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Rising Son

August 28, 2013
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Courtesy: Texas A&M Athletics
(photo: Texas A&M Athletics)

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RISING SON

Toney Hurd Jr. makes family, A&M proud with proper perspective in life

by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine

Texas A&M senior defensive back Toney Hurd, Jr. isn’t the least bit worried. He realizes many of the Aggies’ fans are extremely nervous regarding how the team will be affected this year by the never-ending circus of distractions that have besieged the program all offseason, especially this summer.

As the Aug. 31 season-opener against Rice approaches, he’s also quite aware that the maroon masses are uneasy about so many other things, ranging from the number of key players A&M must replace on the defensive side of the ball to how the Aggies will handle their highest preseason ranking in more than a decade.

None of those issues, however, are cause for any particular concern to Hurd. He sleeps oh-so-easily at night and smiles effervescently throughout the day, whether he’s dreaming about defending Alabama’s A.J. McCarron in a mid-September showdown at Kyle Field or contemplating the possibility of a late-November night game at LSU’s “Death Valley.”

Quite frankly, the 5-foot-9 Hurd isn’t intimidated or apprehensive about any challenge or opponent he may face on the football field, no matter how pressure-packed the situation may seem. In Hurd’s way of thinking, every game day is just another opportunity for the self-proclaimed “shark” of the Aggies’ secondary to entertain fans with his “fin” move and to play the sport he loves with as much passion and personality as possible.

After all, while football is extremely important to Hurd, it’s just a game. Why stress out about the uncertainties of a season? Why worry about a game?

Sure, Alabama and LSU will be tough. And yes, the Johnny Manziel “autographgate” was a disruption from the normal preseason routine.

But as Hurd knows from firsthand experience, it’s really all a matter of perspective. Hurd has experienced far more serious distractions from normalcy in his past, such as not knowing where his family might sleep from one night to the next because he didn’t have a permanent residence. And real cause for concern, as Hurd can attest, is not knowing whether your mother—the sole provider of the family at one point—will be able to lift herself out of bed in the morning because of the severity of a neck injury she suffered from being physically abused.

Toney Hurd Jr. was born two months premature at Galveston’s University of Texas Medical Branch, and at less than four pounds at birth, he could fit in a shoe box. He’s been undersized—especially in big-time football terms—since day one. Furthermore, he couldn’t play sports early in life because he had chronic asthma, and he spent most of his early childhood bouncing from one cheap hotel room to another in Galveston County. His hard-working mother had left an abusive relationship and simply couldn’t afford an apartment for herself and her two children.

She cherished whatever work she could find—even if it was only as a convenience store clerk—and stayed at the cheapest motels in petrochemical refining-based communities like Texas City and La Marque. Those were real worrisome times.

So, if anyone thinks Hurd may by concerned about Nick Saban’s wrath or ESPN’s Manziel warpath, think again. Hurd is happy and hopeful regarding the start of the 2013 season and whatever challenges it may bring.

He is the epitome of everything that is great about college athletics. Without an athletic scholarship, it would have been extremely difficult for the vibrant and highly intelligent Hurd to attend any university, even though he was No. 4 overall in his senior class (out of roughly 540 students) at Fort Bend Marshall High School.

Hurd is the first member of his family to attend a university, and he is on track to become the first family member to ever graduate from college. He has plenty of big goals for his senior season with the Aggies, but his ultimate goal upon arriving in Aggieland speaks volumes about his humility, integrity and overall perspective on life.

“My big goal coming in here right from the very start was to become a man,” said Hurd. “I traveled a lot of bumpy roads to get here. So really, my focus has always been on becoming a better man and a better person and to stay humble. As far as football goes, I am living the dream. I feel like I’m a team leader, and I have really high goals for this season. But more than anything else, I am just grateful for the opportunity to go out there and play the game I love. (My career at A&M) has been such a blessing.”

Inside the Hagner Auditorium at the Bright Football Complex on Aug. 5, media members from across the country packed the room for the most anticipated preseason press conference in Texas A&M football history. ESPN televised Kevin Sumlin’s introductory speech for the 2013 season live. Newspapers and Internet websites from across Texas sent staffers who would otherwise never think of attending the opening press conference of summer camp.

One day after the uncovering of autographgate, however, this was no longer a run-of-the-mill preseason presser. This was national news, and reporters flocked to College Station in search of sound bites regarding Johnny Manziel’s eligibility status, the allegations against him and the mood of the team.

