Dec 7, 2022
Tim McManusESPN Staff Writer
PHILADELPHIA -- The locker room doors opened and music filled the room following the Philadelphia Eagles' Week 12 win over the Green Bay Packers. Players bustled about. Some laughing. Some dancing. Some shouting out profanity to no one in particular (Darius Slay, still mad he couldn't pull in an Aaron Rodgers interception). All briskly moving from here to there, forming a ball of kinetic energy fit for an 11-1 team.
But two figures, quarterback Jalen Hurts and receiver A.J. Brown, stood motionless and stone-faced in the center of the room, like stars in a movie with the world blurring in the background. Both were shirtless and still in their game pants -- the routine of getting changed put on hold for this moment. Hurts did most, maybe all, of the talking.
Then Hurts extended an arm, they slapped hands, pulled in for the one-arm hug, and went off to rejoin the pack.
"He was saying he was proud of me," Brown said.
A stomach illness had prevented Brown from eating for much of the preceding week. He had dropped seven pounds and was throwing up so much he popped a blood vessel in his right eye. He had a costly fumble deep in Green Bay territory midway through the second quarter but responded with a six-yard touchdown catch in the third. Hurts, it turns out, was lifting him up after an exhausting stretch.
"I tell him all the time I'm proud of him, too," Brown said.
Hurts and Brown are best friends dating back to when Hurts tried to recruit Brown to come to Alabama. Their friendship, strengthened through the years even as they traveled different paths through college and their early pro careers. In April, they finally became teammates when the Eagles acquired Brown from the Tennessee Titans for the 18th and 101st overall picks -- a move Hurts championed and helped get to the finish line.
The on-field results speak for themselves: Hurts is enjoying an MVP-caliber campaign while Brown is on pace for the best season of his career with over 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Some teammates jokingly liken Hurts and Brown to "an old married couple," according to quarterback Gardner Minshew, because while it's obvious they're close, they bicker. Most liken them to brothers. Brown challenges and talks to Hurts in ways no other player can or will, multiple teammates said. Hurts is equally demanding.
"In the end, the honesty that we can have towards one another, that only allows us to excel. You want people around you that's going to be honest with you and tell you the truth," Hurts said. "I think we have a bond that's strong enough to do that. That's what we try to do -- even when it hurts."
Their personalities stand in contrast. Hurts is reserved. Brown, more gregarious, gets frustrated that Hurts is perpetually all business -- always grinding away at that massive chip on his shoulder.
But they're very similar at their cores and have a way of balancing each other out. And most importantly, they serve as a support system for one another -- something that has been crucial this season and over their football careers.
"For me it's a natural bond, how they came about to where they are," said Willie Gillespie, Brown's wide receivers coach at Starkville (Mississippi) High School who has seen their relationship up close. "They don't take their position for granted, they both work hard, and everything they've got they've earned it.
"Certainly I think dreams came true when they got a chance to play together. Like I told A.J., 'That's called divine intervention there, buddy.'"
Already committed to Alabama in the fall of 2015, Hurts said his first interaction with Brown came on social media. The two kept in contact throughout their senior years as Hurts, who starred at Channelview (Texas) High School, sought players to join him in Tuscaloosa. Hurts enrolled early at Alabama and was on campus when recruiting trips started, and served as Brown's campus host.
"We just hit it off," Brown said. "I just kind of gravitated towards him because he's a good person, most importantly. I think people can recognize good people when they see them. You could feel that vibe from him, and I think it just started from that visit."
Hurts' efforts to convince Brown to play for the Tide were unsuccessful, but they had instant rapport and stayed in touch. Brown invited Hurts to work out with him in Starkville -- an hour's ride from Tuscaloosa -- that summer.
Hurts obliged. But he wasn't going to let Brown slide that easily for choosing Ole Miss over Alabama.
"They'd come to the house and go on YouTube and watch Alabama play. Of course Jalen would rub it in his face and that kind of thing," Gillespie said with a laugh. "It was all in fun, though. Their relationship kind of evolved from that and kind of turned into an inseparable bond."
The summer workouts became a tradition, to the delight of the Starkville kids who got to work out with two budding collegiate stars.
"It got competitive, man. It was like two brothers playing catch," Gillespie said.
'Man, run! Come on!'
'Well you didn't throw the ball early enough! You didn't throw it far enough! Throw it on time!'
'Well, you just catch it!'
That's how many of their Eagles teammates and coaches describe it, appearing in both big ways and small in their daily interactions. Hurts will walk over to the section of the locker room where the wide receivers are situated, go into Brown's locker stall without saying a word, take a pair of his socks for his own, and walk away.
"A.J. will look at us and be like, 'What he got going on?' I'm like, 'That's your best friend. He can do that. He's got the power to do that.' And [Brown] will just go over and mess with him and take his socks back," receiver Quez Watkins said.
"They sit right there," said coach Nick Sirianni, pointing to two adjoining seats in the front row of the NovaCare Complex auditorium. "They talk at times -- and they argue at times."
