ATLANTA — Alabama coach Nick Saban practically gushed at Jalen Hurts‘ side as he talked about the unprecedented nature of Hurts’ situation and the resolve and competitive spirit he showed. To say that he was proud of his quarterback as they sat in the postgame news conference after beating Georgia 35-28 to win the SEC championship game on Saturday night would have been the understatement of the century.
Not in his four decades of coaching had he ever been more proud of a player, Saban said.
But as he said all this, as he spoke of Hurts’ team-first attitude and how it would serve him so well in his future, Hurts himself was almost emotionless. The junior and former-two-year-starter-turned-backup lowered his head and stared blankly into the space between him and the microphone.
This was his storybook ending. He had just come off the bench and won Alabama an SEC title and a spot in the playoff, and he would hardly smile. He had defied expectations and outplayed the Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback who took his starting job, and he appeared to think nothing of it.
What did all this feel like?
“It kinda feels like I’m breaking my silence,” Hurts said.
When asked if there was any deeper meaning to what he had said, he countered with, “That’s you assuming.” When pressed again, he said he didn’t really feel like talking. Which is fine when you think about it. He hasn’t said a word publicly since he lost his starting job to Tua Tagovailoa, so why start explaining himself now?
Instead, it was up to his teammates and coaches to put into words what this journey of his must have been like — how he went from a two-year starter and SEC Offensive Player of the Year to a backup and how he stayed mentally checked-in enough to come off the bench when his team needed him most to win the game. That he did it on the same field where it all started — in Atlanta, against the Georgia Bulldogs, where he was benched at halftime of last season’s national championship game — was an ending so perfect that it almost didn’t feel real.
“I told him when he went in there, ‘This is your time, baby,'” Saban said, “and he sure did take advantage of it.”
As Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said, “He’s a winner. I mean, Jalen Hurts is a winner.”
Mack Wilson tried to shed some additional light on what this all meant. The Alabama starting middle linebacker and Hurts are friends and have talked frequently throughout the process, but even Wilson struggled to put it into words. What it came down to, he explained, was belief.
When Hurts was getting ready to go in the game, Wilson told him simply, “Go do your thing. Be you.” And then Wilson turned to fellow linebacker Dylan Moses and told him, “This is déjà vu. Watch him go in, bring us back and win the game.”
“I can tell you that ever since he walked foot on Alabama’s campus, we’ve believed in him,” Wilson said afterward.
That sentiment, that unending belief in Hurts, was repeated over and over again on the field and in the locker room. Locksley, for instance, wasn’t surprised. He said he had seen all this before, in practice.
“He’s done it the last two years, leading us to two national championship [games],” added tight end Irv Smith Jr.
If things go right in the opening round of the playoff, Hurts’ heroics could make that three national championship appearances in three years for Alabama. And to think, there were those who wondered whether he would even be part of the team when he had the option to redshirt after four games and save the year of eligibility.
To have stayed, to have kept competing and practicing and preparing for a moment that might have never come, was perhaps more impressive than the game-tying touchdown he threw to Jerry Jeudy or the go-ahead touchdown he ran in with 1:09 remaining on Saturday night.
“It would have been tough for anybody,” Smith said, “but he’s a warrior. He’s a tough guy. Y’all saw it tonight. He came in and couldn’t have played a better game. It’s amazing.”
And what of that blank stare of his? That unflinching attitude on and off the field? How are we to interpret that?
“He’s just unimpressed and so poised,” Smith explained. “He’s just like that.”
As Hurts walked across the field for a television interview, an Alabama staffer grabbed him and pulled him in for a hug, whispering something in his ear. The staffer didn’t want to be named in this story, but he would repeat what he told Hurts: “You deserve it.”
A smattering of Crimson Tide fans stayed behind to show their support for the quarterback who had swallowed his pride and backed up a Heisman contender in Tagovailoa. A woman in elephant ears held a sign, “We love Jalen.” A man shouted at him as he sat on the makeshift TV set, “Hurts so good!”
“Thank you for your loyalty!” another fan yelled at Hurts, who cracked the slightest of grins and gave a thumbs-up sign.
As Hurts exited the interview and headed toward the locker room to leave, he made a quick pit stop. A young boy had been leaning over the railing the entire time, calling on the quarterback who seemed to have blinders on the entire night. But Hurts had noticed and jogged over to hand him his wristbands.
“Since you were sitting here and waiting the whole time,” Hurts told him.
For both him and the boy, the wait must have been worth it.
Hurts didn’t need to say anything more to punctuate his performance that night. He could leave knowing the storybook ending had written itself.