Hurd, who has emerged as the outspoken, senior defensive leader of the 2013 Aggies, was asked by a reporter specifically about the situation and how Sumlin announced it to the team.

Hurd responded to the question with a positive statement about what Manziel means to the team. The reporter rephrased the question, pressing Hurd again.

Undaunted, Hurd again ignored the question and gave another positive endorsement of his embattled teammate. Hurd wouldn’t be manipulated or pressed into saying anything that might possibly be construed as negative toward Manziel, Sumlin or anyone else associated with the football program.

His mother, Debra Cohen, certainly wasn’t surprised. Her only son is currently an economics major at Texas A&M. But he’s actually been majoring in the power of accentuating the positive ever since he was a toddler.

The 21-year-old Hurd has encountered many difficult obstacles in his life. Along with his mother and his older sister, Hurd’s been dealt so many negative hands that no one would blame him for folding. It would be so easy for Hurd to be angry; it would be so understandable if he carried more emotional baggage than could ever be stuffed in an overhead bin.

Instead, Hurd is charismatic, grateful and magnetically charming. His trademark smile lights up a room; his positive perspective is enlightening; his heartfelt laugh is contagious; and his spirit is forgiving, not foreboding. Even his “fin-up” shark move after big plays is purely playful.

Hurd acknowledges that he stole the shark idea from former Dallas Cowboys safety Kenny Gant, who first began performing his shark dance in 1992, the year Hurd was born. But Hurd bursts into laughter at a reporter’s assumption that his move might somehow be symbolic of a ravenous shark in the water, smelling blood and looking for a kill.

“No way, man, it’s just me having fun out there and trying to bring some energy,” Hurd said with a broad grin. “Von Miller used to do the ‘cook it up,’ and Jorvorskie Lane had the ‘J-Train.’ I was just looking for something fun to get the fans into it. The first time I did it was against Sam Houston State last year after I made a big play. All the coaches were like, ‘What was that? That looked pretty smooth.’

“It just kind of blew up from there. In the Cotton Bowl, I did it a few times and everyone began to love it. It’s all about having fun. I don’t take myself so seriously on the field to be like a real shark looking for a kill. That’s not my style.”

Nor is it part of his personality to settle any old scores off the field.

Debra Cohen is extremely proud of her son’s football and academic accomplishments. But she is absolutely ecstatic about his upbeat outlook on life. He doesn’t hold grudges, and he isn’t calloused or hardened toward anyone because of his rough childhood. He won’t say anything negative about anyone from his past, not even if it seems warranted.

“I struggled to raise them both,” Cohen said of her daughter, LaCoria, and Toney, who is four years younger than his sister. “I became a single parent again when he was five. After being in two abusive relationships, starting over with two kids by myself was scary. I tried many nights not to show them how afraid I was, and I guess I held things together. We had to move from place to place until we moved to Houston (in 1999), which was a great thing for all of us.

“I’m elated to see the young man he’s become. He’s blocked out a lot of (the difficult) part of his childhood. He is never going back to those moments. He is such a good young man. I think Toney is favored by God. I have always prayed that God would allow me to see my daughter and son grow and prosper. I am so pleased with what I see. I fought very hard to see the days that I am seeing now.”

Sitting inside one of the offices at the 12th Man Foundation on a sweltering Saturday afternoon, Hurd smiles playfully and admits that he originally committed to Notre Dame. In fact, if the circumstances would have been different, he may have been South Bend-bound following his stellar career at Marshall High, where he earned Under Armour High School All-America honors as a senior in 2009.

But Hurd is especially close to his mother, and she would have rarely been able to see him play in person if he had attended Notre Dame. Debra has endured years of back and neck ailments, treatments and surgeries as a result of the physical abuse she suffered while living in coastal communities throughout Galveston County. Although she went back to school after she moved her family to Houston and reunited with her high school sweetheart—the man who helped her raise LaCoria and Toney—she is now disabled and unable to work.

“We visited several schools, but my body doesn’t do very well in the cold and I’ve never been on an airplane,” Debra Cohen said. “I know it is very important to Toney that we see him. Not just me, but his sister and me. His sister is doing really well now, and her daughter—Toney’s niece—is Toney’s biggest fan. You ought to see her do the shark dance. When he made the decision to stay in Texas and go to A&M, I was thrilled because that’s exactly what I wanted him to do.

