, SEC champ Georgia, and Big 12 champ Oklahoma.

Before the Iron Bowl, Saban expressed his trust in Hurts due in large part to the overall growth the QB has shown as a sophomore, when he’s found improved pocket presence, field vision, and accuracy, especially on the deep ball that Hurts struggled with as a freshman and worked to improve all spring and summer. “He understands his strengths and weaknesses,” Saban said to media earlier this season, “and he really works hard at trying to do the things that don’t maybe come as natural to him.” The coach’s faith hasn’t wavered after the Iron Bowl loss and heading into his team’s third consecutive postseason meeting with Clemson, despite Hurts seemingly reverting to some of his freshman-year mistakes against Auburn. With the SEC West title on the line, Hurts rushed decisions, threw off-target passes, and fumbled, completing just 12 of his 22 passes for 112 yards, his second-lowest total in a full game this season.

Alabama usually relies on Hurts to facilitate others, protect the ball, and create plays with his legs if needed, but Saban points to this season’s crucial divisional contest at Mississippi State as an example of how Hurts has made teams respect his arm in his sophomore campaign. On November 11, Alabama tied the game late behind its bruising running attack, carrying the ball 17 times in its first 20 plays of the fourth quarter. But when it really needed Hurts, starting from its own 32-yard-line with 1:09 to go and the stadium seeming to shake from clanging cowbells, Hurts completed three of four throws for 72 yards and a touchdown to escape Starkville with a win that would keep the Tide’s playoff hopes alive. Last season against Clemson, Hurts finished 13-for-31 with 131 yards and a touchdown through the air and added 63 yards and another score on 10 rushes. Clemson will likely try to shut down Alabama’s eighth-ranked ground game and force the offense through Hurts again.

“We feel like if people are going to play us a certain way now, we can make plays in the passing game,” Saban said to media. “… We haven’t had to do it a lot, but when we have had to do it, we’ve been a lot better at it.”

Sometimes when Hurts struggles, Alabama fans rumble for Tua Tagovailoa, the true freshman, five-star quarterback recruit in waiting who has excelled in his limited time on the field for the Tide, when he’s relieved Hurts in blowout wins. An SEC insider said in April that he expected Tagovailoa to be the starter by the end of the season, but Saban has stuck with Hurts and, though fans sometimes grumble, they trust their championship-winning coach.

Some of those fans are part of the Black Bear Breakfast Club, composed of about a dozen AARP-eligible Tuscaloosan men and named for a since-closed local high school’s mascot. The group meets every Wednesday at 6 a.m. inside Rama Jama’s, which sits in the shadow of Bryant-Denny Stadium. They gather, they say, mainly to discuss Alabama football. Now, they compare the Tide’s current dominance to what they witnessed under legendary former coach Bear Bryant, who from 1958 to 1982 won six national championships. Even players unfamiliar with Bryant’s legacy come to quickly understand his impact, because they live in Bryant Hall and pass Bryant’s museum on Bryant Drive to get to the football complex.

The walls of the famous Rama Jama eatery are choked by Crimson Tide memorabilia: pictures and signs and programs and plaques and footballs and hats and even a pair of shoulder pads, and there’s so much that it’s now even affixed to the ceiling tiles.

“I like that boy Jalen,” says one of the Black Bears, Paul Nelson, a retired dentist. “He’s unflappable.”

Nelson, a lifelong Alabaman, launches into how football became so popular in this state. How, after the Civil War, many people saw the South as backward or ignorant. How the region’s football was nothing special and the big teams were in the North. How Alabama went to the 1926 Rose Bowl only because Tulane refused. How, when the Crimson Tide beat Washington, it awakened Southern football, and the university put “Remember the Rose Bowl” in its fight song. How fandom and football became industries that grew and grew. The other Black Bears nod in agreement.

Rama Jama’s with Alabama’s stadium in the background
Rama Jama’s
Sam Fortier

“My father always told me — and he was a big Alabama fan — that our football team was showing the Yankees, showing everybody else, we could excel in something because we always lost at everything else,” Nelson says. “That’s why football’s so important to everybody [in the South]. And our quarterback runs the football team, so society prizes him. Coach is important because he sends the play in, but the quarterback touches the ball on every play. That’s why Jalen’s so important.”

By all accounts, understanding how much strangers have invested in his weekly performance does not faze Hurts. Former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy describes Hurts’s demeanor as “almost off-putting, because most quarterbacks I know are extreme type-A personalities. … He’s more the opposite with just how laid-back he really is.”

