Humble beginnings led to thankful Allen Hurns

Humble beginnings led to thankful Allen Hurns
By Gene Frenette Thu, Dec 24, 2015 @ 7:37 pm | updated Thu, Dec 24, 2015 @ 9:28 pm

Allen Hurns and Erica

Jaguars wide receiver Allen Hurns and his mother, Erica Wilson, are seen.

This Christmas will be like no other for Allen Hurns, the soft-spoken, anti-diva receiver who remains grateful for every waking minute he spends in the NFL.

Many people know about Hurns’ football exploits, an undrafted player who had an instant impact for the Jaguars. His first two catches in his pro debut went for touchdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles, an unprecedented feat. His six touchdowns and 51 catches in 2014 were the fourth-most in history by an undrafted rookie.

But those numbers, or being on track for a 1,000-yard season this year, aren’t even close to being the best part of Hurns’ defying-the-odds story.

No, if you want to get a true appreciation of why No. 88 and his family are feeling overwhelmingly blessed this holiday, it’s essential to go back a decade or two and relive Hurns’ childhood.

The 24-year-old receiver spent his wonder years living in small apartments in some rough Miami neighborhoods, from Carol City to Miramar. Sitting quietly at a conference table at EverBank Field, he especially recalls one jarring night at his grandmother’s house.

“Across the street, two men got shot, one of them 72 times and the other 68,” Hurns said. “That’s the most violent thing I can remember.”

Toughness is in the family DNA, and it’s not defined just by the willingness of a Jaguars’ receiver to catch passes while absorbing big hits. Hurns’ mental strength is a byproduct of Erica Wilson, who overcame being a single mother of two sons from different fathers as a teenager (she had Allen, her second child, at age 19, and Daryl Wilson at age 15) to provide a stable, loving environment.

“It was difficult,” Wilson said Tuesday night from her Southside home. “I did my best to get what they needed. I couldn’t always get what they wanted.

“My kids were everything. That’s what I had to focus on.”

Erica admittedly put herself in a tough spot as a teenager. But she refused to let the lack of a high school diploma, severe financial hardships, or Hurns’ father, Allen, being in prison on drug charges for the first six years of his son’s life, get in the way of properly raising her kids.

Oh, life is good now, a far cry from all those years of juggling two jobs — running a childcare service during the day, then working nights at Winn-Dixie, Wal-Mart or Burger King to make ends meet. Erica eventually went back to high school and graduated, then obtained an AA degree from Broward College while her son Allen Hurns was attending the University of Miami.

She moved to Jacksonville with her mother, Mary Wilson, and Daryl (who owns an automobile paint-chipping business) in February after Hurns bought her a four-bedroom house on the Southside. On Tuesday, the Jaguars receiver took Erica to a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Jacksonville to purchase an early Christmas present, a fully-loaded C300.

Hurns predicted his mother would “cry for sure,” and it finally happened as she was signing the papers.

“My nights aren’t as restless anymore,” said Erica. “I don’t have to worry about taking care of my kids. They take care of me. It lets everyone know I raised some men. It’s a great feeling.”

The soft-spoken Hurns, who rarely initiated any conversation until his shyness began to erode as a college senior, was forced to become a man long before the typical maturity timeline.

Not every Christmas was like 2001 when Hurns received what remains one of his all-time favorite gifts, a University of Miami football helmet with player signatures, among them his idol and mentor, Indianapolis Colts receiver Andre Johnson. Hurns’ mother obtained it through a lifelong connection with then UM assistant coach Randy Shannon, who played high school football with her brother.

“As a kid, that was the best Christmas present,” said Hurns. “Miami was always my dream school.”

But as time wore on, and that 10-year-old boy grew into adolescence, Christmas took on a new meaning. Hurns started to understand the toll of trying to provide for two kids on a meager income was taking on his mother. Suddenly, any gift he received became secondary to wanting to ease Erica’s burden.

