ATLANTA — Jalen Hurts jogged toward the southeast tunnel at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Pride played the "OU Chant" in the background as he lifted his right index finger into the air.
Hurts disappeared into the locker room in the blink of an eye, much like his Sooner career. His time at Oklahoma — and in the college football world — had come to a somber end. He and No. 4 Oklahoma fell hard Saturday night to No. 1 LSU in the College Football Playoff, 63-28.
Jalen Hurts jogs off the field as a college football player for the final time. pic.twitter.com/KShXxrvn0G— George Stoia III (@GeorgeStoia) December 29, 2019
"It's hard to just sit here and reflect on four years, a whole year with my brothers this year, all of that right now," said Hurts, who finished with two touchdowns and 260 total yards Saturday. "It hurts me. You talk about how much it means to you and the team. It's supposed to hurt. This is not a good feeling. This is a feeling I've never felt before."
All season Hurts called his college football career "unprecedented." And it was.
A two-year starter at Alabama, Hurts was benched during the 2017-18 national title game and then played backup to the Crimson Tide's Tua Tagovailoa for an entire season before transferring to Oklahoma. He came to Norman to prove himself, and he had a goal in mind: win a national championship.
And he damn near did.
He led Oklahoma to its fifth-straight Big 12 Championship and third-straight College Football Playoff performance, along the way helping complete a historic comeback win and becoming the Sooners' fifth Heisman Trophy finalist in four years.
"I've got two guys next to me right here (Hurts and Neville Gallimore) that will play in the NFL next year and will be high draft picks that were both injured, both had things going on, both could have easily came out of the game and both begging to stay in the game, even in the last couple minutes," coach Lincoln Riley said. "That's the culture we've built, and guys like these two are very much responsible for that. Proud of these guys. It hurts right now, but it won't diminish all they've been able to accomplish. Just, I love this team. That's it."
For Hurts, coming up short of a promise is what pains him the most.
"It hurts me in my heart," said Hurts, who totaled 5,149 yards and 52 touchdowns in his single season with the Sooners. "When I decided to come to this school, I told Coach Riley, 'I'm going to go win you a national championship.' And I failed to do that."
I asked Jalen Hurts what he hopes to be remembered for during his time at OU. He gave a very emotional and honest answer. pic.twitter.com/mJGno4P2Ca— George Stoia III (@GeorgeStoia) December 29, 2019
While Hurts' season may not have ended the way he hoped, his legacy as a Sooner will go far beyond his lone season in the Crimson and Cream.
If not for his decision to transfer to Oklahoma, the Sooners likely would have been led by former quarterback Austin Kendall or true freshman Spencer Rattler. Kendall transferred to West Virginia, where he was benched partway through the season, and Rattler, while uber talented, would have been the first freshman to start at quarterback since Trevor Knight.
His year of sitting behind Hurts, who served as a mentor for the 19-year-old five-star quarterback, will pay dividends in Oklahoma's future.
"He's never up or down. He could throw for 700 yards, 10 touchdowns, and he's the same if we're down like today," Rattler said when asked what he's learned from Hurts. "Just his demeanor, how he handles himself with the team, with how he leads the team, how he handles himself off the field, with media — a bunch of different stuff. I've learned a lot things about his work ethic. His work ethic is great, that's for sure one.
"Just keeping a level head, keeping your head on the team and what's going to help the team. That's kind of what I saw from him and I've seen from through the whole season."
Rattler gave the fans something to look forward to Saturday, playing the final drive of the game. For Rattler and the Sooners, their future is certainly bright.
"We're going to shape back," Rattler said. "We're going to shape back."
But as for Hurts, his legendary and "unprecedented" college career has come to a close. He'll surely be drafted come April, as he's proved in one season under Riley that he has the tools to be at least serviceable in the NFL.
Hurts has a lot to look forward to. He hopes to be a coach one day — fitting for the way he speaks. And while Saturday's result stings and will for some time, one day Hurts will talk about his lone year as a Sooner and all that he learned.
"Moving forward, I definitely hope — I've already told them, I hope that you guys learn from this," Hurts said. "I hope everybody learns from this. It hurts me the most because, usually, when you come up short in something, you can come back and you can fix it. I can't come back and fix it.
"I'll never play college football again."