Over the past two weeks, 18-year-old Jalen Hurts has found himself in exclusive company as Alabama’s starting quarterback, achieving something only two other Crimson Tide players have before him.
As he stepped into the huddle about to take the first snap Sept. 10 against Western Kentucky, a graphic flashed on the ESPN2 telecast indicating Hurts was Alabama’s first true freshman to start as quarterback since 1984.
But below the graphic, in tiny font, was the name of the last person to have such a designation — Vince Sutton.
Three hours and nearly 175 miles east of Tuscaloosa, the 49-year-old Sutton sat in his mother’s living room in LaGrange, Georgia, surrounded by his two youngest sons with a gigantic smile.
As the announcers read off a list of Hurts’ accolades and talents, Sutton’s two youngest sons — 12-year-old Jaylen and 15-year-old Jonathan — celebrated the moment like it was him walking out onto that field, as he did 32 years earlier.
“It’s interesting, you know, it’s been 30-something years later it’s still (nice) to be making your name off something at Alabama,” Sutton said in a phone interview last week. “I enjoyed it. My boys were watching the game with me, and they heard them call my name out. It’s one thing to tell them that you played (at Alabama), it’s another thing (to hear someone on the TV) tell them that you played there.”
Maxine Sutton, his 65-year-old mother and full-time caregiver, could barely contain her own emotions as her youngest two grandsons bounced around the room.
“It was like a rush, you know all of a sudden you get a fast heartbeat, and of course you’re going to say, ‘My baby, my baby,’ ” Maxine said. “It seemed like he was still (there in that moment). I mean, he’s still sick, but he still carries the crowd and the popularity.”
In that moment, none of Sutton’s current health struggles of past several years — two strokes, partial blindness and a 2011 diagnosis of kidney disease — were present except for the wheelchair he now uses to get around.
“He was just thrilled to death, and to be a trivia question (like that), oh man, that’s a good feeling,” said his mother, a self-described life-long Alabama fan. “It don’t get any better than that. And all we could do was say: ‘Roll Tide.’ ”
Harry Gilmer, who died last month at 90, was the first true freshman at Alabama to start at quarterback as a member the Frank Thomas’ “War Babies” team of 1944 — when the longstanding NCAA rule restricting freshman eligibility was relaxed during World War II.
Because of that rule, which was overturned prior to the 1972 season, it would be another 40 years before Alabama started a true freshman quarterback.
Embroiled in a competition with then-sophomore Mike Shula that spilled over into the season, Sutton was called on to start in the third game in 1984 against Southwest Louisiana.
“All I looked at was I’ve got two guys here and they’re better than the other six, OK, so what’s a good way to figure out which one should be starting?” former Alabama coach Ray Perkins recalled. “So we went with it, I let them both know it, they agreed with it, and we took off.”
And much like this season’s quarterback competition between Hurts and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, it was a battle won on the field.
Sutton, who also started games against Vanderbilt, Georgia, Penn State and Tennessee that season, doesn’t remember much from that first game, other than the emotions he felt as a 17-year-old kid stepping onto a field filled with “grown” men.
“I think there was a third down play … and I got a chance to keep the ball, and when the (defender) dropped back into the flat, I tell you what,” Sutton recalled, his voice trailing off. “I didn’t need but four our five yards, and I (was determined) to get those four or five yards even if I had to run him over, too. That was before I realized he was a grown man. … I got the first down, but I paid for it though.”
After a promising beginning, Sutton mostly faded into the background during the next four years. In his final two seasons, Sutton threw for 440 yards and six touchdowns on 22 of 78 passing attempts — the most significant coming as a senior in 1988, when Sutton was called off the bench in the second half against Kentucky with the Tide trailing 17-0 at halftime.
Sutton sparked a memorable comeback, including guiding four fourth-quarter scoring drives, the final accounting for 86 yards in the final minutes, capped by a game-winning 3-yard touchdown to tight end Gene Newberry for the 31-27 win with 10 seconds to spare.
And while his Alabama career represents little more than a footnote compared to other memorable Crimson Tide quarterbacks, it’s one that still fills Sutton with great satisfaction, especially as he watches Hurts walk that same path.
“I’m very proud,” Sutton said. “You know, because going from high school to college, everybody’s bigger, faster and stronger, so if you can go in there and start, win a position, it makes you feel like you came from a pretty good program, that you worked hard to get there.”
He also knows the pressure that comes with such a title, something Hurts is dealing with each time he steps onto the field.
“Playing at Alabama, where they have such a great tradition at quarterback, and you’re coming in as a freshman and start, the expectations are very high for you,” Sutton said. “And still have to do your job, a lot of people are watching you and you just take what you’re given. If they give you 5 yards, take 5 yards. … Don’t try to do anything spectacular, just put it in your read.”
‘Suck it up and go’
Nearly three decades removed from his playing days, Sutton spends a considerable amount of time simply resting, especially on days he goes in for three-times-a-week dialysis.
Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Sutton spends his mornings sitting in a reclining chair with needles sticking out of his arm as he undergoes three-to-four hours of hemodialysis, which filters Sutton’s blood of any wastes that his kidneys might miss.
“We take it one day at a time … (but) that’s what we do, Monday, Wednesday, Friday,” his mother said.
Five years ago, Sutton was placed on a national donor list for a kidney transplant.
Kidney disease runs in Sutton’s family. His father died from the same thing, his mother Maxine said, and it has affected several of his siblings.
“Some things are just hereditary,” Maxine said.
Sutton’s diabetes hasn’t helped, especially with regard to his day-to-day concerns. But like anything else, all the family can do is carry on.
“The hardest thing for me is knowing what your son used to be and looking at (what the disease has done to him) everyday, and I can’t understand why we have to wait so long,” Maxine said.
“He’s a great man, he’s never smoked, he’s never drank, he’s never done illicit drugs, he’s always kept himself healthy, he’s always exercised and worked out. … And it just happened.”
A year and a half ago, following his second stroke, Sutton spent roughly two months in a coma at Emory University Hospital before facing a slow road to recovery, a battle he still fights every day.
“I’m still waiting on a kidney, I just had a five-hour (dialysis) treatment this morning, and I’m pretty tired and weak, but it goes away and you have to suck it up and go,” Sutton said last Monday, later adding with a faint sense of humor: “I’ll tell you what, if anybody out there wants to donate (a kidney), I’ll sure take it.”
Until that happens, Sutton continues to live each day awaiting one of two things — the call to tell him there’s a kidney available, and his weekly Saturday reprieve when he gets to watch Alabama and its latest freshman sensation rekindle old memories.
“You just have to be patient, wait on a phone call,” he said.