“As a kid, you want, you want, you want,” Hurns said. “You don’t really know the value of money. Once you get in high school, you start to realize your parent doesn’t have [money]. So when she asks you what you want for Christmas, you say you really don’t want anything because you know she doesn’t really have the money.

“I started realizing there’s bigger things that come first like paying for rent, paying a bill, providing food. That’s a lot on my mother. I didn’t want her to feel like we weren’t happy because we weren’t getting certain things.”

The thing is, before last week, when Erica posted it on social media, Hurns had no idea how financially strapped his mother became at one point. Erica had put it out of her mind until she found herself passing out blankets recently to some homeless people near EverBank Field.

Suddenly, the tears came tumbling out. It brought back memories of one of the worst times in Erica’s life — her family was temporarily homeless — which she kept hidden from Allen and his brother all these years.

“What I never told my kids was when I let them go sleep one time with [Allen’s] father at his place for two or three days, I slept in my car that I had outside a storage unit,” Erica said. “I had lost the apartment because I couldn’t make the rent.

“A nice lady let me move into a place she owned without a down payment. A week later, she saw that my car was repossessed and she gave me $3,500 cash so I could get it back because she knew I needed it to get to work. This woman was a complete stranger, and all she asked in return [for her generosity] was for me to do right for my boys. When I was giving out those blankets to the homeless, I just broke down.”

Few people in the Jaguars’ organization have greater admiration for the path Hurns’ mother has traveled than receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, a former Miami Jackson High quarterback who was raised in foster care until age 13.

“I told Allen’s mother that she ought to go on the Oprah Winfrey show and tell America how to raise a child as a single mother,” said Sullivan. “What a great person she raised in Allen.”

Erica doesn’t take all the credit. She acknowledges the support system she had from her mother and Allen’s paternal grandmother, Anna Mae Hurns.

“Some people think there’s never a way out of trying times,” said Erica. “Looking back on it now, I’m overwhelmed and grateful that I never lost my boys to the streets. They never pushed me about wanting more. They made it easier on me.”

Hurns doesn’t run away from his humble beginnings. Instead, he embraces it, reminding himself to stay grounded and never take for granted an NFL life paying him a $510,000 salary in 2015.

That’s why he relished the opportunity last week to give out Christmas toys that he purchased for about 40 boys at Jacksonville’s Valor Academy. Hurns performed the same good deed for boys and girls from low-income families at Sunshine Elementary in Miami.

As much as his life revolves around football and pushing the Jaguars to become a winning franchise, Hurns wants to do what he can to bring joy to people, especially kids, who face trying circumstances.

“It makes me feel good to be a blessing to others, to see a smile on a kid’s face,” said Hurns. “[As NFL players], we have the money to do whatever we want, but things like that really stand out to us. So any way I can help, I’m going to try to help.”

As much as anyone in the Jaguars’ locker room, Hurns always has a Christmas-type spirit about him. It’s not just having the financial means to splurge on his mother, including a recent birthday present of a two-day weekend in Jamaica. What really keeps Hurns striving for football excellence is knowing his story could inspire someone else through difficult times.

He doesn’t want to forget the hardship of not having a relationship with his father — now living in Iowa, and they communicate every day — until he was about 16. Or wondering if his scholarship to Miami would be pulled after a knee injury sidelined him most of his senior year at Carol City High. Or the bitter disappointment of not hearing his name called in the NFL Draft.

When it ended, Erica said her son “broke down crying in my arms.”

It turns out, that was just another in a long line of obstacles that inspired the Jaguars’ receiver to reach his NFL dream.

“At the end of the day, it all gives you motivation,” said Hurns. “I feel like there’s nothing I can’t overcome. God puts things in our way to see how we respond to adversity. I’m just a firm believer of showing that people who are less fortunate or are going through things, you can overcome.”

For Allen Hurns, whether it’s Christmas or not, that might be his greatest gift.