Husky Football personified

More than any other player I can think of, Willie Hurst is the embodiment of Husky football. He entered the Washington scene in 1998 with tremendous talent, but like the Huskies in relation to the LA schools, somehow there was always a lingering sense that he was a perpetual underdog.

Now in the grand scheme of things, the challenges Hurst faced pale in comparison to other plights in life; such as children battling through cancer, widows dealing with the loss of a spouse, or even the saga of Hurst's own teammate Curtis Williams.

But as an example of hanging tough when things aren't going well personally, the heart and effort demonstrated by Willie Hurst in his Husky career appealed to me as a quality topic for an article. He was considered by all to be a team player, but I wanted to focus this article on his personal career and viewpoint. For Hurst, there always seemed to be a hurdle standing in the way, a litany of challenges to overcome, before finally being lauded in his senior season for the talent and heart that he possessed.

As a pure freshman playing for Jim Lambright, Hurst took over the tailback position during the fourth game of the year and ended up starting five of the final seven games. He rushed for 538 yards and featured his top performance of 155 yards against the Cougars in the Apple Cup. The future looked bright. It looked like Hurst was to be the main man in Washington's backfield for the next three years.

In January 1999, Jim Lambright had just been fired and the Rick Neuheisel era was underway. Early on in the fall campaign, Hurst had a memorable performance, rushing for 161 yards against the Ducks in a night victory in Husky Stadium. However, it was at the halfway part of this sophomore season that Hurst began running into personal challenges. He started getting banged up, and also tore a muscle in his side. Paul Arnold had been the golden recruit that year, and as the season progressed, Arnold's playing time increased as Hurst suddenly saw his playing time steadily frittering away.

"I noticed my carries decreasing", Hurst recently told "Suddenly I was down to 10 carries a game, or less. I was the starter but I was no longer the guy getting the carries. I'm a competitor, and so that was tough to deal with… Then an article came out in a local paper saying that the Huskies needed to do something about the running game, that Willie Hurst was responsible for eight of the team's 12 fumbles- when in reality it was 4 out of 16… Larry Triplett went to bat for me, speaking out… and he took some heat for that."

Going into the spring of 2000, Hurst began to enter into the toughest phase of his career. The coaches approached #8 and asked him to make a position switch to wide receiver.

Hurst during UW pre-school drills

"They told me that with Paul Arnold and Maurice Shaw, they had the backfield combo they needed. I was willing to try, but learning a brand new position in fifteen practices was tough… I learned something about wide receivers; they have to make stops going at full speed. I started developing pains in my knees, I wasn't used to that," said Hurst.

Immediately after the conclusion of the spring game, Hurst went to the coaches and told them he wanted to switch back to running back. When again the Husky staff reiterated that they had the backfield combination they needed, Hurst told them that this was fine but that he just wanted a chance. He requested their word that he could have the opportunity to climb back up the depth chart. He wanted to be a running back.

The 2000 season started out well for the Huskies, but Hurst had spot play at best. Washington beat Idaho, 4th-ranked Miami and Colorado to open up 3-0. In the loss to Oregon, Hurst only had four carries for eight yards. Then the following week, Hurst hit the low point, from a personal standpoint. Resurgent Oregon State was coming to town, and the Huskies held off a late drive and handed the Beavers their only defeat of the season.

"What hurt the most was that playing for Oregon State were two players that I knew real well (from growing up in Compton, CA), Patrick McCall and Richard Manning," said Hurst. "I didn't play at all, not a single down… After the game I went berserk in the locker room, throwing things all over the place. I had pretty much had enough. I had never been a problem for anyone; I had kept my nose clean and always practiced hard… I definitely felt like the coaches had given up on me, and I didn't understand it."

The idea of transferring from Washington began being contemplated in Hurst's mind. Willie's Dad got involved a bit, taking part in a conference call with Rick Neuheisel. But Willie decided to stay, to continue to be a team player and keep pushing forward.

"I felt like if I kept working hard and stayed focused, eventually there would be a silver lining. I was fortunate to have good friends around me, who kept telling me `you'll get your chance, everything is going to be all right.'" When I asked Hurst who in particular was supportive, he rattled off a list of names, and stated concern that he might leave someone out. "Jerramy Stevens, Jafar Williams, Patrick Reddick, Todd Elstrom, Larry Triplett, Kyle Benn, Roderick Green, Jamaun Willis, Sam Blanche, Omare Lowe… If it weren't for them, I don't know what might have happened."

The turning point for Hurst came amid tragedy. The Stanford victory was had at the expense of Curtis Williams' severe spinal cord injury. The following week, with Williams watching from his California hospital room TV the pre-game ceremony dedicated to him, Willie Hurst had his finest hour as a player. In the span of 2:30, Willie tallied two touchdowns to spark a comeback to beat the Wildcats. His first score was a scintillating 65-yard scamper down the right sideline for a touchdown on an option pitch. The second was a gravity defying spinning 23-yard touchdown run that was critical to Washington's victory. Hurst was hit head-on by a Wildcat defender and somehow he spun at the moment of contact, did a 360-degree turn, put his hand down to keep from touching a knee, and kept his feet, completing the crucial score. It was ESPN's play of the day, and was shown on SportsCenter no less than five times that night.

Following the game, Rick Neuheisel graciously stated in effect that Willie Hurst was proving the coaching staff wrong. Hurst didn't hear this directly, but received an elated call from his Mom that night.

"She said `did you hear what he said about you'? With a laugh Willie said, "That was a damn good feeling."

Hurst recalls the most fulfilling moment for him was the realization his senior year that his teammates had just elected him captain. "That was definitely the high point of my career", he stated emphatically.

His senior season had some great moments where his hard work had bore tangible fruit. He rushed for 185 yards against Arizona State, then following that up with a 108-yard, 3- touchdown performance against Stanford. He is probably best remembered for his tremendous effort against Texas in the Holiday Bowl, where he rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns, despite a loss in a thrilling contest.

On the peaks and valleys of his Husky career, Hurst feels that it was beneficial. "It made me a way stronger player. I could never relax, I always had to mind my Ps and Qs the whole time. I never knew on Saturday how many chances I was going to get, so it made me turn up the intensity. You know how they say that the first two or three carries for running backs are used to get into the flow of the game? Well I never felt I had that. I had to be running (full speed) right off the bat… All that made my will even stronger than it was."

These days Willie is living in Vancouver and preparing for his upcoming season with the CFL's B.C. Lions (Practices begin May 24th). Willie Hurst may be in the CFL, but he maintains NFL aspirations. For anyone who saw the slashing style and demonic intensity with which he ran the football during his senior season at U-Dub, there is little doubt that he can overcome this latest hurdle and be playing someday on Sundays.
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories