Almost eight years later, Kevin Flanigan remembers Jalen Hurts for something many other folks probably would never have noticed. Perhaps only a Texas high school football coach would have zeroed in on it.

Flanigan is the athletic director of Tomball Independent School District, but back in 2015, he was head football coach at Beaumont’s West Brook High School. “It was a subvarsity game on a nasty, damp Thursday night,” Flanigan told me. Hurts, then about sixteen, was a member of the visiting Channelview Falcons. “I look over, and there’s Jalen standing on our sideline working with the chain crew. You could look at him and just tell he was thinking, ‘Okay, this is my role tonight.’ It’s a great example that he saw himself as part of the team, not the team.

“It wasn’t like him to say, ‘I’m too good for this,’ ” Flanigan continued. “That has always made an impact on me. There’s no way he had any idea that I would notice that, and that I would tell that story over the years to illustrate his character. I’ve told our teams that’s how you do it. And that’s the number one memory I have of Jalen Hurts—how he conducts himself.”

Super Bowl LVII on Sunday in Glendale, Arizona, will have a pair of former Texas high school quarterbacks—Patrick Mahomes, of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Hurts, of the Philadelphia Eagles. Mahomes played at Whitehouse High School and Texas Tech before the Chiefs made him the tenth pick of the 2017 NFL draft. He took the fast track to stardom, winning a Super Bowl in his third season (just his second as starter). With a string of television commercials and a ten-year, $450 million contract, he’s one of the NFL’s most recognizable faces—and arguably its best quarterback.

Hurts, a second-round draft pick of the Eagles in 2020, may be on a similar path. He became Philadelphia’s starter at the end of his first season, and he’s one victory away from a championship at the end of his third. While Mahomes obviously has thousands of fans in Texas, those who know Hurts best and have followed his career most closely feel an unusually special connection with him. Past coaches universally point to how he handled being benched at Alabama during halftime of the 2017 national championship game, a reaction they believe reflects the core values Hurts learned from his father, Averion Hurts Sr., longtime head coach at Channelview High School, outside Houston.

The night of his benching, Hurts returned to his hotel room and wept, according to his father. But his teammates never saw a trace of disappointment. Instead, Hurts cheered for his replacement, Tua Tagovailoa, and after the Crimson Tide’s win, Hurts celebrated on the field as if it was the happiest day of his life. He returned to Alabama the following season, coming off the bench to help the Tide win the Southeastern Conference championship game, then transferred to Oklahoma for his senior year.

“How many guys would have handled it that way?” asked Jeff Mathews, who recently retired after coaching 24 seasons at Vidor High. “They would have said they were getting screwed and wanted out. He cheered for his teammates, came back to school the following year, and graduated and never complained. I told his daddy about two weeks ago that the world needs more people like Jalen Hurts.

“There are leaners and there are lifters. Jalen Hurts is a lifter. He makes everyone around him better. Nobody wants to let him down. He just has that ability to inspire by what he does and who he is.”

Mathews remembers how Hurts sought him out after a game to thank him for some kind things he’d said in an interview that week. “I mean, to think to do that after a game,” Mathews said. “In thirty-three years in this business, I’ve never had anything like that happen.”

Flanigan remembers the way Alabama coaching staff became unnerved when Hurts had not yet announced his commitment to the school on social media. “I think it was Lane Kiffin that asked him, ‘Are we good? Are you still committed?’ ” Flanigan said. “They’d seen nothing on Twitter. Jalen didn’t do that stuff. He gave his word. That was enough. Someone at Alabama told him, ‘We’d kind of like for you to put it out there, so people know.’

“People talk about putting the team first and that sort of thing,” Flanigan added. “But very few do it. Very few put the team before themselves.”

North Shore head football coach Jon Kay, a four-time state champion, recalled the time a track meet was held up to give Hurts time to win the shot put before competing in the 4×100 relay. “We use Jalen as an example to our kids every year,” Kay said. “How he handled adversity the right way and was able to overcome it and play at the highest level. When you watch him play, it looks like the game comes easy to him. But the reality is, he’s been in the field house his entire life. He’s been studying this game since the day he was born.”

To focus on qualities like character and leadership should not take away from the fact that Hurts was an outstanding high school player. “We prided ourselves on never being intimidated,” said Kenny Harrison, who coached against Hurts at Port Arthur Memorial. “But Jalen intimidated us.”

