It’s a blistering afternoon in downtown Dallas. Inside the confines of the polished Earle Cabell Federal Building, the pings and whirs of metal detectors and x-ray machines cascade off the gypsum walls. A massive rendering of Howard Chandler Christy’s Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States rests slightly above members of Samuel Hurd’s family who have traveled 275 miles from San Antonio in search of justice.
After an elevator ride and another round of security checks, they take their seats in the United States District Court where Judge Jorge Solis will hand down sentencing to 28-year-old Samuel George Hurd III, aka inmate number 44162-424. Hurd, alum of Brackenridge High School and former Dallas Cowboys standout, has pled guilty to a drug trafficking charge and is facing life in prison. Thus far his case has been drawn out for more than two years.
“As a family, we are having faith in God that all will be well with his sentencing,” says Jawanda Corbin-Newsome, Hurd’s sister. “Samuel is willing to take responsibility for his actions in the matter. He has been truthful and honest in his role. What is not fair is that they are trying to make him out to be more than he is; a drug lord, a kingpin. That is not Samuel. Never has been and never will be.”
“The case is complex, but no different than any other cases that are tried out of the public eye,” continues Corbin-Newsome. “We pray that the judge is fair in his sentencing. So far, the prosecutors have not been. They have a young black man and one with a name and in the public eye that they can use for their own selfish and personal reasons to score points, promotions, re-elections and make an example of. This has been a difficult time for my family, but we are strong and we will stay strong for Samuel.”
Inside the courtroom, Hurd’s lead council Mike McCrum, a graduate of South San High School, reviews his notes. His other attorney, Jay Ethington, who has represented athletes including Michael Irvin and Roy Tarpley, thumbs through a federal sentencing guidelines manual.
When Hurd enters the courtroom he is draped in bright orange prison garb that stands in stark contrast to the suits on display. He quickly acknowledges his family through his eyes, with no discernable smile or frown. It’s hard not to notice the bright silver shackles that swallow his ankles or the faded blue prison shoes that cover his feet. For the man who caught Tony Romo’s first pass in the National Football League, San Antonio’s Indiana Street must feel far away.
“I do remember him being born and coming home,” recalls Corbin-Newsome, the eldest of six children in her family. “I remember sitting at the edge of his bouncer and saying, ‘Mom, wow, he’s tall.’ She laughed and said, ‘Yes, he is long for a baby,’” his sister remembers.
Corbin-Newsome describes their childhood in Denver Heights as typical, with a Brady Bunch feel due to the sets of three brothers and three sisters. Mother Gloria Corbin worked as a unit secretary at Santa Rosa Hospital, where she is still employed, and father Samuel Hurd Jr. was a janitor with the San Antonio Independent School District. Corbin-Newsome credits her parents for being great providers and says that although the family was poor, she and her siblings never knew it growing up.
Nicknamed Bird by his grandmother for his long neck, Sam soon gravitated to sports and his earliest football memories come from his time at Edgar Allan Poe Middle School. In emails, he writes fondly about receiving his first jersey and the awesome sense of unity that he felt as part of the team. It was at George Washington Brackenridge High School though, under the tutelage of Coach Willie Hall, where Hurd’s game would flourish.
“Well, the first couple of years he was just a regular guy; didn’t think anything special,” says Hall, who has known Hurd since he was a toddler. “His third year he started to look like somebody that could make a difference in the game. He had a great work ethic, a great attitude, very disciplined. He just did things right and we knew that if he kept on that path that started in his junior year that he was gonna do good.”
While the three-sport letterman’s talent on the field was becoming increasingly noticeable, for brother-in-law Reggie Newsome, it was Hurd’s game against Boerne during his senior year that elevated him to the next level. With Brackenridge trailing just before the half and 30 seconds on the clock, Hurd flew down the field to score a touchdown and lift the crowd. Newsome remembers him going on to score a total of five touchdowns in the rain that day.
