After Four Seasons at Tulane, Former Pali High Quarterback P.J. Hurst Is Staying with the Program
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Nobody appreciates the value of perseverance or the virtue of patience more than former Palisades High quarterback P.J. Hurst. Having been a backup for three years many players in his position would have simply quit the team or transferred to another school, but that is not what Hurst is about.
To him it is all about finishing what you start and that is what he did at Tulane University in New Orleans. He rode the Green Wave all the way to a degree—and he has no regrets.
“Going down to New Orleans from the Palisades was definitely a change of pace,” Hurst says. “New Orleans is a very diverse place, but everyone is very welcoming and friendly. The south is very different from Los Angeles and it took me a while to adjust to the culture down there. Now I love it more than anything, New Orleans is a fun and unique place to go to school and it’s such an amazing city. There’s always something going on, whether it’s a concert, a festival or mardi gras. There are so many different kinds of people, you learn to appreciate where you are from and where everyone else is from.”
Although he did not make an appearance as a true freshman, Hurst was named to the 2016-17 American Athletic Conference All-Academic Team and off the field he was named to Tulane’s 3.0 Club in the spring of 2017. He saw action at the end of two home games his sophomore year, versus Grambling on Sept. 2 and versus Tulsa on Oct. 7. He participated in one game (versus Missouri State) as a redshirt junior last fall.
“It was truly an amazing experience,” he says. “It felt like all my hard work in my football career had finally paid off.”
Hurst enjoyed every aspect of the college experience, not just being part of an NCAA football program on the rise.
“For my first two years I lived in the football dorms, which are apartments specifically for athletes,” he says. “My last two years I lived off campus right next to Yulman Stadium, with a few buddies from the football team. The atmosphere at Yulman is fun, the first couple of years were a little rough but especially after this past year with our recent success, students have been packing the stadium and made it a really fun experience. The stadium is right on campus so it has a real community feel to it.”
For Hurst, the hardest part of living in the south is the climate.
“The weather in New Orleans is crazy, that’s the only way to explain it,” he says. “In the summer it’s 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity. You can barely go outside let alone complete summer workouts, but then in the afternoons there are random thunder and lightning storms. It doesn’t get too cold in the winters and then spring starts right back up with the humidity again.”
Playing for coaches he grew to admire and respect made it all the more rewarding.
“The coaching staff at Tulane is one of the best coaching staffs I’ve ever interacted with,” he says. “It truly is a family and they’re there to offer help whenever you need it, whether it be on or off the field. They pride themselves on making you the best person, student and football player you can be. I have a very good relationship with our head coach Willie Fritz and also our new offensive coordinator, Coach Will Hall. He has all the quarterbacks over for dinner with his family every now and then but, like I said, every coach on the staff does an amazing job getting to know you and being there when you need them. I redshirted my freshman year in 2016 to bulk up a bit and get to know the playbook. I played against Ohio State when I was the holder for field goals in 2018.”
Since he took a redshirt year, Hurst could have strapped on the pads one last time but having already earned his degree he opted to forego his final season.
“I technically have one more year of eligibility,” he says. “I had a shoulder injury after my sophomore season that still bugs me. I decided I can get more out of my final year by gaining a new perspective and seeing how a Division I football program is run.”
No one is more fond of Hurst than Pali High Life Experience Coach Joe Spector, who twice presented him the team’s Most Valuable Player Award: “It’s been a pleasure getting to know P.J. I’ve also kept in contact with [Pali High basketball alum] Steve Kerr (now the head coach of the Golden State Warriors). Coaches have appreciated their natural leadership and humilty as athletes and now as coaches. Though they played different sports both had the unique ability to make the right decisions under pressure.”
Now, Hurst relishes the opportunity he has to learn more about the X’s and O’s.
“Coach Fritz and Coach Hall said they loved having me around so they really wanted to find a position for me on the staff,” he says. “I’ll be a Recruiting/Player Personnel Assistant, where I’ll be assisting in the recruiting department and football operations side of things and completing various analytics projects. Coach Fritz is very big on the analytics side of football. I’ll also continue to help on the offensive side of the ball.”
Hurst’s leadership helped to lay the groundwork for the resurgence of Palisades’ program under head coach Tim Hyde. He quarterbacked the Dolphins to 12 victories in two seasons as the varsity starter. After earning All-City honors by throwing for 2,220 yards and 23 touchdowns as a junior, he threw for 2,065 yards and 21 touchdowns and ran for 707 yards and nine scores to earn All-League and All-City honors as a senior captain in 2015.
“Unfortunately, my falls are pretty hectic with the season so I didn’t get back [to Pali] for any games,” Hurst laments. “I always try to get out there in the summers when I’m back. It’s a weird experience not being out there but I love to see how far the program has come. Coach Hyde is doing a great job. [Former Pali High linebacker] Alec Simpson and I still talk almost every day and see each other whenever we’re in town. He just graduated from Arizona State and is doing really well working for Rivals in recruiting. I try to stay caught up with as many teammates as I can. I always enjoy catching up and hearing how everyone’s doing. I also stay in touch with Coach Hyde and Joe Spector.”