Fans are still anxious from Alabama’s loss in the Iron Bowl, where the Tide’s struggles amplified preexisting concerns. Debate from fans about whether this Alabama team has what it takes to get revenge on Clemson for what they see as last season’s stolen title has filled up campus and local restaurants and hours of airtime on Tide 102.9 FM. In the Iron Bowl, a defense cut thin by injuries allowed more yards (408) than it had all season, in part because it wore down as the Tide offense floundered trying to string drives together. The Tide possessed the ball for just 23:58, averaged their third-worst yards-per-play mark of the season (5.15), and, after converting each of their 13 previous fourth-down attempts on the season, ended their last three full drives against Auburn with turnovers on downs.

“Coaches change, systems change, but [the expectation of] playing quarterback at Alabama doesn’t,” says Scott Hunter, who played quarterback under Bryant in the 1960s. “You’re expected to be the best and win a national championship. That never changes.”

Hurts handles that ever-present pressure by not letting anyone see what affects him, which allows him to better process those stressors and, in turn, serve as a quiet leader for his teammates. Last season at Ole Miss, for example, Hurts fumbled late in the first half and the Rebels scooped-and-scored to take a 24–3 lead. The offense ran back to the sideline and everyone knew things looked bleak: The Tide were on the road, with a true freshman quarterback starting his second game, against a team they had lost to the previous two seasons.

“There would’ve been every reason in the world at that point to be like, ‘This game is over,’” says running back Damien Harris. “We went over to the sideline and we’re looking at Jalen like, ‘What are we going to do now?’ He looked at us and was like, ‘We got to get it going the next drive.’ That’s it. It’s the subtle things no one notices.”

Hurts shrugs off stories like these, about how he remained cool under pressure. To him, that’s not special: It’s just who he is.

“I don’t think it’s me hiding anything,” Hurts says of his demeanor. “… I’m aware of the situation that I’m in, but as far as me being bothered, or pressured into trying to force things, that can’t happen.”

In January, in the bowels of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, Averion Hurts Sr. stood with his son after the stands had emptied and the spell had broken. They didn’t say much, an unspoken understanding between them about the magnitude of an Alabama loss in the championship game. Hurts wasn’t even supposed to be Alabama’s starter last year, but during the season-opener against USC, he’d replaced the older, higher-ranked recruit, Blake Barnett, and kept the job. Since then, Hurts’s season had been charmed. He passed for 2,780 yards, ran for 954 more, and totaled 36 touchdowns. He picked up legitimate Heisman steam. He helped the Tide be perfect until they weren’t.

Hurts did everything he could to beat Clemson last season. With 2:07 to go and the Tide trailing by four, Hurts dodged a rushing defensive lineman, juked two defensive backs, and ran 30 yards up the middle for a touchdown. He crossed the goal line at a jog and stared into the writhing mass of fans. He barely reacted, handing the ball to the referee as he almost always does.

“Jalen never shows emotion,” says Tre’Michael Tutt, one of Hurts’s best friends and former high school teammates. “He just doesn’t.”

Even at Channelview High, where Averion was the head coach and sometimes “chewed [Jalen] out” at practice, Averion says, Hurts remained relatively unfazed. Against Mississippi State earlier this season, star wide receiver Calvin Ridley approached Hurts when Alabama trailed by a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and, Hurts remembers, told his quarterback the same thing he had in January when Alabama needed a score against Clemson late in the national championship: “I’m scared.”

Against the Bulldogs, Hurts responded, “I got you. We good.”

As Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick has come to understand, Hurts’s inner Zen, which extends beyond the football field, comes at least partly from Averion. Every day in their dorm, Fitzpatrick passes the quarterback’s room to get to his own and almost always hears the ’70s and ’80s R&B Averion introduced to his son. It’s music Fitzpatrick calls the “super slow, put-you-to-sleep-slow slow jams.”

“It’s the type of music I vibe to, I ride to, I clean up on Fridays to,” Hurts says. “I have an old soul. I’ll tell you a story: My father, every time we picked crawfish, he had this big red truck. His CDs were scratched a little bit. Sometimes they skipped. You’d get to Track 2, and it’d skip. He had Al Green’s greatest hits and he had the Isley Brothers’ greatest hits. Then he had some Zydeco music. And we would just sit out in the front yard, open all the doors of the big red truck, the Lincoln, turn the music up, and he’d just let Al Green, and let the Isley Brothers, and let Zydeco play. And we’d just sit in the front and eat crawfish.

“He understands,” Hurts continues, about his father. “He knows how I think, he knows how I operate. I’m a daddy’s boy.”

