If the story had been written for a Hollywood movie, it would have been rejected as completely unbelievable. But Alabama backup quarterback Jalen Hurts showed Saturday night what it means to fight through adversity and doubt to come back as a winner when his team needed him. In doing so, he showed the best of what sports can teach all of us.
Just 11 months ago, Hurts was on top of the college football world. He was 26-2 as a two-year starter at quarterback for Alabama. He had brought the Crimson Tide to the national championship game against Georgia, but by halftime, it was clear that he wasn’t getting the job done. Coach Nick Saban started relatively untested freshman Tua Tagovailoa in the second half when Hurts couldn’t generate any offense. From the sideline, Hurts enthusiastically supported his teammates and earned respect from a lot of people — including me — as he watched Tagovailoa lead a comeback win in overtime for the national championship.
During the offseason, there was a lot of buzz about who would start at quarterback for Alabama this year. Hurts and Tagovailoa competed during spring practice and pre-season practice. To the surprise of no one, Tagovailoa won the starting job. He has been the most dominant player in the college game this year and has been considered the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy most of the year.
It had to have been humiliating for Hurts to see a new kid get all the glory he had received at Alabama for two years.
Hurts could have pouted about losing his starting job. He might have let everyone know he didn’t deserve to be treated this way. He could have loudly criticized coaches for not choosing him. Mostly, he could have transferred to another school. Many people encouraged him to transfer. In fact, he could have even left the team after the first few games to save a year of eligibility. (When starting quarterback Kelly Bryant lost his job at Clemson in the first couple of games, that’s what he did. He quit the team to transfer, leaving Clemson without a decent backup quarterback.)
But Hurts did none of those things.
As Alabama rolled up huge offensive numbers this years — put up by the man who beat him for the job — Hurts would go into the game late for mop-up duty. He never played a snap of football this year that mattered — until Saturday night in the SEC championship game.
In the same stadium in Atlanta where he lost his starting job last January — against the same team — Hurts finally got another chance Saturday night.
Tagovailoa hurt his ankle in the first quarter and was ineffective for most of the game. By the fourth quarter, the same ankle was stepped on and he had to leave the game — with Alabama losing and seemingly destined for its first loss of the year.
With Tagovailoa out of the game, Saban sent Hurts into the game and told him, “This is your time, buddy.”
You can read the specifics of how he did it if you don’t already know, but Hurts first led the team to a tying touchdown. After the Alabama defense stopped Georgia, Hurts drove the offense again, this time for the winning touchdown, running the final 15 yards to the end zone himself.
Last year, it was a jubilant Hurts cheering from the sideline as his teammate led Alabama to a win. This year, it was a grimacing Tagovailoa cheering Hurts from the sideline as he completed his redemption story. (In the photo above, you can see pain on Tagovailoa’s face as he embraces Hurts after the win.)
There are a lot of things we can learn in life from books, but there are some things we learn best from competing with each other. There are things we learn about ourselves from winning and there are other things we learn about ourselves from losing. The lessons from losing are sometimes more important.
Sports have the power to teach us a lot of lessons. Some of those lessons have to be learned from playing the games. Others can be learned from watching others and getting involved in their stories.
Kirk Herbstreit learned a lot of lessons as a defender at Ohio State and he’s now one of ESPN’s most insightful game commentators. After Alabama’s win Saturday night, he tweeted this about Hurts: “What an INCREDIBLE example for kids out there that think leaving for greener pastures after seeing the first sign of adversity is the answer!! Jalen Hurts has shown amazing fortitude all year and has been an AMAZING leader and SUPPORTER of his teammates! And NOW saves his team’s dreams!”
CBS Sports tweeted this summary of the Hurts story after the game:
Jalen Hurts could’ve left Alabama after being benched.
He could’ve sulked.
He stayed ready.
He delivered when his team needed him.
He’s achieved the ultimate redemption.
I didn’t play any team sports as I was growing up — unless you count the academic team and the math team, which isn’t quite the same thing. I didn’t learn to value sports until I started covering the stories while I was in college. I soon understood the deeply important lessons that sports can teach. (Sports can have ugly sides, too, but that’s a different issue.)
Watching Jalen Hurts fail so publicly but then fight his way back — supporting his teammates and being a respected leader the whole time — is an inspiration to me. It’s the sort of story that makes me eager to get up and try one more time to run through walls that have blocked me before. And it makes me hope my future children can learn positive lessons themselves by playing some sport.
I don’t know what Hurts will do in the future. He earns his degree from Alabama later this month and might very well transfer elsewhere for his final year of eligibility. Nobody would question that, especially since Tagovailoa will be back and several highly recruited quarterbacks are on their way. Hurts might play elsewhere. He might even get a shot at an NFL career.
But whatever he does, he will be well-served by the lesson he’s learned this year — lessons that we can learn with him:
Persevere when the time is right.
Don’t whine when you lose.
Don’t blame others when you fail.
Keep working to get better.
Be a good teammate and leader.
Keep yourself ready — because your chance might very well come when you least expect it.