A brief history of Alabama phenom Jalen Hurts — and the black QBs who came before him
The freshman may just be the best Crimson Tide quarterback — regardless of age or race — in 125 years
Last night, Jalen Hurts became the first black starting quarterback in Alabama program history to win a national title.
It was a mid-October 2016 day, in the heart of college football season. And Walter Lewis couldn’t help himself. He wanted a front-row seat to see the player everyone in the nation was salivating over — the freshman quarterback at the helm of the same team Lewis led more than 30 years before. So while in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on business, Lewis stopped by the University of Alabama’s practice field. The nation’s top-ranked team was preparing for a midseason matchup with Tennessee, and little did Lewis know, he was about to be part of a history lesson.
“Hey, you know who that is?” Alabama director of player personnel Kerry Stevenson asked Jalen Hurts. Hurts is the first true freshman quarterback to start for the Crimson Tide since 1984. Hurts is 18, but exudes swag and strength well beyond his years. He has blond-tipped dreadlocks and is a monster in the weight room. He is 6-feet-2, 210 pounds and can both deadlift and squat almost 600 pounds, and bench press almost 300. A native of Channelview, Texas, he enrolled early at Alabama, arriving in Tuscaloosa in the winter of 2015 having not won a championship since he played for the East Houston Aggies when he was 8 years old. But don’t get it twisted: Hurts is without a doubt a winner.
“No,” Hurts responded to Stevenson’s question, “I don’t.”
“That’s the first black quarterback that played at Alabama.”
“And Jalen,” recalled Lewis, who lives in Odenville, Alabama, about 90 miles northeast of his alma mater, “without hesitation, stopped what he was doing and ran over and hugged my neck.”
Since the University of Alabama’s first football season — in 1892 — Lewis, Vince Sutton, Danny Woodson Sr., Andrew Zow, Blake Sims and now Hurts are the only African-American players to start at quarterback. Just six black starting quarterbacks in the 125-year history of what some consider to be the greatest college football program of all time — one which has churned out more national titles (16) than any other school. And now, when No. 1 Alabama faces No. 2 Clemson for this season’s national title in Monday night’s College Football Playoff final, Hurts has a chance to do what no black quarterback who preceded him ever could: win a national championship as a starter.
“I’d love to see Jalen win it,” said Lewis. “It would mean a lot for not just myself, but for other black quarterbacks at Alabama after me. It also would mean a lot for what the black athlete has accomplished there at the University of Alabama since they started there back in the late ’60s, early ’70s.” The university was officially desegregated in 1963, though it wasn’t until six years later that the school’s first African-American scholarship athlete — basketball player Wendell Hudson — arrived on Alabama’s campus. In 1970, Alabama had its first black football recruit in Wilbur Jackson, and a year later John Mitchell became the first to play on the football field for the Crimson Tide. Mitchell would also become Alabama football’s first black team captain and assistant coach. “It’s a lot of things that go along with this,” said Lewis. “It would be rewarding to be a part of Jalen’s legacy … if he can put himself in the position to achieve that.”
Hurts is less than six months removed from being granted the right to vote, has only played in 14 college games, and his legacy is already a topic of conversation. It’s easy to take Lewis’ point though, because it’s been a long time coming for black quarterbacks at Alabama. And even with four decades of history resting on his shoulders, Hurts has pieced together a historic season — one of the best from a Crimson Tide quarterback, regardless of age or race — that has ever been seen.
On Sept. 29, 1979, Michael Landrum became the first black quarterback to play at Alabama, entering a 66-3 Crimson Tide blowout win over Vanderbilt as a reserve. He’s not remembered as the first, because Landrum played just one season for the Tide, throwing only two passes as the team’s backup before transferring. But before he left, Alabama ended the 1979 season by winning the national championship.
One year later, midway through Lewis’ freshman season, longtime legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant did what he’d never done before — he started a black quarterback. But in four years, Lewis and the Crimson Tide never reached a national title. “I was aware of the position that I had been placed in there,” said Lewis. “I was representing a culture … a black culture.”
On Sept. 3, 2016, Hurts entered defending national champion and No. 1-ranked Alabama’s season opener against the No. 20 University of Southern California. At the beginning of the night, Hurts was listed as Alabama’s third-string quarterback, behind redshirt freshman starter Blake Barnett and backup redshirt junior Cooper Bateman. But head coach Nick Saban always planned to throw the true freshman into the fire on the third series of the game. And on the first play of his college career — in front of 81,000 people at AT&T Stadium in his home state — Hurts turned the ball over, fumbling it to the USC defense.
“Of course, everyone goes back to him fumbling the ball on his first snap,” said Zow, who played quarterback at Alabama from 1998 to 2001 as one of the five black starters who came after Lewis. “But I go back to the bullet for about 40 yards he threw to ArDarius Stewart for a touchdown. Just the way the ball came out of his hand, I know his arm is very strong. That play, him throwing the ball to ArDarius on a rope, I thought, was probably the defining moment of this kid. I thought, ‘He’s definitely got the ability to throw the ball in the SEC and at the college level.’ ” The throw Zow remembers so vividly was Hurts’ first career collegiate touchdown. He’d account for three more on the night.
