A group of youth football players jockeyed for position and stretched out their hands with footballs, gloves, whatever they had. It was already a hot day, and getting hotter, in the middle of training camp this summer and Eagles left tackle Jordan Mailata graciously stayed out on the field at the NovaCare Complex to sign autographs after practice.
It was a cool moment with a funny twist.
“Jordan!” one kid yelled. “Can you get Jalen to come over here?!”
All Mailata could do was chuckle.
Because Jordan Mailata is cool. But he’s no Jalen Hurts. No one is.
And coming off a near-MVP season and an all-time great performance in the Super Bowl, Hurts’ celebrity status has reached new heights as the Eagles prepare for the 2023 season.
Of course, fame is nothing new to Hurts, who became a starting quarterback at Alabama as a true freshman in 2016. … But this is different.
“Yeah, I think that’s the nature of it. It comes with it,” Hurts said recently. “And I think it takes great perspective to understand that I was that one kid that Andre Johnson gave a pair of cleats to, signed my jersey, signed whatever that was back then. And so, it's just a thing of (time) management, you know.
“And obviously, you want to be respectful and show gratitude to the people that come to support because they don't have to do that. But also, you want to be reasonable with your time, as you are at work, and you are preparing and getting ready and intense in that. But you never want to forget that this game isn't what it is without the support that we have. And so you have to acknowledge that, and that's something that I always try and do.”
Every time Hurts steps on the field these days, he’s serenaded by chants of his name or “M-V-P!” He can’t really go out in the city — not that he’d want to anyway, especially not during the season. Hurts is a mega star, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, signed to Jordan Brand, and there’s simply no avoiding all the attention that follows.
“It is humbling. It is pure to see the kids, kids, the kids are loaning their support,” Hurts said. “But I also want to give them something to believe in as well.”
Hurts, 25, is humbled by the support and yet surprisingly comfortable with a level of celebrity most people can’t even fathom.
Maybe you can thank Johnson for that a little bit. Because when Johnson became a star in Houston, you have to remember how big of a deal he was. Johnson was the third overall pick out of Miami and thrived despite that pressure. He was the best player on a lot of bad teams. His first Pro Bowl season in 2004 came when Hurts was just 6 years old and his last came in 2013, when Hurts was playing for his father at Channelview High School.
Johnson ended up playing 12 years for the Texans, putting together a strong Hall of Fame case. Before J.J. Watt or Arian Foster or DeAndre Hopkins, Johnson was the guy in Houston. And as a kid from the Houston area, you can imagine how much it meant to Hurts to have those interactions, thanks in part to Hurts’ godfather working for the Texans at the time.
Oh yeah, Johnson was a Jordan Brand athlete too. In a full-circle moment, Hurts signed with Jordan Brand this offseason.
And now Hurts is a player who generations of younger athletes will look up to the way he once looked up to Johnson and Michael Vick. And the Eagles’ franchise quarterback doesn’t want to take that for granted. His main job is to play football and win games, but taking time for fans is a part of it too.
“I go back to the main thing, and I think it's all in having awareness, being diligent, having grace, being mindful of everything,” Hurts said. “But not losing sight of what the main thing is internally for me. And that's the No. 1 thing that matters. You have to be able to assess it for what it is and I do find joy in that.”
Go anywhere in Philadelphia and you’re going to see No. 1 jerseys. Go to an Eagles game and it’s the most common one in the stands.
Take a look at the top selling NFL jerseys in 2023, through June, per NFLShop.com:
1. Jalen Hurts
2. Aaron Rodgers
3. Micah Parsons
4. Patrick Mahomes
5. Josh Allen
6. Joe Burrow
7. Justin Fields
8. Tom Brady
9. Bryce Young
10. Christian McCaffrey
Just a year ago, folks were asking whether or not Hurts was going to be the Eagles’ long-term franchise quarterback. He silenced that talk pretty early in 2022 and ended up having a fantastic Pro Bowl season. He was rewarded this offseason with a $255 million contract extension.
It’s no surprise that Eagles fans are buying his jersey as much as they are.
All this stuff is secondary for Hurts, though. He appreciates the support, he wants to make time for fans, he’s humbled by seeing his name being worn by kids on their backs.
But even as Hurts' celebrity grows and he feels that pull on him, it’s not that hard for him to divvy up his time.
“It's easy for me because the main thing is the main thing and it will never change,” Hurts said. “So I don't do the social media stuff, but I know you guys see the things that are out there and all the different things. You know, when I'm here, it's for football. This is what I do. This is why I'm here.
“And regardless of what's going on whatever it is when I'm by myself when I have a time to think, when I have a time to decompress and do whatever, I think about winning. It's the only thing that matters.”
Hurts has that mindset, that winning is the only thing that matters.
But even he knows that isn’t entirely true. Because every interaction he has with a young Eagles fan is something they’re probably going to remember forever. Hurts knows that because he was that kid once.
All these years later, does Hurts still have those cleats from Andre Johnson?
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s a dad question.”
Dad wasn’t exactly sure either. In an email, Averion Hurts said he didn’t think the cleats were still with the family. He thinks there were likely “repurposed” at some point.
But it was never about the actual cleats. It was about a superstar taking some time out of his day to share a moment with a kid who idolized him. Who knows? Maybe Hurts has already spent a moment with the next great NFL star.