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Alabama’s Jalen Hurts shows a selflessness rarely seen in sports

Brave, fearless and all agents of change, athletes will be recognized every week for using their platform for the greater good

When freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa trotted onto the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to start the second half of the College Football Playoff National Championship last week, people close to the team were hardly floored by coach Nick Saban’s decision to bench his starter.

Alabama was down 13-0 at halftime, and Jalen Hurts, who had started every game at quarterback this season for the Crimson Tide, had struggled mightily against the Georgia defense, totaling just 21 yards on 3-of-8 passing. Despite his lone highlight, a 31-yard run, the offense needed a spark, and badly.

“I’ve been around that program and those coaches and those young men probably more than any other member of the national media, excluding the beat guys,” said ESPN college football reporter Marty Smith. “I’ve lived on that campus. There’s a very special culture — an understanding from the recruiting process that the best player is gonna play. If you’re great, you’re gonna have a shot to play.”

Hurts carried a 25-2 record as a starter into the National Championship. Tagovailoa, the Hawaii native who has roots in Polynesia, had seen only limited playing time during his freshman season. But Tagovailoa has an elite arm, and those in the know said his day would come. It was only a matter of when.

“Look, Tua was a legend before he even played in that championship game,” Smith said. “What he did in the spring dropped jaws from an athletic perspective. He’s as gifted a thrower as you will see at any level, certainly the college level. He has arm talent that’s just God-given. Seeing that ability made a lot of people anxious about seeing him in games.”

As Smith tells it, both players had an understanding of the moment.

“Tua was prepared for the moment, and Jalen had the grace to accept the moment,” Smith went on. “Doesn’t mean [Hurts] had to like it, but he accepted it for what the team needed in the moment. And that’s a 19-year-old kid, someone who has done nothing but win, someone who has managed a media spotlight. Remember, when you play for the University of Alabama, you’re Elvis.”

Then the game’s storybook ending unfolded: A scarcely used backup saved the day, giving his legendary coach a fifth national championship at Alabama and sixth overall. The benched starting QB supported his replacement and his teammates, didn’t pout, said all the right things and appeared to believe them.

“He’s an example of grace and selflessness that is such a tremendous example for young people in this world, of his age, that want instant gratification all of the time in this 140-character, ‘Look at me, like me, like me,’ Snapchat world,” raved Smith. “I am so impressed with what Jalen did in the moment, to be selfless. It was an example for me, and I’m a 40-year-old man.”

For that show of selflessness and sportsmanship — in the ultracompetitive, “next man up” collegiate landscape — Hurts is the Undefeated Athlete of the Week.

The narrative got even better when Tagovailoa took to Twitter to send a message to fans who bashed his teammate.

“They’re friends off the field who have unbelievable respect for each other. That, too, is to be commended,” Smith said. “Selflessness today is hard to come by, and [Hurts] is a shining example of being a good teammate when it’s damn hard to be a teammate.”

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.