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Touchdown, Willie!
By Richard Linde, Publisher 4malamute.com, 4 January 2002

Willie Hurst, number 8, courtesy of dawgman.com
To be a member of my pantheon of Husky greats requires more than setting a rushing record or being a Joe Banana—the biggest, fastest guy on the field. Having heart, emotion and chutzpah will get you in. During his four-year stint at Washington, Willie Hurst—number 8—has always been my favorite player to watch.  

In recent years, many talented running backs have regaled Husky fans. How about Corey Dillon, Rashaan Shehee and Napoleon Kaufman. And who will ever forget Joe Steele and going further back, Charlie Mitchell who played under Jim Owens. More than once, Hurrying Hugh McElhenny morphed from one end of the gridiron to the other to astonish fans. The galloping, heart-stopping George Wilson is a legend by himself. 

Of the lot of them, in my mind, there isn’t a more memorable Husky running back than the talented Willie Hurst, who has finished his playing career at Washington. Along with being the offensive MVP at the Husky awards banquet this year, he won the “Guy Flaherty Most Inspirational” award. He should be an inspiration to us all.

Coming out of Compton, California (Dominguez High School), Hurst was an All-CIF pick as a senior. He was named to the All-San Gabriel Valley squad, the Los Angeles Times All-Area team and the Long Beach Press Telegram's "Dream Team." Also, he was named to the Tacoma News Tribune’s "Western 100" team.

Hurst set a true freshman rushing record at Washington in 1998, compiling 538 yards rushing, which was good enough to break Joe Steele’s record set in 1976. True freshman Rich Alexis broke Hurst’s record two years later.  

During his sophomore season, Hurst ran for 546 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry.

At Washington, Hurst could get to the porch faster than a rain-soaked dog. Not the most blazing straightaway back, he could find a hole as quick as a rabbit, then scurry for yardage. For a would be tackler, he was an agony runner, the kind a hulking linebacker rarely bulls over. Although the leviathans trained their sights on him, he had the necessary moves and quickness to avoid taking a square shot.

Some of Hurst’s bursts will be legendary, like the spin move during his 23-yard touchdown run against Arizona (2000 season). Willie’s "whirl" won him the “National Play of the Week” honors from CNN/SI. It will be shown on highlight tapes for years to come. That run followed his 65-yard touchdown that brought the crowd back into the game.

It wasn’t easy for him at Washington. Some times he played like a mere mortal, other times with the wizardry of Harry Potter. Although Hurst (5-10, 200) has burned some dazzling images in our memory banks during the last four years, there are some images better left on the cutting room floor. 

At times during his career, fans called him “one-yard Willie.” Playing first fiddle and challenged by Paul Arnold, he lost his starting tailback position and was demoted to last chair—slot back—during the spring of 2000. That’s a bitter pill for a concertmaster to swallow. During the regular season, he sat out the Oregon State game, not playing a down.

Call me the “undertaker,” he said. “You may try to bury me, but I'll keep coming back.”

There may be no “I” in the word "team," but there are two of them in the word “spirit.” The last thing a coach needs to do is break a kid’s spirit. “You know your kid," said Willie Hurst, Sr. “That voice you're usually hearing is not there.”

But Willie—the consummate concertmaster—fought back from adversity, playing with tenacity and sheer guts.

Returning to tailback later in the season, he played behind Paul Arnold, Rich Alexis and Braxton Cleman, then worked his way into first chair again. But a couple of injuries took further playing time away.

Following the Arizona game and the "whirl," he had 11 carries for 99 yards and a touchdown against UCLA, before breaking his collarbone at the end of a 62-yard run.

He finished the season playing in the Rose bowl, where he ran for 53 yards to help beat Purdue 34-24. His eight-yard touchdown run late in the game helped cement the victory.

He averaged 6.1 yards per rush in 2000, finishing second on the team in rushing with 426 yards.

This season, playing behind a young offensive line, he led the Huskies in rushing with 607 yards, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Since the Huskies had very little success running the option, his average yard per carry was less than the previous year, when Marques Tuiasosopo orchestrated the option with precision.

Filled with pride, the football gods smiled down upon him at the Holiday Bowl (2001), when he closed out his illustrious career with a 34-yard touchdown run that regained the lead against Texas. Fittingly, that touchdown marked his last run as a Husky. 

Against the Longhorns, he ran for 137 yards, caught 2 passes for 12 yards and scored two touchdowns.  He finished ninth in career rushing yards, amassing 2117 yards over his four years at Washington. That’s how I’ll remember him, at least for now.

My guess is that we haven’t heard the last of Willie Hurst. You can bury him, you can demote him, you can dig him a grave--but he’ll always come back. Hurst, the undertaker, will bury any obstacle in his way, on the road to success and achievement.

In Washington’s storied football history, only three players have had their numbers retired: Chuck Carroll (#2, 1927-28), George Wilson (#33, 1923-25), and Roland Kirkby (#44, 1948-50).

They won’t retire number 8, since Kaufman and Hurst both wore it, which is a tribute to both of them.

As of now, the Huskies are trying to recruit Lorenzo Booker, the “Gatorade National High School” player of the year. It he goes to Washington, I’ll bet he wears number 8. At Washington, that number is reserved for only the best.

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