What makes Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts tick? ‘He wants to be so perfect’

NFL

PHILADELPHIA — When the railing near the visiting tunnel at FedEx Field collapsed earlier this month, sending about eight fans crashing to the ground in front of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, the first thought Andrew Collins had was: “I just blew out my franchise quarterback’s ACL.” Collins, a 26-year-old Eagles fan from Brooklawn, New Jersey, went hurtling toward the unsuspecting Hurts and was sure he had landed on him.

But Hurts calmly shuffled his feet, turned and narrowed himself against the burgundy wall in one motion, just in time to dodge the avalanche of bodies. Then he went about the business of lifting people up, dusting them off and pulling them together for an embrace — and a photo or two — before quietly exiting stage right. That led to Collins’ second thought.

“This guy is as cool as the other side of the pillow,” he said, borrowing a line from the late, great ESPN anchor Stuart Scott.

Hurts, who will be making his playoff debut against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), is wired differently. That’s the refrain from those who have been around him: from former coaches who watched him do drill work as a 7-year-old on the Channelview High School football fields in East Texas to former teammates who saw him take command of a college locker room at 17 and become the first true freshman quarterback to start at Alabama under Nick Saban to those who witnessed him take over the starting job from Carson Wentz in Philly last year as a rookie. And they say they knew it was coming.

Hurts can come off as enigmatic. The 23-year-old wears a stone-faced expression in public that rarely changes, no matter whether he’s taking questions from the media, being reamed out by his coach on the sideline or coming off the field after a big touchdown or back-breaking interception. He speaks just above a whisper in the same, steady tone. All of this makes it nearly impossible to know what is going on underneath the surface. His teammate and good friend Lane Johnson said after the Week 17 win over Washington: “I still have never seen him happy, really, as far as [being] enthusiastic.” His former coach, Doug Pederson, joked with Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury last year: “You’ve got to check his temperature sometimes to see if he’s got a pulse. I’m like ‘Dude, fire up a little bit,’ you know?”

But the stoic outward projection is coupled with an inner drive one former teammate described as Kobe Bryant-esque. Football — or more specifically, the pursuit of perfection in his chosen craft — is an obsession, to the point that tracking down Hurt’s other interests is a fool’s errand.

That combination of fire and ice has served him well during his time in Philadelphia, helping him through the quarterback controversy with Wentz last season, as well as the speculation this year about whether the Eagles will pursue another signal-caller in the offseason. Amid all that, he helped turn a 2-5 start into a 9-8 finish, guiding the Eagles into the postseason in his first year as a full-time starter. Tom Brady and the Bucs present another test for Hurts, who will become the youngest starting quarterback in Eagles playoff history. But to this point, the evidence shows Hurts doesn’t flinch, even when the walls are tumbling down around him.

“He is just a different cat, man,” as one of Hurts’ associates said.

A father’s influence

Hurts wasn’t always so even-keeled. A favorite memory of Byron Henderson, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Channelview, is of Hurts serving as the team’s ball boy when he was about 10 years old, and going nuts when his brother, Averion, threw a long touchdown pass.

“Jalen was on the sideline and you could see him on the field running down the sideline to the end zone, throwing his hands up in the air, celebrating with our receiver who caught the touchdown pass,” Henderson said with a laugh.

His father, Averion Sr., is the longtime head coach at Channelview. Hurts would tag along with his dad to work, jumping into drills.

“He would get in there and do ladders or change-of-direction drills. You would see him around throwing the football, whether it be to guys on the team or his brother,” said D.J. McNorton, the wide receivers coach and pass-game coordinator at Channelview.

Averion Jr. developed into a star quarterback for the Falcons, throwing for 3,500 yards and 50 touchdowns his senior year, Henderson said. Jalen emulated his brother, even taking on some of his mannerisms, including his low-key demeanor. Averion went on to play at Kilgore College and Texas Southern. If not for his height — around 5-foot-10 — he likely would have been ticketed for bigger programs.

“He commanded the huddle. He knew what every receiver’s route was. He knew the blocking schemes up front. He was able to carry our offense from the QB position. His brother saw it,” Henderson said, “and he wanted it so bad.”

To achieve similar success, Jalen would have to meet the demands of his father. Averion Sr. is the type of guy who can change a room’s temperature just by entering it.

“He had the stare. The stare would get you,” McNorton said. “Whenever he walks in, they’re going to be on their P’s and Q’s and a little on their toes. He doesn’t really smile a ton, so when he comes in, you really don’t know how to take it. At times, you can see that in Jalen.”

Averion Sr. coached his sons particularly hard. That was both to maximize their potential and to stomp out any thought of preferential treatment, his assistants believe. It was a regular occurrence to see Averion Sr. lay into Jalen in front of the entire team. One episode in particular stuck with McNorton. Hurts was having an off day at practice — missing passes, failing to make reads — which caught the ire of Averion, who started ripping Jalen.