The next game, Hurts took Barnett’s starting job and never gave it back. A month later, Barnett decided to transfer. For Hurts, the touchdowns, records and wins kept coming. His 891 rushing yards (and counting) are the most a quarterback has recorded in a single season in program history. He’s the only Alabama quarterback to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 in a single game, and the only true freshman to start in Alabama’s annual Iron Bowl rivalry game against Auburn (he completed 75 percent of his passes in Alabama’s 30-12 win over Auburn, an Iron Bowl record). The 34 touchdowns he’s accounted for this season is one shy of the single-season record (which he can break in the national championship) set by Sims in 2014.
Sims was destined to be the first black starter to win Alabama a national championship. He was a part of the team when Alabama claimed back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012, and joined Landrum, Star Jackson (2009) and Phillip Sims (2012) as the only black quarterbacks — even though all were backups — with championship rings at Alabama.
Then as a fifth-year senior, Sims (no relation to Phillip Sims) battled Jacob Coker for the starting job. It was 2014, well into the second term of the country’s first black president, and a black quarterback had just won a Super Bowl in dominating fashion. But this was Alabama. In 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama’s registration building, with state troopers by his side, blocking the entry of the school’s first two black students.
So race, unsurprisingly, was brought up on fan message boards as a reason Sims might not win the starting job. “If a black QB gets the job, will they block for him? Will problems hit the fan, like [the offensive line] never knew the play, so they can point the finger?” one commenter asked on the Facebook page of FanSided’s Alabama site, Bama Hammer. “Bama fans are not going to let Sims play. If it’s not white, it’s not right, so it will be a white quarterback,” another commenter wrote.
Yet Sims won the job and led Alabama to a No. 1 ranking, while racking up more yards of total offense (3,837) than any quarterback in school history. But in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Ohio State upset the Crimson Tide, ending Sims’ college career one game short of playing for a national title.
“I was hoping so badly that it would happen with Blake for a variety of reasons,” said Lewis. “A lot of times in our society, because people think on a narrow basis, you don’t get your just due. And to see him perform the way he performed a couple years ago, I was hoping badly that he would win a national championship, because it would’ve been a mission accomplished as it relates to culture, as it relates to the black race, as it relates to the university.”
In Alabama lore, there’s a rigid pecking order in terms of who’s regarded as the most important people in the state. First, many say, is the University of Alabama’s head football coach. Second is the university’s starting quarterback. “Then the governor’s third. He’s third on the list,” said Lewis. “That’s how it is.”
That’s a lot of pressure for Hurts, the next man up, but “if you understand it and you know it,” Lewis added, “you can put that type of pressure upon yourself to be able to produce and make things happen.”
Outside of the numbers, the University of Alabama has never had a quarterback quite like Hurts.
Let’s start with his physical appearance. He has dreadlocks — but not like the ones former Alabama backup quarterback Phillip Sims rocks. Hurts’ locks fade from his natural dark-colored hair into a vibrant blond, and he’s versatile when it come to styling them. In his team photo, the locks are formed into a bun on top of his head. At the College Football Playoff media day before the national title, he had them neatly braided with a crisp shape-up.
“He has come with a different look, but guys want a winner back there, regardless if he has dreadlocks or if he’s clean-cut from a standpoint of having a low haircut — and he’s getting the job done,” said Zow.
Next is his flair on the field. When Hurts would reach the end zone at the beginning season, he’d simply stare into the crowd, or a nearby TV camera, with a sly smirk on his face, as if to say, “You know why I’m here.” Then, Hurts began celebrating touchdowns and big plays by gently wiping off the front of his jersey, Lil Boosie style. “It’s just a little swagger I like to add to it. Sometimes you gotta play with some swagger. A little juice,” Hurts said in the first interview of his college career after a 54-16 SEC championship win over Florida on Dec. 3, 2016. Saban has a rule that no true freshman can speak to the media, but had to make an exception when Hurts cruised his way to the postseason.
In the same interview, a reporter asked him which quarterback he liked to watch play growing up, and Hurts responded without hesitation: “My older brother, Averion Hurts.” Averion Hurts recently graduated from Texas Southern University, a historically black college in Houston, where he started at quarterback as a senior this season. Unlike Jalen, Averion Hurts had no Division I offers out of high school, and clawed his way up from a junior college.
“I want better for my brother. I don’t want him to experience the things that I had to experience,” Averion Hurts told The Houston Chronicle in October. “The fact that he’s doing what he’s doing, that brings me so much joy. I feel like I play quarterback at Alabama.”
That’s right, he feels a part of the journey because Hurts represents his older brother. He represents his father, Averion Hurts Sr., who coached both of his sons in high school, whose tough love part of the reason Saban can push Jalen Hurts so hard. He represents Sutton, the last true freshman quarterback to start at Alabama. He represents the school’s five African-American starting quarterbacks before him. He represents Vivian Malone and James Hood, the university’s first two black students the state’s governor attempted to bar from enrolling.
“Jalen being an African-American quarterback … winning at the University of Alabama, it goes down in history as one of the greatest accomplishments anyone could have,” said Zow, who won three state titles in high school and led the Crimson Tide to a SEC championship in 1999 but never reached college football’s biggest stage. “What he’s doing, it opens up those doors for people to believe that a guy like Jalen — and his skin color does matter — can lead our team. Hopefully in the future there will be more people who accept that and look at him as an athlete and as a quarterback, not, ‘Can this black kid lead us?‘ It’d be great if he won. I’m pulling for him.”