“The one that stands out in my mind was Harlandale,” says Hall, recalling a match up against the number one team in the city at the time. “We met up against Harlandale and I think he scored seven touchdowns in that game. One of the other kids came up; it was the quarterback. He said ‘Coach we can’t throw to Sam every time.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ And then he thought about it and said, ‘Coach you’re right. They can’t stop him.’”
“I loved it because he let you play the game like you feel in love with it,” writes Hurd from the Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville, just outside of Dallas, about his time under Hall’s tutelage. “I remember just enjoying every day playing for him and always thinking back on what else I could have done better to make the future, which is my past now, better.”
Growing up in Mother Gloria’s house, higher education was an expectation and like Jawanda and his brother Anthony before him, Sam was soon off to college. He recalls the excitement of leaving San Antonio for the fresh scenery of Northern Illinois University. At NIU he finally experienced snow and on the field he excelled, amassing 143 receptions, 2,322 yards and 21 touchdowns before graduating with a degree in communications. It was also in college where he first used marijuana, which he blames for his current incarceration.
Back in Judge Solis’ courtroom, Mike McCrum is doing an admirable job of fighting for Hurd’s life. He begins by going through a timeline of events leading up to Hurd’s December 14, 2011 arrest outside a Morton’s steakhouse in Chicago, where Hurd had recently signed as a free agent with the Bears. According to the criminal complaint filed by Special Agent George Ramirez, Hurd told undercover agents that he was interested in purchasing five to 10 kilograms of cocaine and 1,000 pound of marijuana per week for distribution in the Chicago area. He negotiated to receive the narcotics at $25,000 per kilogram of cocaine and $450 per pound of marijuana, and left the restaurant with a kilo of coke that agents claim he was fronted.
McCrum maintains that the informants in the case targeted Hurd and directed the investigation over the course of five months to induce crime. He claims that during previous negotiations, it was an informant who raised the number of kilos of cocaine being discussed to a total of five, and it was also an informant who pushed for an ongoing “relationship” as opposed to a one-time deal.
McCrum next focuses his attention to Hurd’s strained relationship with his cousin Tyrone Chavful, a convicted marijuana trafficker who a witness later refers to as a “snake.” On June 6, 2012 Chavful was arrested in San Antonio for trafficking drugs moments after speaking to the already-busted Hurd via cellphone. Chavful would later tell agents that he previously sold Hurd 30 pounds of marijuana. Utilizing phone traffic data, McCrum presents an absence of corroboration on Hurd’s part and also cites the lack of cash flow to support “big time deals.”
In a steady tone, McCrum continues his defense with a trio of witnesses. Jacob Resendez, who was the best man at Hurd’s wedding, testifies that although pot was a presence, he never saw or heard any mention of cocaine. Larry Williams, a San Antonio native from Denver Heights who works in sports marketing and helped Hurd set up his first camps for kids, describes Hurd’s heart and passion for children. He remarks that despite coming from a neighborhood that was infested with drugs, “at the end of the day, Sam is a good guy.”
As Corbin-Newsome takes the stand, she waves to Hurd with a smile and her little brother smiles back. The mother of two recalls not-too-distant family crawfish boils and Thursday night Bible studies, describing Hurd as “the type of guy who wore the weight of the world on his shoulders.” She testifies that they prayed together and that Hurd was both remorseful and repenting, noting his outreach to kids with autism and volunteer work with the San Antonio Food Bank.
More than four hours into the sentencing the spotlight shifts from McCrum to Judge Solis, who begins to weigh in. He states that both drug dealing and cocaine are involved in the case, and believes it was Hurd who was directing others. Hurd turns to Ethington with a puzzled look that masks serious concern. “Mr. Hurd is the spoke,” says Judge Solis, his voice filling the courtroom. “It all leads to him.”
After being passed over in the 2006 NFL draft, Hurd was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys, the closest thing to a home professional football team in San Antonio. For his family, though, Hurd’s wedding to girlfriend Stacee Green trumped his signing with the Cowboys. The dream of playing in the NFL that Hurd had at one point forgotten, because he felt he wasn’t “good enough or big enough,” was now a reality.
“It was almost unbelievable because so many kids play this game and that’s the dream,” remembers Hall. “At the end of the day that’s where they want to be, so it was just kind of mind boggling. It was exciting for the Brackenridge High School community and for me also. Anytime a young man or anybody can achieve something on that level it’s very special and it brings San Antonio to the light. I thought it was a great thing.”
Hurd’s initial impact with the Cowboys was on special teams, which Hall attributes to Hurd’s great work ethic. By 2008, the young player found rotation in a receiving corps that included names like Terrell Owens and Miles Austin, before injuring his ankle and requiring surgery. In 2010, he was named Special Teams captain and later that year he received the team’s Ed Block Courage Award, which recognizes an individual’s inspiration, sportsmanship and courage.
“It was awesome but I never really got to enjoy it because [of] the pressure of always needing to accomplish more,” says Hurd of his time with the Cowboys and catching passes from Romo. “I felt excited, but wanted so much more from the game. It was great because we both were new to the scene and it was amazing to be playing at that level. We both were excited but had a job to do and knew the game was bigger than our little moment of fame.”
It was during Hurd’s recovery in 2008 that his dependence on marijuana increased, with his habit eventually requiring purchases of two to four pounds a month. Trouble came calling in 2011 in the form of Toby Lujan, a mechanic Hurd had befriended who offered to flip $88,000 that Hurd had set aside to buy a house for his mother. Loyal to a fault, Hurd admits that he lent his friend the cash despite suspecting drugs were involved with the flip. When Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents tracked down Lujan that summer and confiscated the cash, Hurd was effectively on the path to federal court.
“I have never in my lifetime sold, participated in or used cocaine,” says Hurd as he stands before Judge Solis. “My biggest regret was ever smoking marijuana,” he adds. “My life is made up of good fortune combined with a train wreck of bad decisions.”
Leading up the sentencing, McCrum describes Hurd as increasingly more solemn, steeped in the feelings of regret and remorse. Corbin-Newsome characterizes him as remorseful but at peace, finding strength in his spirituality. As he pleads with Judge Solis, setting aside a written statement to speak from the heart, Hurd’s deep voice pushes the courtroom’s serviceable audio system.
“I’m a little nervous,” continues Hurd. “I just know my life is depending on everything that happens right now. I’m for sure not guilty of what they say.”
Just prior to Hurd’s address, Ethington asks Judge Solis for a 10-year sentence maintaining that there is one actual kilogram of cocaine in the case and that it was provided by the government. He points out that Hurd is a first-time offender who was addicted to marijuana, and is essentially guilty of drug talk. This stands in stark contrast to the prosecution’s request for life in prison without parole, which is based on the quantities of cocaine the informants claimed Hurd was looking to sell. Prosecutors also point to a pair of failed drug tests when Hurd was out on bail and his connection to Chavful as indicators of his lack of remorse.
“My motivation was to help my friend and my judgment was cloudy from my drug use,” says Hurd as members of his family quietly pray.” “I can feel the pain that I have caused my wife, my mom, my dad, my brothers and sisters, my friends and my community,” says Hurd, tearing up.
After initially suggesting a sentence approximating 27 years, Judge Solis settles on 15 years explaining that Hurd was involved in “cocaine agreements.” Hurd lets out a deep sigh and a mixture of relief and sorrow hangs in the air as U.S. Marshalls whisk him away. Corbin-Newsome makes her way towards the exit before turning to acknowledge that “15 years is better than life,” and that the family “will appeal.” Someone asks for Ethington’s quick take and he responds with a chuckle, “I’d say the prosecutor is a Saints fan.”
“It’s how you look at the law,” McCrum tells a throng of reporters just outside the federal building. “When you show up to help a drug deal happen, then by law, you are participating in a drug deal. Does that mean that Sam Hurd has customers, that he’s selling cocaine to people, that he himself is buying cocaine? No. The evidence doesn’t support that. At most, he was providing money to fund another friend[’s] purchase of cocaine. By law, that makes you part of a drug deal, but being a cocaine dealer—no. I’d say the evidence says no.”
Night has fallen over Dallas, with the lower temperatures making the Metroplex slightly more unbearable than usual. In one of the non-descript rooms located in Ethington’s downtown offices, Hurd’s spent legal team gathers around Bud Lights and assorted bags of chips. The pair of veteran counselors maintain that the story here is one of government overreach.
“I think the government orchestrated most of the activity,” says Jay Ethington. “The government prompted and scripted all of the conversations about cocaine and the judge acknowledged that. When we would state that in court, the government didn’t object to it or try to negate it. All of the cocaine activity, ... was initiated, prompted, pushed forward by the government ... So this was really a government creation of a case that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. That’s quite sad that somebody goes to prison because of a government creation.”
“There’s a lot of similarities,” continues Ethington, comparing Hurd’s case to those of Michael Irvin and Roy Tarpley before him. Irvin pleaded no contest to felony cocaine possession in 1996 (for at least four grams of cocaine seized along with marijuana at Irvin’s raucous birthday party) while on the Cowboys roster and received four years of probation. In 1994 while playing for the Dallas Mavericks, Tarpley was permanently banned from the NBA after a series of alcohol-related incidents, including multiple DWI’s.
“The celebrity status of the defendant just adds fuel to the government’s fire to carry forward,” says Ethington. “‘Trophy hunting’ is what it’s called. The prosecutors even call it trophy hunting. All three of those individuals needed to be scrutinized by law enforcement authorities, but none of the three of them deserved to be incarcerated, and certainly not for a long period of time, like 15 years.”
Prosecutor John Kull presciently refuted such claims during the sentencing when referring to Hurd, stating, “He’s not being prosecuted because he’s an NFL player. He’s being prosecuted because he’s a drug dealer.”
By McCrum’s estimate, Hurd will be behind bars for 11 to 12 years due to good-time credit and time served. Unlike his grandfather and father before him who were always there for their children and still are, because of his bad decisions, Hurd will miss at least a decade of his young daughter’s life.
“I think it’s sad for our city,” says Mike McCrum. “It’s one of our sons, one of our brothers.”
Thanksgiving break is in effect for the San Antonio Independent School District but G.W. Brackenridge is bustling with activity. A handful of students are busy decorating the school’s Christmas tree while diligent custodians keep watch over the newly waxed floors. Inside the structure that houses the school’s athletic facilities, where the squeaks and bounces of a pair of basketball games echo in the background, resides a photographic homage to Samuel Hurd.
“We put it up to show this is a young man that came out of this neighborhood, out of this environment,” says Hall, who hung up the photo when Hurd joined the Cowboys. “The struggle that he had, he made it to the top. It’s a dream all young men have that play this game of football. He made it to the highest level in football and he was successful. It was good for the kids around here that he came out of this neighborhood and he made it.”
Standing at about six-feet tall, the glossy print depicts Hurd in varying stages of his football career. The young Brackenridge eagle is pictured in his white and purple No. 80 jersey, on his way to 23 touchdowns. Wearing No. 84 for the Huskies, the NIU graduate looks poised in red, his future as a professional athlete beckoning. With Cowboys stadium looming above him, Hurd beams in his white No. 17 jersey, the “2006-Present” caption freezing him forever in Dallas glory days.
Hall has been instructed to remove the piece by the end of the Thanksgiving break, which he says he understands. The only reminder of Hurd that will remain is a plaque recognizing him as the Brackenridge High School Male Athlete of the Year from 2001-2002.
“If you work at something for so long and became successful and it went away because of stupidity, you would feel shitty about life,” writes Hurd from Seagoville later that day. “But I am hurt that what I wanted to be able to tell my grandchildren will have to be a tale of the ups and downs of football.”