This article is part of the 2023 TIME100 Next, our annual list recognizing rising leaders in health, climate, business, sports, the arts, and more. Read more about Jalen Hurts—and see the whole list—here.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts and I are huddling on a field at a vacant southern New Jersey athletic facility, discussing his journey to the summit of his pressure-cooked profession. It’s early August, and Hurts is enjoying a rare off-day from training camp, where he and the Eagles are preparing for a potential return trip to the Super Bowl; Philadelphia lost to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs 38-35 back in February.
Hurts is the lone NFL superstar to assemble an all-female management team to handle his business and communications affairs. He views his mother Pamela, who juggled the coursework needed to earn a master’s degree in education with raising Jalen and his siblings, as an inspiration. He champions women’s empowerment.
So, as the outside world is smack in the middle of “Barbenheimer” mania, yammering on about their preference for one of the two hit movies of the summer, I ask what I figure is a reasonable question: has he seen Barbie?
Hurts shoots me a look as if I’ve asked him to translate works of ancient Roman literature. He’s barely heard of the film, a phenomenon that had grossed $162 million at the domestic box office in its opening weekend not even two weeks earlier. “What is it about?” he asks.
OK. By chance, has he made time for Oppenheimer? Now Hurts looks like I just asked him to split an atom. He’s not at all understanding my language. At this point in time, Hurts clearly has little brain space for the culture at large.
“I’m in a different mode right now,” says Hurts.
In what’s surely good news for Eagles fans—and a threat to the rest of the NFL—Hurts is locked in on besting his breakout performance from last season, when in his second full year as a starting quarterback he had a 14-1 record in the regular season, finished second to Mahomes in NFL MVP voting, and nearly clinched for Philadelphia’s crazed fan base the second Super Bowl title in Eagles history. His arm (Hurts threw for 3,701 yards and tossed 22 touchdown passes) and legs (he ran for 760 yards and 13 scores on the ground, a league high for QBs) earned Hurts a five-year, $255 million contract extension in April, making him, for a brief period, the highest-paid player, on an annual basis, in NFL history. Not bad for a guy who, according to his 2020 draft profile that still resides on NFL.com, was likened to flash-in-the-pan Tim Tebow and projected to be “a solid backup with upward mobility.”
Hurts saw back then that many Eagles fans were apoplectic that the team even drafted him in the second round, considering that Philadelphia already had a franchise quarterback, Carson Wentz, on the roster. Now he knows some people are questioning whether, after just one stellar season, he’s worth his astronomical price tag.
“I find a thrill in the doubt, the hate, the disbelief,” says Hurts, 25, who in college was forced to transfer schools after being benched during a national championship game. “At this point in my life, it’s something I want you to do. Because it’s always been that way. Why would I want them to change their ways now?”
Hurts came into this year’s training camp fitter than ever. This summer he and Hall of Famer Peyton Manning texted each other screenshots of plays, scribbled on pieces of paper, during their ongoing exchange of ideas. In mid-August, when I spoke to Manning, he said Hurts had just left him a voice memo that morning, asking about his mindset in the red zone. “You didn't hear him talk a lot about the contract,” says Manning, who is impressed with Hurts’ curiosity and unselfishness. “It’s ‘let's go to work.’ You can tell that he's motivated and not satisfied with a great season. He wants to go back and take that next step. That says a lot about him.”
Hurt’s father, Averion Hurts Sr., has coached football at Channelview High School in the Houston area since 2006, and he’d bring Jalen and his older brother, Averion Jr., to summer preseason practices. “Free daycare,” says Averion Sr. When Hurts was 7 or 8 years old, according to his dad, he’d outlast some varsity players during running drills. His early exposure to football fueled a competitive fire, and in his senior year at Channelview, under his father’s tutelage, Hurts threw for 2,384 yards, ran for 1,391 more, and threw and ran for a combined 51 touchdowns in 11 games. Meanwhile, while in high school Hurts also participatedin powerlifting competitions, which is almost unheard of for a quarterback. He could squat 570 pounds. “You want to separate yourself from the other quarterbacks who are getting recruited,” says Hurts. “So I completely bought into it. This is what makes me different, a breed of his own in terms of strength.”
Alabama offered him a scholarship and he thrived in Tuscaloosa, going 26-2 as a starter in his two seasons at the helm, but at halftime in the national championship game following the 2017 season, with the Crimson Tide trailing 13-0, head coach Nick Saban benched him. Tua Tagovailoa guided Alabama to a comeback, and Hurts spent his junior season backing him up before transferring to Oklahoma for his final college year. As a Sooner, Hurts finished second to Joe Burrow in the 2019 Heisman trophy voting before the Eagles shocked their demanding fanbase by selecting him 53rd overall.
“I think it's very common for star players, first-round draft picks to come into situations in the NFL where they've never really been tested with questions about how good they are,” says veteran Eagles center Jason Kelce, a five-time All-Pro. “You might think of it as a negative, being benched at Alabama and having to transfer. The reality is, these moments of adversity make people stronger. You’ve got to be in a very mature state to enter the NFL and to play in this market especially. Jalen was ready to go.”
“I’ve been at the mountaintop and the valley low,” says Hurts. “The thing that I understand is every year, it resets. Every year is a new challenge. And every year, those new challenges require a new work ethic and a new faith.”
His work ethic was rewarded his rookie season, when former Eagles coach Doug Pederson benched Wentz near the end of an ugly 4-11-1 campaign, giving Hurts an extended audition for the starting job. Hurts showed enough promise that Philadelphia traded Wentz to Indianapolis after the season. Under new coach Nick Sirianni in 2021, Hurts led Philly to the playoffs, before the Super Bowl appearance a year later.
Hurts fell for Philadelphia: his go-to cheesesteak spot is Larry’s, which not coincidentally was also favored by Kobe Bryant, who went to high school in the Philadelphia area. Hurts considers Bryant and Michael Jordan his athletic idols. “I’ve wondered, where did Kobe get his way from?” he says. “I did the math. He got it from Mike. I love both of them. I love how they went about their business. For me, that’s the standard.”
Between them, Jordan and Bryant won 11 NBA championships (six for Jordan, five for Bryant). Hurts had a terrific Super Bowl, statistically: he completed 27 of 38 passes for 304 yards with a touchdown. He also became the first quarterback ever to rush for three scores in a Super Bowl. But at the start of training camp, video surfaced showing Hurts’ cell phone lock screen. It was an image of a dejected Hurts walking off the Super Bowl field in Arizona, confetti at his feet, a reminder of what he still has left to accomplish.
In March, Hurts returned home to Houston and indulged in a favorite hobby: cooking crawfish for family and friends. “Cooking is a great outlet for him,” says Averion Sr. “I’m sitting there watching this NFL quarterback that played in the Super Bowl, who was about to get all this money, boiling crawfish and being as happy as can be. Giddy and so relaxed. In that moment, I’m looking at Jalen Hurts, my son.”
Hurts exudes the same confidence in his chef skills as he does his quarterbacking ability. “Boiled crawfish is not everybody’s fan favorite, but usually when I make it, it becomes a fan favorite,” he says. “My mom likes it. My grandmother loves it. So that's good enough for me. My girlfriend loves it even more.”
Still, Hurts isn’t filling up too much on Cajun food. Quite the opposite: his body-fat percentage was down to 7.1 at training camp. “That body fat is not going to get me the things that I want to accomplish tangibly, but it's just a little piece of investment in my eyes,” Hurts says. “Obviously, everybody has their own journeys and endeavors. But I think it's important to try and navigate what your process looks like and identify what's important to you. Set it very clear, in stone, and make a plan to go get it.”
His approach has won over teammates. “He is maniacally obsessed with football,” says Kelce. “When you compile the athletic ability, instincts, and this obsession with being the best in the world, that’s why he’s had this success. It's hard to have all of those qualities wrapped up in one person.”
In May, Hurts also earned a master’s degree—in human relations, from the University of Oklahoma—just like his mother. “For me, there is no arrival,” says Hurts. “There’s only the journey. I've had a very rare and unprecedented journey, and I embrace that. I embrace whatever it is to come.” That includes the high expectations of Eagles fans. “I embrace the enthusiasm of the city,” he says. “I embraced the enthusiasm in Norman, in Tuscaloosa, and now here in Philadelphia. I can guarantee you no one wants it as bad as I do.”
Barbie will just have to wait.
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Write to Sean Gregory at firstname.lastname@example.org