The Allstate Sugar Bowl Believes in Champions – Caleb Hurd
Champions have long defined the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The list of Hall of Fame athletes who have competed in the annual contest is staggering. Heisman Trophy winners, future NFL Super Bowl champions and national championship coaches have made their mark in the annual game that brings in thousands of fans and millions of television viewers to New Orleans. But the list of Sugar Bowl champions extends well past the gridiron. There is a long list of distinguished individuals who have proven themselves to be champions in life as well – the Sugar Bowl’s current series highlights these lesser known success stories.
The Allstate Sugar Bowl Believes in Champions
Whether on the football field or racetrack, you’re in good hands with Caleb Hurd.
You’ve probably never heard of Hurd before but he’s the type of person who is vital to an operation yet hardly noticed; sort of the glue that holds everything together. Lack of acclaim is of no consequence to him. He said he’s been blessed most of his life, which took him from the Virginia Tech gridiron then onto to the NASCAR circuit where he aided some of the biggest names in the sport.
“I feel like I overachieved in everything I had the opportunity to do,” Hurd said. “It’s not anything I did in particular, but I took advantage of all the opportunities I had put before me.”
It’s been a serendipitous journey and one where things seemed to work out in a right-place, right-time paradigm.
“I would say the opportunities have presented themselves to me, but you have to take advantage of those opportunities,’’ Hurd said. “And that starts with hard work.”
He was part of Virginia Tech’s football team, which won the Big East Championship in 1999 and played for the BCS Championship against Florida State in the 2000 Sugar Bowl. And since his football career, he has gone on to be part of multiple NASCAR champion racing teams.
But there’s an interesting story to how he got there.
As a high school athlete at Pulaski County High School in Dublin, Va., Hurd’s focus was on the baseball diamond. However, the Cougars were perennial district champions in football.
“Our school was one of those schools that always won in football, so if you could find a way, you played football,” Hurd said. “I didn’t have the speed; and as a freshman I didn’t have the height. But I had decent hands so I held on field goals. That happened to be when Shayne [Graham] came in and that kind of worked out.”
Graham was one of the top high school kickers in the nation. Schools throughout the region were looking for any edge they could get in order to sign the future star.
Virginia Tech assistant coach Todd Grantham, who also happened to be a Pulaski grad, stumbled upon the nugget that Graham’s holder was most likely headed to Virginia Tech to take advantage of the school’s prestigious mechanical engineering program. Grantham used his full recruiting pitch on Hurd, offering him a preferred walk-on spot on the up-and-coming Hokie squad.
“I actually hesitated because I was a little scared,” Hurd remembered. “But I grew up in the area, I loved Virginia Tech in general and I loved the Hokies. To have that opportunity, I was ready to take advantage of it. I’m sure I’m the only recruited placeholder in history, ever.”
Caleb Hurd (91) and Shayne Graham (17)
“I got a call from Caleb and he kind of told me what he was told [by Grantham] and that changed everything,” Graham said. “Knowing that I could win the job as a true freshman and have my same holder that I knew was good because Caleb put a lot of work into it even in high school. Knowing that you have that solid continuity the whole time in school having the same guy holding for you meant a lot to me.”
“I was 6-3, 180; I think they assumed they could work me into some other roles, but when I got there and ran the 40, they said, ‘Yep, holding the ball will be good for you,” Hurd laughed.
The Hokies posted a 26-10 record in Hurd’s first three years and played in the Orange, Gator and Music City bowls. As a senior in 1999, Hurd and the Hokies put together a dream season. Led by a redshirt freshman quarterback by the name of Michael Vick, the Hokies became the feel good story of the 1999 season.
The Hokies won 11 regular season games by an average of 30.8 points per game as they ran away with the Big East Championship.
The only game they didn’t dominate was a Nov. 6 thriller with West Virginia. After taking a 19-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Hokies saw the Mountaineers score two touchdowns within two minutes of action, taking a 20-19 lead with 1:15 to go in the game. Virginia Tech’s dreams of a perfect season were very much up in the air.
However, Vick completed three passes for 32 yards and dashed off a 26-yard run of his own, to set up third-and-one with five seconds to go. Hokies head coach Frank Beamer called for a 44-yard field goal.
“You get a little more of the jitters, your hands feel a little cold, all that good stuff,” Hurd said of stepping onto the field to hold for Graham’s game-winning attempt. “I just remember in the back of my mind, ‘If I drop this, I can’t leave here. I can never go back home.’ I had that in the back of my mind. Ultimately at the end, which also helped me with my NASCAR career, when it was time to go and when the whistle blew, you can actually push all that stuff out of your head and do what you’ve done a hundred times already. That’s the mentality you have to have and eventually I got back to that.”
Hurd’s hold was flawless and Graham’s kick was good. Everything remained in place for a trip to the national championship game in the Superdome.
