Hurst bursts upon CFL scene

The field is wider, the goalposts are positioned closer, the endzones are 10-yards deeper and the contracts pale in comparison to those in the National Football League. Make no mistake, the Canadian Football League does not stack up to the NFL. But for former Husky running back Willie Hurst, it's an opportunity he couldn't refuse.

As an undrafted free agent, Hurst hoped to latch on with an NFL team in late April. He thought that his 137-yard, two-touchdown showing at the Holiday Bowl against the stingy Texas defense would spark some interest among NFL scouts. It surpised him when the phones didn't ring and few teams around the league made inquiries for his services. In fact, the only team to give him a tryout was the Indianapolis Colts. Shortly thereafter, the Colts informed Hurst that its roster was full and there wouldn't be room for him.

"I actually thought that I was going to end up taking this year off because I didn't hear anything from the NFL or the CFL," Hurst said, "but right before my tryout at Indianapolis I got a call from the B.C. Lions."

"My agent called me and told me that there were seven other running backs ahead of me. I don't know if they skipped them and went straight to me or what, but I was pretty fortunate to get this opportunity."

The Lions signed Hurst, and the shifty five-foot, eight-inch running back headed up to Vancouver, B.C. to begin his professional career. Seven months removed from his final game in the purple and gold, Hurst now dons silver and black. Gone are the precious days of #8 - or for those of you who remember back to his freshman year, #1. These days Willie wears #33 as the starting tailback for the Lions. The drastic uniform changes haven't gone unnoticed to the rookie tailback.

"We play indoors and have a replay screen," explained Hurst. "I look up and I see myself in black and silver and it kind of throws me off. I'm so used to seeing myself with the number eight on in purple and gold. It's going to take some getting used to."

So far, he's fit in just fine with his new club. After spending a week on the team's practice squad to become accustomed with the offense, Hurst rushed for over 150 yards in his CFL debut a week ago.

Willie described his first game in the CFL in one word, "Different."

The reasons are numerous. "I started bouncing outside and I'm used to having to turn it upfield, but (in the CFL) you have an extra ten yards of sideline to go because the field is much wider," he said. "If I can jump offsides in the backfield, it's legal. There's an extra man on each side of the field, and the goalposts are in front of the endzone. But when it all came down to it, it was just football."

Hurst, who became just the ninth 2000-yard rusher in UW's history, felt his opening-game perfomance made a lasting impression on the Lions' coaching staff.

"They loved it," he said. "I think I impressed them pretty much. I missed two games, was on the practice squad for about a week, and when I came back I was in the starting lineup so I think they wanted to see what I could do in a hurry."

Those who have followed Hurst over the past four years know exactly what he can do; dart, juke, spin, and sprint - often all the way to the endzone. Nobody would know better than Joe Tafoya, the defensive end from the University of Arizona who Hurst miraculously spun away from during a nail-biting contest last season, sprinting the remaining yards down the north sideline all the way to the west endzone at Husky Stadium. The play made it on every single college football highlight show that night, and for a long time thereafter. It's a play that Hurst recalls almost on a daily basis, and one that ranks highest on his list of personal highlights.

"Whenever people see me, still ask me about that play," said the proud tailback. "People I've never met before still come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you're Willie, I remember that play you made in the Arizona game.' I tell them the same thing all the time, ‘I had no clue how I did it, and if I had to do it again I couldn't.'"

Aside from that play, one other memory ranks even higher on his list of favorite Husky memories - winning the Rose Bowl.

"For all 10 teams in the Pac-10, that is the goal," Hurst said. "That's what they all shoot for at the beginning of the season when they come together and start two-a-days. A lot of people go through their careers without getting a chance at winning a Pac-10 Championship let alone a Rose Bowl ring, and I got both."

Now as a member of the B.C. Lions, Hurst has been reunited with an old friend, former Husky defensive lineman Mac Tuiaea. The two hadn't seen each other since Tuiaea left Montlake in ‘99, but it didn't take long for them to get reacquainted. During the first couple practices that the Lions held, the team practiced without pads and were only in helmets. Every time Hurst tried to run the ball Mac was there in the middle making the play.

Hurst couldn't believe the sight of his former teammate at first glance. "He was over 300 pounds and looked like a house," he recalled thinking. "I actually told him at one point, ‘Mac, move out of my way, go get blocked somewhere.'"

Now they are roommates, and both have time to look back at their glory days as Huskies.

Hurst admits he already misses college football. So what's he going to miss most?

"Just the pageantry of it," Hurst says, needing no time to think of an answer. "Saturday afternoons. ABC sports. Keith Jackson. 72,000 people screaming. I miss Pac-10 football already and it hasn't even been a year yet (since I've been gone). I miss the whole college experience. I just had a ball from start to finish."

While settling in to his new life in the CFL Hurst has set his goals high from the get-go, already feasting his eyes on the Rookie of the Year award. The competition will be fierce, though, with former NFL running backs Lawrence Phillips (Rams) and John Avery (Dolphins) the leading candidates to win the award.

Willie looks back fondly at his time spent as a Husky. He wears a black towel with two streamers on it containing the numbers 25 and 23 in honor of his fallen teammates, Curtis Williams and Anthony Vontoure. "Whenever I play it means that they are playing right there with me," Hurst says. Having spent four years of his life with the same group of guys, he formed life-long friendships and still talks to many of his Husky teammates.

Though Vancouver, B.C. is a good three-hour drive from Seattle, Willie says he's going to try to make it to as many Husky games in 2002 as possible. He believes the backfield will be solid with Rich Alexis and Braxton Cleman holding the experience advantage, and can't say enough positive remarks about quarterback Cody Pickett.

"Cody is going to be extremely good," he said. "He did things in his first season that Marques did (as a senior). Cody took us on game-winning drives. He's a very poised kid and likes the pressure. He wants the ball in his hand. When there's only a few seconds left on the clock, he wants to throw that ball to the corner of the endzone to win it. That competitive spirit comes out in him all the time, and you need a quarterback who's competitive like that."

Willie has a final message for Husky fans everywhere who are wondering whatever happened to good ‘ol number 8, that tailback they'd been watching since the fall of ‘98.

"I'm doing very well right now. If you want to find me, I'm in Vancouver, B.C. (laughs). I'm having a ball playing professional football. It's probably not what I wanted right off the bat, but it's a definite opportunity that will help me get where I want to go."

And when an opportunity knocks, Willie answers. Top Stories