Amaze. Inspire. Surprise. You’ll be hearing those words a lot in the coming weeks—together, they cut to the heart of why we love sports in the first place. So in the days leading up to the naming of SI’s Sportsperson we’ll be looking back and shining a light on the athletes, moments and teams (and one horse) who did one—or all—of those things in 2018. There can be only one Sportsperson. But it has been a year full of deserving candidates.
Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher stood in front of his locker after the SEC Championship and tried to wrap his brain around the moment he’d just snapped and blocked through. “You couldn’t write this in a book,” Pierschbacher said after Alabama’s 35-28 win against Georgia. “You couldn’t make this up.”
He’s not wrong. Writing a movie script that covered the life of Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts during an 11-month span bookended by games against Georgia at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium would earn a mailbox full of rejection letters. Even the person who green lights the flicks on the Hallmark Channel would pass. “Too unbelievable,” they’d say. “Too corny.”
But just in case, here’s the elevator pitch…
Quarterback wins the starting job at a storied football program as a true freshman and then proceeds to win his first 25 games as a starter and lead his team to the national title game in each of his first two seasons. In the first half of that second national title game, he leads his team to exactly zero points and gets benched. His Hawaiian backup saves the day, winning their team the national title. Months later, the former backup wins the starting job for the next season. The ex-starter doesn’t sulk. He doesn’t make excuses. He doesn’t leave even though he could start practically anywhere else. Then, with another season hanging in the balance, the national title game hero gets hurt and the guy who got benched in the same building against the same team replaces him and saves the day.
The whole scenario would be completely unbelievable if it hadn’t happened exactly like that.
Hurts entered the national title game on Jan. 8 with a 25-2 record as a starter. With Alabama trailing 13-0 at halftime, coach Nick Saban needed to give the offense a spark. So he turned to then-freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who engineered one of the great comebacks in the game’s history and capped it with the ultimate ONIONS throw—a 41-yard strike to Devonta Smith down the left sideline—on second-and-26 in overtime to turn a three-point deficit into a confetti storm.
That night, Hurts offered nothing but praise. “We won,” he said in the locker room. “We’re national champs. You can’t wish for anything better than that.” Inside, his guts churned. Hurts cried with his family in a hotel room hours later. What would he do? After a consultation with his parents, he decided. He’d keep fighting for the job he lost.
All offseason, we wondered when Hurts would transfer. The NCAA had just passed a rule allowing players to play in four games and still redshirt. That meant as long as Hurts—who never redshirted—left Alabama without playing in a fifth game, he could redshirt the 2018 season, graduate from Alabama in December and start for two years somewhere else.
Instead, Hurts stayed and fought. This doesn’t make him a better person than the players who chose to transfer to find a better situation, but it does make him unique. A lineman who doesn’t win the left tackle spot can play right tackle or guard. The cornerback who doesn’t win one of the two starting spots might still play nickel. A quarterback either starts or sits—hence the frequency of transfers at the position. But Hurts, who could still transfer after this season if he chooses, wanted to win with these teammates, at this school. And even though Tagovailoa had the best season an Alabama quarterback has ever had in 2018, Hurts had a sense those teammates eventually would need him. “He always said there would be a time when he had to make a play,” Alabama tailback Josh Jacobs said.
That time came with 11:25 remaining in the SEC Championship on Dec. 2. Georgia led by seven when Tagovailoa, who had sprained his left ankle in the first quarter, injured his right foot and ankle and had to be helped off the field. In came Hurts, who led Alabama to a tying touchdown on a tight-window throw in the back right corner of the end zone to Jerry Jeudy. After Alabama’s defense got him the ball back, Hurts led the Tide down the field again. This time, he capped the game-winning drive with a 15-yard touchdown run.
Saban, whose most frequently exhibited on-field emotion is rage, nearly choked up talking about Hurts. Tagovailoa, the beneficiary of Hurts’s grace nearly 11 months earlier, returned it in kind. Why do sports mean so much to us? Because sports make moments like this one …
For engineering a storybook ending that no one would believe, even if they read it in a storybook, we’ll remember Jalen Hurts in 2018—and in the years after.