"[It will be] A.J. talking about how he wants to run a route like this and Jalen says, 'I'm throwing you the ball, run the route the way I want you to run it,'" tight end Dallas Goedert added. "Little things like that."
"Nothing's personal. There are no personal attacks. You're able to talk to each other very bluntly in a way that other people may be scared to do," receiver/returner Britain Covey said.
There's debate over who is the big brother. Some side with the more steady-handed Hurts, who is sometimes charged with reining in the more excitable Brown. But the majority of those polled in the locker room and out said Brown is the big brother -- something even Hurts conceded after contemplating the question for a moment, allowing that Brown has experienced more "grown man stuff" in his life.
"I would like to say so. But he definitely tries to be the big brother sometimes," Brown said. "I came to the league a little earlier. I can just say at the moment I've accomplished more. I think he just has respect for that: respect for my game, respect for what I've done already, and so I think that's where the big brother and little brother come in."
"Where I get upset is I'll be like, 'Have fun sometimes'" he added. "He's like, 'I have fun winning.' That's how he is. But he's been doing better."
Brown's admiration for Hurts, though, runs deep. He watched as his friend was benched in the national championship against Georgia for Tua Tagovailoa during the 2017 season, lost the starting job in 2018, and then led Alabama to an SEC Championship win over that same Georgia team later that season when Tagovailoa went down with an injury.
"For him to get benched and come back in and play well in that championship game, I told him, me personally, I couldn't have went through that. I learned something from him in that situation," Brown said.
"We talked that night after everything had happened. He was so calm. We just talked, and he knew what he had to do -- he had to go to work. It took a tremendous amount of character to sit through that. But I think that's just who he is, that's how he was raised."
Hurts responded in kind, including on draft night in 2019. Brown had hopes of going in the first round but slipped to the second before being selected 51st overall by the Titans. Hurts was by his side at the draft party.
"He's a person that's been there through everything," Hurts said. "He never changed throughout any type of circumstance or situation. I appreciate him for that and I appreciate the bond we have and the aspirations and ambitions we have. We get to chase those things together."
Hurts called his shot.
He had traveled to Mississippi last April to attend the birthday party for his goddaughter, Jersee, Brown's 2-year-old.
Like most times when they get together, the duo found a local field to work out on.
"In the middle of the throwing session, Jalen said he's going to ask for [the Eagles] to trade for me," Brown said. "We were laughing and joking. We had no idea this was going to happen."
Turns out, Hurts had been "putting a bug in [management's] ear," per Brown, to bring him on board.
Brown had surpassed 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons with the Titans, including a 70-catch, 1,075-yard campaign in 2020 when he hauled in a career-best 11 TDs. In 2021, he had 63 catches for 869 yards and five touchdowns in 13 games. But with Brown reaching an impasse with Tennessee as he sought a new deal, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman worked behind the scenes to make the trade happen.
Parameters of a deal had been agreed to prior to the first night of the draft, but it was contingent on Brown and the Eagles hammering out a contract extension. It needed to get done by the time Philadelphia was on the clock with the 18th pick. Approaching pick 15, the deal was up in the air. Roseman left the draft room time and again, dipping into conference rooms with a phone plastered to his ear trying to get the deal done. Almost nobody in the building knew what was happening, with one exception being Hurts.
"I had given him a heads up before the draft, one of a few people, in case I needed him to recruit A.J., in case it got close and we needed to get a deal done," Roseman told WIP radio in Philadelphia that week. "And that was really it."
And so another opportunity to recruit Brown presented itself. Brown, though, had gone dark on Hurts as the draft got underway. The decision and what it meant to his career was too big to allow emotions to get involved, he said.
The two sides agreed on a four-year, $100 million extension with minutes to spare before the Eagles were on the clock, allowing Roseman to spring the news as he reentered the draft room.
The ensuing FaceTime call between Hurts and Brown offered a glimpse into how much it meant to them to be joining forces.
"That was just two friends in disbelief that it really happened," Brown said.
When Hurts was asked about the benefits of having Brown with him in Philadelphia recently, he joked, "Less FaceTime calls."
But it goes beyond that.
On the first day of training camp, Brown showed up wearing a black hat that read "HURTS SZN" in white lettering. It was a message, Brown said at the time, that "I'm going to be right beside him every step of the way."
And that's proven out. When a report emerged detailing Hurts' struggles during a portion of the offseason training program, Brown took to social media to push back in defense of Hurts, with other teammates jumping in.
"He can kind of move how he wants to move because he knows someone has got his back," Brown said.
Their friendship, and common vision for the team, has gone a long way in cementing the team culture that Sirianni has been working to establish.
"I think we just want to be great. This is somebody that I call a friend," Brown said. "He knows what I want to accomplish and I know what he wants to accomplish. When you're playing for somebody that you love, who you call family, it's a different meaning behind it."