Hurst So Good

Sept. 9, 2001

By Bri Niemi

Willie Hurst's father always told him never to run. From his problems, that is.

'He taught me that when stuff gets tough, you don't just pack up and leave, you work through it and good things will come out of it,' says the 5-foot-10 senior. 'At that point I was going through a really rough time, but I never wanted to leave, I just had to work even harder.'

The point to which Hurst is referring dates back to the 2000 season, when the Huskies were hosting Oregon State in their second conference game of the year. Despite having posted productive numbers in the season's first four games, Hurst watched the 33-30 come-from-behind victory from the sidelines.

'I have about four or five really close friends on the Oregon State team that I grew up with,' says Hurst. 'They kept looking at me like 'what is going on?' and I just had to shrug my shoulders. To not even play a down in that game was almost devastating.

'As a competitor, it's hard to just sit on the sidelines and watch, you want to be out there. Even though it wasn't my time, I still rooted Paul (Arnold) and Rich (Alexis) on and gave them tips during the game, basically trying to help them out. But it was hard sitting there and watching, knowing that I should be out on the field, too.'

For Hurst, it was not the first setback of his collegiate career. He had a positive - and productive - beginning, starting in six games as a true freshman in 1998 and amassing 538 yards, breaking the 22-year old Husky record for single-season rushing yards by a freshman, set by Joe Steele in 1976.

Hurst's sophmore season was no different as he led the team in rushing in nine appearances, while flourishing under the option-oriented offense. However, freshman Paul Arnold had also excelled in limited action in 1999, and, noting a lack of depth at the wide receiver position, the coaching staff asked Hurst to switch positions during the spring of 2000.

'Coach Neuheisel and (former running backs coach) Wayne Moses brought me into the office after my sophomore season and told me that they thought I would be better suited at the slot receiver position because I had the ability to catch and move well in the open field,' remembers Hurst. 'I really didn't understand why but I went ahead and gave it a try.

'Honestly, it had to be one of the hardest experiences in my life, because I had always been a tailback. Learning a new position in the spring didn't come as easily as I expected and I became really frustrated.'

The decision was made to move Hurst back, only this time he was at the bottom of the barrel.

'The coaches realized that the receiver position just wasn't really working for me and I was switched over to a running back again,' he says. 'I came back third or fourth on the depth chart but that was fine with me because I knew I could climb just given the chance. As long as I was back in my position I knew everything would work out.'

The right to play running back is something that has been instilled in Willie since he was eight years old, when he first began the game of football.

'In my family, if you don't play football you are kind of the black sheep,' says Hurst. 'My dad, my uncle, and my brother all played the game. So when I started to get older, it wasn't 'if' I was going to play, it was 'when and for whom,' and ever since I started playing, I have been a running back.'

Growing up in Long Beach, Calif., football was, in a sense, an escape from the real world and a chance for Hurst to pursue his life-long desire.

'Where I grew up you are exposed to a harsh reality,' Hurst says. 'You see things at a young age that most people either don't see until they are much older - where they can handle it - or they never see those things at all. Nothing really surprises me anymore and I feel that I am a lot more mature than some people my age because of the stuff I had to deal with as a kid.'

That maturity became necessary in the rocky beginning to Hurst's junior season. However, redemption came quickly as only four games after his personal low against the Beavers, Hurst turned in the performance of his career, igniting a sputtering Husky team playing its first game since the fall of safety Curtis Williams.

Down 12 points to the Arizona Wildcats heading into the fourth quarter, Willie streaked down the sideline for a 65-yard score, pumping life back into the sidelines and crowd. As if that wasn't enough, two minutes later, Hurst dumbfounded everyone in attendance as he pulled off an acrobatic 23-yard touchdown, with a move that garnered him CNN/SI's National Play of the Week honor. Breaking free on a run over the middle, Hurst was hit by Arizona defensive Joe Tafoya and appeared headed for the turf.

'As I was falling, I jerked my body around and stuck my hand out - not even trying to stay up, but just hoping to break my fall,' Hurst recalls. 'When I hit my hand, though, I sprung back up, and I realized that I was still on my feet, so I took it to the endzone. I didn't really know what had happened. I had to ask a friend after the game, 'did that look how it felt?' It was something I can't explain and something I could never do again, but I'm glad I did it that once.'

'Willie Hurst symbolizes what this team is made of,' said head coach Rick Neuheisel following the game. 'He has all the competitiveness you could find in a person. He's a guy who believes he's the best in the world. He continues to keep his head up and he is always ready to play.'

For Hurst and the rest of the team, there was no sweeter reward than the Rose Bowl, following a season full of gutsy wins and heartbreaking moments.

'Growing up, I watched the Rose Bowl every single year and then to actually be playing in the game was amazing,' says Hurst. 'When I got out there my heart was beating 100 miles an hour, I was so nervous. It all went so fast, before I knew it, there were 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter. I have won championships in high school, but nothing compared to that feeling. It was one of the greatest times of my life.'

The aspirations haven't faded. For the team, the goal of winning the Pac-10 championship and a return trip to Pasadena, which will this season play host to the BCS national title game, are at the forefront of each player's mind. For Willie, he has one last year to prove to the coaches that he deserves to end his Husky career where it began.

'I hope that the coaches and the fans remember me as a hard worker and one who loved the game,' Hurst says. 'I show a lot of emotion when I play, I kind of wear my heart on my sleeve. I just want to win, that is the number one thing.'

Willie Hurst will be running this year, same as always - just not from any obstacles.

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