The Seminoles jumped to a 28-7 advantage early in the second quarter of the title game. But then Vick asserted himself. He put on an impressive show, leading the Hokies to a 29-28 lead in the third quarter. Florida State rallied in the fourth quarter and won, 46-29, but Vick wowed the nation.
“I saw Michael Vick highlights all year, everybody else just got to catch up to it,” Hurd said. “It’s funny, the year before when he was redshirting, we were playing Syracuse and Vick was the scout team Donovan McNabb. Our defense couldn’t touch him. That’s when we knew that we had something special. That Florida State team was crazy talented, but the stuff he did was video-game like. To be on the good side of that, it was fun to watch.”
While the Vick highlights are a great memory for Hurd, he can also chuckle at a rather less-pleasant memory from that Sugar Bowl appearance. On the drive following Florida State taking the 28-7 advantage, Andre Kendrick had a 63-yard kick return to put the Hokies’ at the FSU 37-yard line. However, an incomplete pass and a sack left them at the 34 on fourth-and-seven. Beamer opted for a fake field goal.
“I looked at Coach Beamer twice, just to make sure,” Hurd said. “’Ok….we’re really doing this.’ The call was an option play for me and Shayne. We needed seven yards; we’re not trying to score a touchdown. I took the snap, but I looked up and saw a red jersey in my face, I pitched it to Shayne, it bounced off his face mask [and was recovered by FSU]. Coach looked at me after and asked, ‘What went wrong? Think we can try it again?’ I said, ‘Coach, I just saw red, I don’t know.’ That’s my biggest memory, unfortunately not a good one.”
Courtesy of Caleb Hurd
While he laments not earning that national championship ring, Hurd quickly had a new opportunity, latching on as an intern with Hendrick Motorsports after being hired by Jeff Gordon’s team manager Brian Whitesell, who was a Virginia Tech grad and familiar with Hurd through football.
“In my job interview, I was very honest,” Hurd said. “I told them that I’ve played football and I’ve gone to class, that’s all I’ve done.’ I thought NASCAR would be a great place to use my engineering degree if I could get into it. I found out later that Coach Beamer had sent a letter on my behalf. Luckily, that door opened for me and I’ve made a career out of it.”
Hurd worked with Gordon for the 2000 racing season, then was selected to be a part of the pit crew for a recently-hired up-and-coming driver – Jimmie Johnson – in 2001. He would return to Gordon’s No. 24 team the following year and remain for 10 years working in a variety of roles.
“I’ve done a little bit of everything,” Hurd said. “I started driving fork lifts and sweeping the floor. But I also had the opportunity to be involved in weight studies on the car, weighing every nut and bolt to try and make everything better. It really introduced me to NASCAR. The more I worked, the more my engineering degree came into play.”
He eventually earned a position on the race-day pit crew, working as a gasman, one of the more dangerous jobs.
Courtesy of Caleb Hurd
“Having played football was the biggest help in the world, especially having played at Virginia Tech at the time I played there,” Hurd said. “I had been in similar high-pressure situations. You sit on the sidelines for 30 minutes while the driver’s working his butt off, then he comes down and you can pretty much dictate how the race is going to go by how you perform. Just like I had done as a holder. Coach Beamer had always told us to do what you know how to do and things will work out. One of his sayings was, ‘If you let the moment get to you, then you’re already done.”
He followed up his tenure with Gordon’s team by joining the pit crew for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., also with Hendrick Motorsports, before moving to Joe Gibbs Racing and Denny Hamlin’s pit crew. Last year, he left the pits and became the Gibbs Racing video coordinator – working with Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Eric Jones.
“I’m in charge of calculating all of the metrics that go into a pit stop,” Hurd said. “That’s how we judge stuff, like every other sport, down to tenths of a second. How do you get around the car? How do you do this? How do you do that? And we study the video. It’s become a major part of the sport.
“We do video metrics live. They send the video to the shop, and I’m there breaking it down immediately. Before they come down [pit road] again, we have given them the information to adjust and hopefully save more time. We’re trying to make the pit system better as we go.”
While he had plenty of luck along the way – happening to join the Pulaski County High team at the same time as Shayne Graham; catching the eye of Todd Grantham (who happened to be a Pulaski grad) and being offered a walk-on position; meeting a Virginia Tech grad and football fan who was hiring for a position in NASCAR – Hurd still needed to prove himself. He has done that at every spot with hard work, a cool head and sure hands.
The Allstate Sugar Bowl has established itself as one of the premier college football bowl games, having hosted 28 national champions, 96 Hall of Fame players, 50 Hall of Fame coaches and 18 Heisman Trophy winners in its 86-year history. The 87th Allstate Sugar Bowl Football Classic, which will double as a College Football Playoff Semifinal, is scheduled to be played on January 1, 2021. In addition to football, the Sugar Bowl Committee annually invests over $1.6 million into the community through the hosting and sponsorship of sporting events, awards and clinics. Through these efforts, the organization supports and honors over 100,000 student-athletes each year, while injecting over $2.7 billion into the local economy in the last decade.