Harrison is now the head coach at Summer Creek High, in Humble ISD, where Jalen’s older brother, Averion Hurts Jr., is quarterbacks coach. “[Jalen] embarrassed us his junior year, and then the next year, I’m walking on the field at Channelview, and all our guys were talking about was how good Jalen Hurts looks in his uniform,” Harrison said. “I knew we were in trouble.”

They were. Hurts ran for five touchdowns and passed for four in a 70–49 rout.

Hurts didn’t get the starting job immediately when he began his career at Channelview. Instead, his father strove to bring him along slowly and give him a complete understanding of the game. “The moment that stands out to me was the first game his junior year when I realized that he really had matured as a player and that he was different,” Averion Sr. said. “We beat some really good teams, and it got to a point where I felt like we walked into the game with the best player on the field. I’d never been in that situation before.”

Hurts threw for 2,384 yards and ran for 1,391 as a senior at Channelview. Earlier in his high school career, when he told his dad he was quitting the basketball and baseball teams to concentrate on football, his father urged him to find another outlet for his competitive instincts. Conveniently, Averion Sr. also happened to be the coach of the school powerlifting team. “It’s tough to get kids to commit, especially quarterbacks, to that level of lifting like he did,” Flanigan said. “But again, that’s the difference in being good and being great. He just did everything right.”

The result, it turned out, was a near-unstoppable quarterback at the high school level. “The power of his running was something I don’t know that he got enough credit for early on,” Kay said. “He runs like frickin’ Larry Csonka, though he looks light on his feet. People throw around the term ‘dual-threat quarterback,’ and to me, he’s really one of the few that I saw. I just remember truly not knowing how to defend a guy that could run with power, could run with speed, and had such touch and accuracy throwing the ball. He runs so effortlessly that you fall into the trap of thinking he’s not that fast. But you don’t see anybody catch him.”

In coming up with game plans against Jalen Hurts, some coaches decided to try and keep the signal-caller inside the pocket and force him to throw the ball. “We thought he had a cannon of an arm,” Mathews said. “We didn’t know how surgical he could be. He’d have a small window to get the ball in there, and he wasn’t scared to throw it. His senior season, my son Mason is one of our cornerbacks. On the first play, Mason crowded the wide receiver, and Jalen and the receiver just looked at each other. Just like that, a seventy-five-yard touchdown pass . . . eight seconds into the game.

“I remember getting on our kids the next morning,” Mathews continued. “I feel bad about that because last week I saw some of the same things happen to the [San Francisco] Forty-niners.”

Flanigan added: “Our defensive coordinator, Eric Peevey, was so funny—I’ve never seen it done before or after. He told our defensive players, ‘If you get in the backfield, and Jalen’s back there, I don’t care if you think you can make a play on him or not, do not flush him out of the pocket.’ There were several times our D linemen got back there and just stopped. They just froze and tried to hold him in there. If you forced him to throw it, there’s a chance someone would drop the ball. But if he took off and ran, it was over.”

To a man, every coach I spoke with mentioned that Jalen’s father was precisely the same kind of leader—that the lessons he instilled in his son are the same lessons he has been teaching for years at Channelview. This week has been a victory parade for Averion Sr., with congratulatory text messages and telephone calls coming in from hundreds of well-wishers, many fellow Texas high school coaches foremost among them.

One of them, former Dayton High head coach Jowell Hancock, now an assistant at Bullard, said he feels gratified to have had a front-row seat at the beginning of Jalen Hurts’s career. “We all got to witness a great person up close, and a great ballplayer too,” Hancock said. “The road was not always easy for Jalen. Character, skill, and a winner. Never answered the critics or the criticism. Just let his play on the field do the talking.”

Averion Sr. said the response has been overwhelming. “It’s truly humbling,” he told me. “And the most important thing to me is watching a young man make goals for himself—you know, things that he wanted, not that I wanted for him—and watch him work so hard and diligently to achieve them. His journey prepared him for now. We’ve always felt that God had a plan for him, and God had his hands on it. It made him a stronger man on earth.

“It’s humbling as a coach to have such kind words spoken about a former player,” Averion Sr. said. “When that’s your son, it really, really means a lot—the respect guys have for him.”