Hurst is grateful for the teachers and coaches at Palisades who prepared him well for the next level.
“I was ready both academically and athletically,” he says. “Coach Hyde, Coach Montz and Coach E did a great job of challenging me and preparing me for what was to come. For anyone, college and especially college football, can be a wake-up call. It took me some time getting used to life as a student-athlete because it really is a full-time job on top of having to go to class and perform in the classroom. I believe my coaches and teachers at Pali helped build a foundation for which I was able to succeed at Tulane.”
Here is how Hurst describes a typical day during football season: “Wake up at 5:40 a.m.; get to the facility to check in for breakfast by six; get in the locker room to get changed and weighed in and do my hydration test; head to the training room to get taped up and start my shoulder stretching and rehab routine; upstairs by seven for quarterback and team meetings that go until eight; on the field by 8:15; practice starts at 8:30 and lasts until 11 or 11:30; quickly shower and get to class by 12 and get to lunch check (lifting on Monday and Wednesday in season, so lift right after practice or come back in the afternoon depending on class schedule); class all afternoon until four or five; eat dinner; try to get in for some extra film; then start homework and studying.”
Hurst has his favorite places to go when he does have some down time.
“The Fly is a very popular spot for Tulane Students—it’s a park right on the Mississippi River,” Hurst says. “On Fridays everyone goes there to enjoy the sunset. I also loved eating around New Orleans, trying all of the amazing food and restaurants.”
Life as a backup quarterback can be frustrating. You never know when you may be called upon but you must be ready to go at all times because you are always one play away.
“It’s definitely a tough role,” he admits. “You have to stay mentally ready as if you’re the starter no matter where you are on the depth chart because you have to be ready. You definitely need to find a role. I was fortunate to get involved with signaling in the plays my freshman year. This allowed me to stay focused and on top of everything that was going on offensively. It also allowed me to help players that were confused on certain plays or formations.”
As big a part of his college life as football was, Hurst never lost sight of his primary goal: getting his diploma. That accomplished, he travels back to New Orleans this week to continue his education and he has a master plan.
“I majored in finance with a minor in legal studies,” Hurst says. “I’m actually getting my Masters of Business Analytics. We start fall camp August 4 and my master’s program starts the very next week. Eventually, I’d like to get into a career in finance. I’m still considering law school in the future.”
Hurst remembers a game that was a turning point for the program.
“The memory that sticks out most to me is when we became bowl eligible for the first time in 2018,” he recounts. “We beat Navy on the last play of the last game that season, getting us to six wins and making us eligible for a bowl. It was a huge step, all the sacrifices the players and coaches had made in rebuilding the program had finally paid off. It was a moment to reflect on the long hours and work we all put in. We went on to win back-to-back bowl games in 2018 and 2019.”
Looking back on his days at Pali High, the game he cites as being the most significant is one his team lost.
“It was my junior year in 2014 when we played Venice on TV,” he recalls. “It was the high school game of the week and we ended up losing, but that was the first time that we took Venice down to the final play. It was a big game for me because my personal quarterback coach and close friend Angelo Gasca is Venice’s head coach. Everyone on our team played so well. I believe that was a big turning point for our program because it showed we could compete with the top team in our league. It gave future teams the confidence to eventually do that. Coach Hyde has since then led them to do just that and now Palisades is on top of the Western League.”
Hyde, who took over in 2013, still considers Hurst the most important figure in his tenure.
“Coaching P.J. has been one of the best experiences in my time at Pali,” says Hyde, who piloted the Dolphins to their first outright league title in 32 years last fall. “He was an integral part of building the culture we have here. After our loss to Venice in 2015 he held a team meeting. The confidence everyone had in him showed when he led a 90-yard game-winning drive versus Hamilton and we ended up co-champs in league. It was amazing coaching him and I’m proud of everything he’s accomplished at Tulane.”
Hurst grew up on Las Casas, just north of Pali High and St. Matthew’s. In addition to football he lettered in volleyball his senior year at Palisades. His twin sister Sarah, who also played volleyball at Palisades, recently graduated from the University of Michigan and starts a master’s program in Sports Management at George Washington University in Washington D.C. this fall. P.J.’s older brother Jack now lives in San Diego.
“I miss the beach when I’m in Nola,” P.J. admits. “So I love getting down there when I’m back in town.”
Never one to gloat or show up an opponent, Hurst humbly embraced his role while earning the utmost respect from his peers along the way.
“Playing football at Tulane is the best decision I’ve ever made,” he says. “My career didn’t play out as planned, but there’s nothing I’d change. I’ve made friendships and connections that’ll last a lifetime. It’s an amazing school and an amazing program.”
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