“Everybody would look shocked — the kids, for sure,” McNorton said.

“I don’t want to say all the words that were said. Jalen sat there, maybe with his one hand on his hip, just waiting for his dad to finish. No reaction. Zero reaction. The next play, he came out there, and he just drilled the ball at the receiver, as hard as he could throw the ball. And it’s maybe a 5-to-6-yard route. And he just drills the ball as hard as he can, and it hits off the receiver’s hand and maybe goes, like, 30 yards down the field. I think that was his way of being pissed but not really showing it.”

The dynamic between Hurts and his dad is essential to understanding how Hurts reacted — or didn’t react — when Eagles coach Nick Sirianni gave him an earful in late December after Hurts lost a fumble versus Washington.

“I’ve been telling him all year that I’m a coach’s kid. Basically all the coaches’ kids out there know what that means. It means they’ve been coached. They’ve heard everything,” Hurts said. “In high school I lived with the guy that was chewing me out. I made it clear to Coach all year, ‘You know, you can get on me a little bit.'”

Hurts went on to have one of his best performances of the year, prompting Sirianni to joke that he’s going to have to coach Hurts like his dad did from now on.

Hurts began really blossoming his junior year, leading Channelview to the school’s only win over powerhouse North Shore on a Hail Mary. He called the game “personal,” saying his objective was to beat every team his brother lost to his senior season. Jalen threw for 2,384 yards and rushed for 1,391 yards the next year, and he won district MVP as a junior and as a senior.

Later in Hurts’ high school career, Henderson remembers him sailing a pass that was intercepted, costing the Falcons the game. The tension over the headset was palpable as Hurts came off the field and approached Averion. The exchange, however, was not as explosive as anticipated.

“His dad saw in his eyes that he already knew [what he did wrong]. So he took that opportunity to, instead of coaching him hard in that situation, to being Dad in that situation,” Henderson said.

“His dad is his second biggest critic. Jalen is his own biggest critic. He wants to be so perfect.”

It reached a point where Jalen was the one delivering the harsh criticism at times. Channelview holds what it calls “boot camp” in the offseason where all the players have to dress alike and move in unison to commands on the practice field. One day during boot camp entering his senior season, Hurts sensed the group was being lackadaisical and went off.

“He called them on out,” Henderson said. “He was like, ‘You’re all being lazy!’ And I’m giving you the nice version. ‘You’re all not doing what it takes to become champions. You’re all talking about what you want, to go play here and go play there [in college]. Nobody wants anybody who is not going to do what they’re supposed to do!’

“He sounded like a coach that wasn’t a coach. When I tell you it shocked not only the coaching staff but the players as well. But they all fell in line at that point and we didn’t have any problems from there.”

QB battles, won and lost

Hurts arrived at Alabama as a 17-year-old, dripping with ability and confidence — not to mention strength that belied his age. Hurts was a competitive powerlifter in high school. He was squatting over 500 pounds before he was able to drive.

The last time the Crimson Tide had had a true freshman start at quarterback was 1984, but that gave Hurts no pause, not even when he was sitting fourth on the depth chart.

“He never acted like he was a freshman or the youngest player on the team. He acted like he was the starting quarterback even when he wasn’t,” said Josh Palet, a walk-on quarterback for Alabama in 2016. Hurts’ self-assuredness ruffled the feathers of the other scholarship QBs on the team.

“Truthfully, they didn’t like it. I mean, how would you feel if the youngest guy in the room talked like he was the starting quarterback when he was the fourth-string guy and acted like he was the man when he wasn’t? It rubbed people the wrong way. I didn’t care because I wasn’t a threat to Jalen. That’s why we were friends. But the other guys saw Jalen as a threat — at least they should have. And they didn’t like it at all,” Palet said.

“They would kind of seclude Jalen from their conversations, just stick with each other, and they would talk crap about him behind his back, like, ‘Who does this guy think he is? Why is he acting this way?’ Because they thought freshmen were supposed to come in and just be quiet, and Jalen wasn’t going to do that. He had a lot of friends on the team because he was a likable guy, so I don’t think the quarterbacks liked that either, that he was so involved with other players.”

Some close to Hurts were surprised when the Eagles drafted him in the second round in 2020 for this very reason. Hurts is an alpha male players naturally gravitate toward. He has been known as a good teammate at every stop but is not deferential when it comes to his position. Wentz was trying to reclaim his place in the center of the circle after Nick Foles‘ postseason heroics over the previous two seasons, which included a Super Bowl run, and did not respond well to Hurts’ presence. On the practice field, it was rare to see interaction between Hurts and Wentz, who was traded to the Indianapolis Colts this offseason after his relationship with the organization deteriorated.

