Jalen Hurts stared up at an elevated stage crowded with Philadelphia Eagles teammates, at the arena scoreboard projecting their images, and then into the crowd of fans who descended on the Footprint Center on Monday night for the so-called opening night of Super Bowl week.
“These are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” Hurts, the Eagles’ third-year quarterback, said as he answered questions from reporters on a podium flanking the stage. “So I appreciate everything.”
On Sunday, Hurts will play in the NFL’s championship game for the first time when he faces the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is playing in his third Super Bowl. But Hurts looked and sounded every bit the veteran as he calmly handled an hour-long, rapid-fire onslaught of questions.
Hurts, 24, said he received advice from former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and two-time Super Bowl champion Peyton Manning.
“Donovan, he’s telling me to treat it all the same,” Hurts said. “[Manning] gave me some encouragement to tell me how he handled the week, how he handled his preparation and how you want to go about it.
“So, definitely had some great influence and input from good people.”
This will be the first time that two Black quarterbacks will start in the Super Bowl. Hurts was asked numerous times about the significance.
“Historic,” he said. “I think the game has evolved and it’s continuing to evolve before our eyes. That’s the beautiful thing to see, and to be a part of this history is a blessing.
“To be able to give the next generation of quarterbacks something to believe in, something to look forward to.”
Hurts pointed to the Eagles’ line of quarterbacks who helped pave the way for him, including Randall Cunningham, Rodney Peete, McNabb and Michael Vick.
“I told those guys … I just want to carry the torch for them,” Hurts said.
Hurts’ road to the Super Bowl was anything but a straight line.
As an Alabama freshman in 2016, he led the Crimson Tide to the national championship game. He did it again the next season, but he was replaced by Tua Tagovailoa in the second half of the title game against Clemson. Hurts was a backup as a junior and then transferred to Oklahoma for his final season, finishing as the runner-up to Joe Burrow in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
The Eagles selected Hurts in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft, and he eventually supplanted Carson Wentz as the starter. Last season, he led the Eagles to the playoffs.
This season, Hurts passed for 22 touchdowns and rushed for 13 as the Eagles finished 14-3 and earned the No. 1 seed for the NFC playoffs. After leading the Eagles to playoff victories over the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers, Hurts is in the Super Bowl.
Asked if he could envision sitting at a Super Bowl podium when he was going through struggles in college, Hurts said he never knew how it would end up.
“One thing that I’ve always been adamant on,” he said, “is not putting a limit on myself.”
Hurts’ experience at Alabama prepared him for handling the distractions that come along with preparing for a championship game.
But the Super Bowl is different.
“There’s a lot of different things that come with this game,” he said. “This is the mecca of football and our game.
“So regardless of everything that’s going on externally, you want to stay in your normal routine, your normal process.”
View from Down Under
The Eagles have the best offensive line in football, and their left tackle, Jordan Mailatahad an incredibly circuitous and unlikely path to football.
The son of Samoan immigrants to Australia, Mailata grew up in Sydney as a rugby player. He was a phenom for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs under-18s team and the South Sydney Rabbitohs under-20s team. He rose through the football ranks as part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program and was selected by the Eagles in the seventh round of the 2018 draft.
In short, getting to the Super Bowl wasn’t even on his radar as a kid. The first game he remembers watching was Denver-Carolina, Manning’s final game, at the end of the 2015 season.
“I’ve only been dreaming about this for five years,” Mailata said. “So for me, it’s not as pent-up as it is with my teammates. They’ve been dreaming about this since they were kids. So, I’m living through them and with them. It’s great to see everyone’s faces light up. Obviously, it’s an amazing achievement, but I can only imagine what’s going through their heads, man.
“These guys were probably watching [the Super Bowl] in the womb. It’s just amazing.”
Gordon living the dream … sort of
Kansas City has four running backs on its active roster. Not one of them is Melvin Gordon III.
Instead, the former Chargers star finds himself at Super Bowl LVII in the oddest of positions: a Chiefs practice squad player.
“I’m in La-La Land,” Gordon said. “I’m ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Never-never land, whatever you want to call it. I’m in a dream. I didn’t get here the way I wanted to, but I’m here. Right or wrong, I’m here.”
A first-round pick of the Chargers in 2015, Gordon is fourth on the franchise’s all-time rushing list. He left the team for Denver as a free agent in April 2020.
Gordon appeared in 41 games for the Broncos until he was released in November. A week later, he signed with Kansas City and has been on the practice squad ever since.
“To be honest, I don’t even know how I’m supposed to take this right now,” Gordon said. “It’s something I dreamed about as a kid, but not exactly like this. Let’s just say I haven’t contributed a whole lot to getting here.”
Gordon said he was angry after being let go by Denver following the team’s Week 11 loss to Las Vegas. He fumbled for the fifth time this season in that game.
“I just need something to smile about,” Gordon said. “I’m laughing about it now, but I was mad as hell. And I’ve been mad as hell. But this is something to smile about.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.