Last September, Averion walked into his office at Channelview and saw that he had about 25 voicemails and 15 emails from reporters who wanted to interview him because, the weekend before, his son had thrown two touchdown passes in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium in his first college game. Alabama trampled USC, 52–6, in the marquee matchup of opening weekend. It wasn’t supposed to be Hurts’s year, but then it was. With each passing week, more reporters called because, though Hurts maintained the starting job and racked up yards with his arm and legs, no one seemed to know more about him than what they learned from a few articles detailing his high school weightlifting prowess. Saban has a rule prohibiting media from speaking with freshmen, so Averion and Hurts’s mother, Pamela, who teaches at Channelview, decided to abstain from speaking to the press in solidarity with their son.

Jalen Hurts fist-bumps running back Damien Harris
Jalen Hurts fist-bumps running back Damien Harris during a 2016 game.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Averion knew his son would receive attention playing quarterback at Alabama, but the volume of it still surprised him. Almost overnight, his son had become one of the most important people in another state. By the time Hurts, a four-star recruit, committed to Alabama, though, everyone understood that scrutiny would come with the position. The father and son formulated a plan to evaluate the atmosphere by enrolling early for the spring 2016 semester in what Hurts called “a test drive.” Once he experienced the school’s environment and decided he liked it, Hurts thought about how to live this new lifestyle without letting his ego balloon, without thinking he was more important than anyone else, even though the way people treated him told him he was. He posed for every picture he could, including when he was out to eat with Grandma.

“The agreement that we have, to try to keep him from changing, is I’m the one that can’t change,” Averion says. “Because, unfortunately, I guess I was an asshole [when I coached him], so I have to still be that guy for a sense of normalcy. I’m just an old ball coach. I treated my kids just like any other player on the team.”

In Hurts’s senior year at Channelview, the Falcons had lost in the first round of the playoffs. Father and son had commiserated together in the locker room and they did so again 13 months later, in January at Raymond James Stadium. Eventually, Hurts left on the team bus for the hotel, and Averion drove back to his hotel across town with Hurts’s brother and uncle, because they had an early flight the next morning.

A few miles down the road, Averion’s phone rang. His son never asked him to come to Alabama’s hotel, but Averion sensed that Hurts needed his dad, so he turned around. He arrived and went up to the room, and, for about an hour and a half, Averion mostly talked and Hurts listened, his expression rarely changing.

In just more than a year, Averion saw his son assume a role in which he essentially became a celebrity, an avatar of success for an immense cultural institution. Yet Averion couldn’t help but still see the boy sitting out front, eating crawfish with the doors of the big red truck wide open.

“This might sound funny, but he’s a normal kid,” Averion says. “It’s just …” he pauses. “He’s not in a normal situation.”

Hurts rarely speaks in class, but recently he felt compelled.

He’s a public relations major and, that day in mid-November, the professor was lecturing about how firms should handle the media. She told the class “no comment” was one of the worst things a firm could say. Hurts surveyed the class of about 25 kids, all operating based off the same lessons and the same textbook.

Hurts thought back to the first time he spoke to the media as a member of the Tide. It was last December, when Alabama provided an open-locker-room session following its humiliation of Florida in the 2016 SEC championship game. Saban’s rule on freshmen lifted after the regular season ended. As the cameras jostled around Hurts, he seemed jumpier than usual. He flashed a nervous smile. His eyes looked wide. He glanced down at the dozen foam-capped microphones hovering a few inches below his chin, then briskly back up at the reporters. “Questions?” he asked.

From then on, he spoke to assembled rooms of reporters at least once per week, and, by the time he found himself in this class, he figured he was the most experienced with the media of anyone in the room. So, he decided, he was going to talk that day.

“I feel like you should want to be genuine,” he recalls telling his classmates, “but at the end of the day the media is gonna give off the image that you give them. So, if you’re acting a certain way, if you’re talking a certain way — you’ve got to convey the message you want given.”

Hurts believes that controlling the message, which he sees as vital to anyone in a public role, means limiting exposure and controlling the environments in which he shares it. He avoids gas stations if there are too many people because he doesn’t want to cause a scene. He almost always calls ahead to restaurants for the same reason. He turns down “a whole bunch” of requests to attend sorority formals because, he figures, most girls are “probably asking me just to say, ‘I went with [the quarterback].’”

“If you genuinely know me, you know I’m a cool guy,” Hurts says. “I’m easy to talk to, great with advice, things like that, but not many people understand what I deal with. People always tell me, ‘Come out, Jalen, come out.’ If I go out, I’m not going to do anything. I’m just going to sit on the wall and watch everybody drink and do all these things. I’m sitting here, annoyed almost, because people keep walking by me, saying ‘Good game,’ telling me stuff about the game, telling me stuff that they don’t know about, but I’m just like, ‘Yeah, appreciate it, thank you.’ I’d be acting like I was having fun if I was out.”