“Jalen is a good guy, don’t get me wrong, but he is not the type of guy where you’re like, ‘Oh, we’re buddies,’ if you’re the starting quarterback. He’s going to look at you as a threat and try to take your job, which he should, and which he did,” Palet said. “I guarantee you he and Carson Wentz don’t have a good relationship.”

“I knew eventually he would take over,” added former Oklahoma receiver Lee Morris, “because he’s going to fight in any way possible in a professional manner to get that job.”

Hurts racked up over 3,700 yards with 36 total touchdowns as a freshman at Alabama en route to winning SEC Offensive Player of the Year. The Tide went 26-2 during his two seasons as a starter, but he was famously benched in favor of Tua Tagovailoa in the 2018 national championship game against Georgia. Tagovailoa engineered a comeback win for Alabama in the title game and won the starting job the next season. After spending most of his junior year as a backup, Hurts transferred to Oklahoma for the 2019 season, wounded and in search of a fresh start.

“We talked about it very briefly. … [He] expressed his disappointment in himself and was deeply hurt,” Henderson said. “But he immediately gathered himself and went back to work. … He blamed no one for the way things went at Alabama but himself, therefore he knew that the only one to fix it or make it better was himself.”

Hurts threw for 3,851 yards with 32 touchdowns to eight interceptions at Oklahoma and added another 1,298 yards and 20 scores on the ground, leading the Sooners to a 12-2 record and a win over Baylor in the Big 12 championship. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2019 behind eventual No. 1 pick Joe Burrow, and ahead of a host of other notable names, including DE Chase Young, RB Jonathan Taylor, QB Trevor Lawrence, QB Justin Fields and Tagovailoa.

The key moment in the season came after a crushing 48-41 loss to Kansas State in late October. The team was dejected as the Sooners readied to make the plane ride back to Oklahoma City. Hurts used that moment, on the tarmac, to send a message to the group that Morris credits for helping keep the team afloat.

“Everyone was looking straight at him, listening to him, every word he said. [The message was] this isn’t the end. This isn’t going to be what defines us,” he said.

R&B, crawfish and football

It’s not easy to unearth many of Hurts’ interests outside of football.

“I got him a bike once at Walmart, and he rode his bike around [Alabama]. I don’t know what the hell he did,” Palet said.

Hurts revealed during his Oklahoma days that he keeps a journal. His teammate at the time, wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, said Hurts sings — or at least “thinks he can sing.”

Music is where everybody eventually lands. Hurts has a thing for old-school R&B: the Isley Brothers, James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire. His taste in music is another example to cite for the many who describe Hurts as an “old soul” wise beyond his years.

And Hurts can cook — crawfish to be exact.

“His dad makes crawfish and his dad makes some really, really good crawfish, and [Jalen] has pretty much taken it over,” McNorton said. “If you asked, he’d probably tell you he’s the best.”

But football dominates, all the time. It was that way going back to high school. “All of his hobbies were the weight room or the football field or the film room,” Henderson said. “I used to say, ‘Go home. Do something.'”

Hurts will return to those fields in the offseason sometimes, training while the student body is in class or, more than likely, asleep. Hurts’ workouts start at 5 a.m. every day. Teammates who want to train with their QB have to be on his clock.

Those who have witnessed those player workouts will tell you that Hurts can be very demanding and that he will let the F-bombs fly if a teammate drops a pass or if a play is not crisp.

“If we didn’t connect on a route, we’re going to do it again and again and again until we got it right,” said Eagles receiver Greg Ward.

“It’s during practice and during the offseason when you get a chance to see the fire and passion that is really in him,” Henderson added. “Because the calm demeanor makes it seem like he’s always like this. But no.”

Hurts’ mindset was evident to Eagles receiver DeVonta Smith the first time they met, when Smith was a recruit at Alabama and Hurts was his host.

“It’s just like it is now,” Smith said of their interaction. “Laid-back, talking football. Nothing’s changed.”

The Philadelphia market can be a dizzying, disorienting beast for those who allow themselves to go for the ride. Part of the argument for sticking with Hurts beyond this season, besides the fact that he has racked up over 3,700 total yards and 26 touchdowns in his first full year as the starter and has his team in the playoffs, is that he seems equipped to handle this town — a sentiment Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins shared with Hurts last season when the latter was a rookie.

You need to stay cool when the bodies start flying at you and have an identity to anchor into when the seas get rough.

Hurts certainly seems to know his.

“I’m a motivated coach’s son from the Eastside of Houston,” he wrote in a Players’ Tribune article when introducing himself to the Oklahoma fan base in 2019, “and I love to play ball.”

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