“I come to as many games as I can. My comfort level sitting in the stands doesn’t last too long. I have to get up and move around or leave during halftime. My body locks up right around that second quarter. I end up crying a lot when I see him out there, but not because of the pain. It’s all tears of joy because we have such a close relationship and I am so proud of him. His decision to go to A&M has worked out really well.”

Indeed, it has, and not just for Hurd’s family. Hurd, who also considered Oregon, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Auburn before signing with Mike Sherman and the Aggies in February 2010, has made major strides every year he’s been at A&M. After playing on special teams and in a reserve role in 12 games as a true freshman in ’10, Hurd emerged as A&M’s top backup in the secondary in 2011, appearing in every game and contributing 20 tackles.

Last year as a junior, Hurd truly began to establish a name for himself, playing in all 13 games and making seven starts. In addition to finishing fourth on the team with 67 overall tackles, Hurd also made the game-sealing interception in the biggest comeback victory of the year at Ole Miss.

The muscular, 180-pound Hurd was a big reason that the A&M defense was one of the pleasant surprises of the 2012 season for the Aggies. And with the loss of so many key defenders from last year—guys like Sean Porter, Jonathan Stewart, Damontre Moore, Spencer Nealy, Dustin Harris and so forth—Hurd’s leadership traits and can-do attitude may be every bit as important this year as his playmaking skills.

Fortunately for the Aggies, Hurd embraces the leadership role. And he’s quite capable of setting a defensive tone in much the same way that his buddy, Ben Malena, has become the hard-nosed and outspoken offensive leader.

“I am very, very pleased with Toney Hurd’s attitude,” Sumlin said. “(Along with fellow seniors like Jake Matthews and Malena), he’s one of those guys who has been in critical games and made critical plays against really good players. Those three guys are the core of the type of senior leadership that can steer us through (challenges). These guys have been through a lot.”

Once he straps on his shoulder pads and snaps his chin strap to his helmet, Hurd could easily be referred to as, “Jaws.” And not because of his Kenny Gant-like shark dance. Hurd is a certifiable trash-talker once he steps onto the field, but not in a mean-spirited kind of way.

“When I strap that helmet on I like to be loud,” Hurd says. “Outside of football, I think I’m relaxed and reserved. I just like to chill and enjoy things. I’m typically a low-key person, but when I strap that helmet on I like to talk a little noise and have a little fun.”

Hurd can certainly talk the talk. But as his teammates and coaches attest, he also walks the walk, leading by example in so many ways. And Hurd has really big things planned for his senior season, including a goal to lead the Aggies in tackles.

“That’s a great thing if I’m playing nickel back and leading the team in tackles because I’m basically playing linebacker,” Hurd explains. “But no matter how many tackles I make, I dedicate myself to be a great team player. As a team, I want us to compete week in and week out. The best teams have a couple of key leaders, and I want to be one of those guys.”

He already is, according to his teammates and defensive backs coach Marcel Yates. On one hand, Hurd is the hard-working, overachieving grinder who brings his best effort to every practice. On the other hand, he’s the insightful veteran, who has been part of two super, Cotton Bowl teams in 2010 and ’12, sandwiched around one miserably frustrating season in 2011.

The Aggies also had sky-high expectations entering the ’11 season. Hurd vows that this team will not handle those expectations the same way. But he does believe this year’s defense can repeat history.

Entering last season, the A&M defense was a major concern. Ditto for this year. Hurd welcomes the doubters. In fact, he loves the naysayers.

“For our defense, it just puts a chip on our shoulder,” Hurd said. “It makes us work a little bit harder and makes us grind a little bit harder every day when we are working out. In two-a-days, summer camp and weight workouts with Coach (Larry) Jackson, it just makes us go that much harder. Being an underdog is something I have been going through my entire life. Our defense lately has become the underdog. We just have to embrace the opportunity, work hard, and it will be great.

“Looking back at last year, we all know how close we were to actually being in a national championship game. If we had beaten LSU, it would have probably been us in the national title game, not Alabama. We were a play or two away. We use that as motivation, too. We don’t take any days off, and we don’t take anything for granted. We’re hungry to make this year even better than last year. We’re motivated, dedicated and so excited about getting this season going.”

In other words, Hurd and his buddies are not the least bit worried about the things that currently have so many Aggie fans fretting. It’s all about perspective, and Toney Hurd certainly has a positive one.



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