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PHS Alum Talks Faith, NFL Career With Ravens

Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer / Anna Taylor, UNC Football & Baltimore Ravens

For James Hurst, who plays offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, life is all about faith, football and fresh coffee. Born in Pensacola, Florida, Hurst’s father had a job as an aircraft mechanic for FedEx that relocated the family to the Hoosier state when James was just two years old. They put down roots in Plainfield where James and his older brother Nelson delighted in all forms of sports. In eighth grade, however, James opted to drop baseball and basketball and focus solely on football.

“I figured that if I committed to football, especially weight lifting, I’d have a better chance of making the varsity team as a freshman,” Hurst says. His hard work paid off, and Hurst played offensive tackle all four years at Plainfield High School. During his senior year, he played defense as well.

“By then I was bigger, better and stronger so coaches thought it would be best for me to play both sides of the ball,” Hurst says.

During his senior year, Plainfield faced off against Roncalli on their home turf in the playoffs. Hurst made a tackle to stop their rival team. Serendipitously, the offensive line coach at North Carolina University happened to be at the game and saw that play. He was one of many colleges that were pursuing Hurst. During the recruitment process, PHS Coach Brian Woodard was immensely helpful.

“He took calls daily and stayed in close contact with me to ask which schools I was interested in,” Hurst says. “He understood the magnitude of the decision I was going to make and did a great job of lightening the load for me so that I could enjoy my junior and senior years.”

Hurst says that Woodard doesn’t get enough credit for creating not only phenomenal players but phenomenal people as well.

“He’s unbelievable,” says Hurst, who graduated from Plainfield High School in December 2009 and started school at North Carolina in January 2010. It was a calculated move as he was able to participate in spring football training at the university, which gave him a leg up over other incoming freshmen who didn’t arrive until late summer.

“That extra training definitely gave me a big jump start on my competition,” says Hurst, who went on to have a successful college career despite breaking his leg during the Bowl game of his senior year. He was projected to be drafted anywhere between the second and fifth rounds, but that didn’t happen due to the injury.

“Before teams invest in you, they want to be sure you can play so I had to show teams that I was healthy and my leg was fine,” Hurst says.

Hurst was invited to the NFL combine to meet with teams and he signed with the Ravens in 2014. During Hurst’s rookie year with the Ravens, they defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs.

“That was a huge game and a great memory,” says Hurst, who typically rises during football season at 6 a.m. to lift weights before heading to meetings that last until noon. Part of that time is a walk-through with offense and to discuss new plays. He and his teammates also walk through the different defenses they might face that week. After lunch players sit in the hot tub or receive treatment for any nagging injuries. Practice runs from 1:30-3:30 p.m. The hardest training day is Wednesday when they wear full pads out to practice.

“You’re recovered from Sunday’s game, making this the ideal time to get the physical work in before the game the following Sunday,” Hurst says.

Stretches, showering and additional treatments follow. Between the head athletic trainer, other athletic trainers, physical therapists, stretch therapists and interns, the team employs between 12-15 people to look after the 70-plus players in the building (there are 53 players on the active roster, plus 10 players on the practice squad, as well as the injured reserved).

“They’re all there to assess and take care of our bodies and tell us what to do to keep going,” Hurst says.

Like any pro player, how long he’ll last in the NFL is dependent on how his body holds up. Since he’s just 26 years old, he’s likely to last awhile. He recently signed a big contract extension, but it all comes back to how he performs on the field.

“It’s a performance-driven job,” Hurst says. “I’ve seen guys have a bad game, come in on Monday morning, and their locker is cleaned out and their name tag is gone.”

It’s a stark visual reminder that players must always bring their “A” game week to week.

“I’ve got so many people counting on me — my teammates, my family and friends,” Hurst says. “I don’t want to let anybody down.”

But there are definite perks to the job, too. For instance, he has a platform in which he can openly talk about his faith.

“Jesus put me here so I’m going to take every opportunity to glorify God,” says Hurst, who attended Plainfield Christian Church when he was a resident. He’s done a lot of work with Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) as well as Athletes in Action, speaking at events to spread hope to students of all ages.

Since he graduated in 2009, Hurst has returned to Plainfield a handful of times to address the student body. The Optimist Club invited him back to discuss his experience in the NFL. He’s also spoken to the school’s football team a couple of times. The message he likes to convey is how his faith plays out in his professional life.

“People want to know, ‘What’s the locker room like? What are the other guys like?’” Hurst says. “Often NFL players have a reputation for being arrogant, rich and cocky. While that’s not necessarily untrue in some cases, I want to shine a light on the fact that there are also good players, good people and great marriages.” 

As Hurst gears up for his fifth season with the Ravens, he admits that at times the whole process is still surreal.

“Running out of the tunnel on game day with all of the fans — it’s more than I had ever envisioned,” Hurst says. “Realizing that this is the highest level of football there is, sometimes it hits me that I’m not playing Roncalli anymore or even Virginia Tech. I’m playing the Colts or the Stealers. That’s unbelievable.”

Though he describes the experience as “amazing” and “a huge blessing,” he knows this phase of life won’t last forever. When his pro football career comes to a close, Hurst and his wife Amanda plan to settle down in North Carolina. At that point he may utilize his college degree (he majored in exercise and sports science).

“The human body has always interested me,” says Hurst, who would like to earn certification in physical therapy so that he can work with elite college or pro athletes. If that plan doesn’t pan out, however, he also has another dream — to open a coffee shop.

“My wife’s best friends live in Portland, Oregon, and we love to visit them. We enjoy the people, the outdoors and the coffee,” Hurst says.

Plus, it’s kind of nice to know that should he happen to brew a bad cup of coffee, he won’t lose his job over it. Though something tells me that just as in football, Hurst has done his due diligence to ensure perfection, even as it pertains to a cup of joe.

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