He balances that with remaining cognizant about the power of his perch, how many people wish they could occupy it. In July, he learned about the Tuscaloosa County Juvenile Detention Center from a community outreach program he works with in the athletic department and decided to visit it. “I want to be here,” he told the center’s director, Cathy Wood.

One of the boys there, whom the center asked be referred to as M., told Hurts he was from Mississippi, so he wasn’t a Crimson Tide fan and didn’t care who Hurts was. Wood and another boy remember M. as “a hothead,” who threw another jab at Hurts by asking: “Hey, why y’all lose the national championship?”

Hurts’s expression never changed, says Wood; he carried on teaching the boys about making eye contact while shaking hands. Hurts told the assembled residents, Wood remembers, that back in Texas, people told him he’d never play as a freshman at Alabama — that he’d never play as a black quarterback at Alabama. Hurts told the residents that he could’ve gotten angry at those people, but instead he thought: Watch me.

When Hurts chose to return to the JDC the next day, telling Wood he felt like being there was important, he ended up in the center’s backyard playing basketball with the residents. Wood watched closely from the sideline and says that at one point, she could’ve sworn Hurts fouled M. on purpose. She thought it might be a test. M. started huffing and puffing and stalked away. Then, she remembers, Hurts walked over.

“Remember when I taught you to shake hands like a man?” Wood recalls Hurts saying.

“Yes, sir,” M. replied, though he was only about a year younger than Hurts.

Now, M. has been transferred to another youth facility in Alabama, but a few residents remain from Hurts’s visits. One of them, whom the center asked to be called JB, wore his Hurts-autographed crimson-and-white T-shirt when he recently left the facility for a doctor’s appointment. When Hurts had played basketball, JB was on M.’s team. JB didn’t know much about Hurts, because he’s not a sports fan, but he understood the power of playing quarterback and Alabama football, and he admired Hurts. “He looks like me,” he says.

A white Alabama shirt autographed by Jalen Hurts on the right shoulder
JB’s shirt, autographed by Jalen Hurts
Sam Fortier

When Hurts had told the residents that college was more important than football, JB was surprised, because he figured football players just wanted to play football. JB says he thought about what Hurts said for a long time.

Now, sitting in a small, locked room in the JDC, wearing his orange jumpsuit and clear, plastic flip-flops, JB beams. He recently got moved from general pop to the leadership dorm. JB may not be a football fan, but Hurts had done for him what he does for the Black Bears and for so many others who say “Roll Tide” after an Alabama win.

JB talks fast, as if he can speak his new plan into action. He wants to go to college for welding, and find a wife, and get a house, and have kids. Everything.

“Man, [when I got here], I’m thinking, ‘This the end. It is what it is,’” JB says. “My mama’s always been gone too much, my daddy keep getting locked up, my brother locked up. It is what it is. I mean, forget life. I’m going back out there and doing the same thing. Jalen was like, ‘That don’t got to be your future, man. You need to change your mind-set. Do better.’ I was like, ‘Word. I got you.’”

JB pauses for several seconds. Then, almost to himself, he says softly, “I got you.”

Shortly after Hurts’s last visit, just before the Tide’s preseason started, JB began studying for his GED. Two days after the Iron Bowl, he began taking the test.

For the last home game of the season, on November 18, Hurts stepped off the Alabama team bus in the middle of his pregame routine. After calling his father and Snapchatting Tutt, he surveyed the crowd and put on his headphones.

Jalen Hurts, wearing headphones, walks into the stadium past fans
Jalen Hurts
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

On game days in Tuscaloosa, about two hours and 15 minutes before kickoff, Hurts exits the team bus on the stadium’s north side for the Walk of Champions, a parade for the football team through a sea of fans to the stadium. Hurts sees pandemonium. He understands the stakes tied up in the games, understands he needs to make plays, understands the implications of it all because, though he is still a teenager, he has lived in this position for almost two years. His coach, who has been at the school 11 seasons now, already has a statue immortalizing him outside the stadium. Hurts betrays no feeling, walking toward the stadium with his face a mask, most himself at his most inscrutable.

On the walk, Hurts’s Beats headphones cancel all the noise except “The Payback,” by James Brown. He listens to the song before every game, a time when even slow jams give way to funk. On New Year’s Day, Hurts will listen to the same song as he walks into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to face Clemson. Hurts understands the expectation isn’t just a Sugar Bowl victory, but a return to the national championship to finish what the team couldn’t last season. And he understands that route again runs through Clemson.

In “The Payback,” Brown promises revenge on a man who took his money and his girl. His threats are unspecified but his intentions are clear: He’s coming for what he believes is his.

“I want revenge,” James Brown screams into Hurts’s ears, and Hurts wants his, too. “I want revenge. Gonna get some hits. I need those hits. I need those hits.”

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