At halftime of the College Football National Championship Game, Jalen Hurts wasn’t just his name; it was an apt description. The Alabama quarterback was just 3-8 with 21 passing yards in a woeful first half that was the main reason the Crimson Tide trailed Georgia 13-0.
Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban had seen enough. Hurts couldn’t make easy throws, couldn’t move the ball downfield, couldn’t win. So Saban pulled him, and obviously, Jalen hurt.
Audio highlights courtesy of ESPN
This was supposed to be his moment. The 19 year-old sophomore had led the Tide to two straight National Championship Games and was the 2016 SEC Offensive Player of the Year. He had thrown 17 touchdowns, rushed for 8 more, and had just one interception all year. He completed 60% of his passing and his quarterback rating was a whopping 150.7. Quarterbacks with those types of numbers never get benched, especially in the second half of a title game.
But Jalen Hurts did, and even though he hurt, he swallowed his pride along with his dreams of being the hero, and accepted that what was best for the team he led wouldn’t be what was best for him.
In the second half, Alabama turned to freshman Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, and suddenly the Tide was rolling. Tagovailoa was making the throws that Hurts wasn’t, and Alabama was suddenly moving the ball.
And even though Jalen hurt at being benched, there he was talking to his replacement at every opportunity, giving him advice and calming his nerves. When Tagovailoa threw a touchdown to get Alabama back in the game, Hurts was the first one on the sideline to hug him.
He might not get to be the hero, but Hurts was doing everything he could to help his team win.
A second Tagovailoa touchdown and a missed Alabama field goal sent the game to overtime, where Hurts’ replacement earned a spot in history with a National Championship-winning touchdown throw.
Was Jalen Hurts angry that his team won without him? Was he bitter Tagovailoa was the hero of the story and he was little more than a footnote? In the melee of the Tide’s celebration, the cameras searched immediately for him...and found him sprinting toward his replacement with outstretched arms and a huge smile on his face. He wasn’t hurt for himself, he was euphoric for his team, and in the way he put his team above himself showed the entire world what a true leader looks like.
In his dreams, he would have been the hero who threw the game-winning touchdown, but reality required something even more difficult—not being the hero who threw the game-winning touchdown. Reality required him to support the hero who took his place and guide him to the comeback that he could have led. Reality required him to help from the sidelines while someone else earned the glory.
And reality made him perhaps even greater of a hero than he dreamed himself to be.
Sure, he wasn’t the hero on the field, but he’s a hero to every coach who as ever tried to teach his players about subverting their own egos for the good of their team. He’s a hero to every player who has ever suffered the embarrassment of a benching or the drudgery of never getting into the game at all. He’s a hero to everyone who can forever look to Jalen’s hurt and his team’s triumph as an example of the selflessness it takes to win, not just in football, but in life.
We all want to be the hero of our own story, saving the day and earning the eternal admiration of our peers. We hurt when we can’t be, when someone else—a friend, a family member, a coworker—shines a little brighter, when it seems that their story will have a happier ending than our own. Yet we, like Jalen Hurts, must all sometimes swallow our pride, support our friends and teammates, and be genuinely happy for their heroics even if a part of us secretly wishes they were ours.
That’s why Jalen’s hurt isn’t really hurt at all. It’s toughness, it’s sacrifice, it’s character—the sort of character we should all strive for when it matters most.