The Unlikely Rise of Chuba Hubbard, CFB's Out-of-Nowhere Heisman CandidateNovember 29, 2019
Mike Gundy has a question. He has an idea what the answer will be, but that doesn't stop him from asking. He's out to prove a point. And he will, momentarily.
Why shouldn't Chuba Hubbard win the Heisman Trophy?
The Oklahoma State head coach with the signature, flowing mullet—the one who so infamously declared himself to be a man of 40 years of age more than a decade ago—has never been shy. And he's been around long enough to know that no matter how he poses the question, and no matter whom he recites his running back's Heisman numbers to, it probably won't matter.
Still, he knows he's right, so on he goes.
"How many Power Five running backs are going to rush for 1,800 yards this year?" Gundy asks. "Maybe two? On the flip side, how many Power Five conference quarterbacks will throw for 3,500 yards? Maybe 15?"
That looks about right. Last season, 16 quarterbacks made it to 3,500, and two running backs made it to 1,800. This season, 15 quarterbacks have at least 3,000 heading into the final game or two, and only two running backs have more than 1,600. Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor is one, with 1,685, but even he is well behind Hubbard, who already has 1,832.
So the point Gundy is making is valid. Sure, he's campaigning for his star player, as he should be, but Hubbard's performance does feel worthy of something more. And he's not done.
"I'm not taking anything away from the quarterbacks," Gundy continues. "But if you don't take a running back who's basically dominated to New York, then let's say the Heisman is a quarterback award and be up front about it."
There are more numbers to back Gundy up. Hubbard's 2,044 all-purpose yards also top the nation by a considerable margin (197 over Taylor). He averages nearly 186 yards per game, which is the best mark by nearly 20 yards (also over Taylor). He's scored 20 touchdowns too, putting him behind only three other backs. He averages 6.4 yards per carry, third among those who have at least 200 carries (and he has 285, which ranks second).
But, again, Gundy knows that listing off a running back's numbers probably isn't going to change the way people think about the award, or about his breakout star's accomplishments.
Maybe the story behind that breakout will, though.
The story of a running back who hails from a place in the deep north called Sherwood Park, a suburb outside of Edmonton, Alberta.
The story of an athlete who nearly made the Canadian Olympic team as a sprinter before transforming his body for football.
The story of a man who is forming a nonprofit to help children "get out of a negative environment and put them in a positive one," inspired by his own family's struggles over the past two decades.
The story of a name perfect for the bright lights of New York City.
To Hubbard himself, the Heisman is the least of his ambitions. He has plans. Plans to live out his lifelong dream of playing in the NFL. Plans to change lives and use his newfound platform in the best possible way.
But before then, as rival Oklahoma looms and a 2,000-yard rushing season is within reach, Hubbard is poised for one final push to make his head coach's dream come true.
Candace Hubbard didn't want her son to play football. In fact, she told him "no" for as long as she possibly could.
You're too young, she would tell him. It's too violent.
In Alberta, most kids grow up wanting to play hockey, but Chuba wanted to run. Wanted to run track. Wanted to run with a football in his hands—wanted to so badly that eventually, when he was 10, Candace caved.
In his very first practice with the Sherwood Park Sabercats, Chuba cried. Not because of the contact, which was new. But because when he ran a reverse as a wide receiver, he fell short of a touchdown…after going more than 70 yards.
"He apologized that he didn't score," says Ken Buhagiar, who was the offensive coordinator of the Sabercats and has worked with Hubbard his entire football life. "We realized early on that he could run like the wind. We just had to teach him football."
At the peewee level and through high school, Hubbard garnered the reputation of being a track star who moonlighted as a running back. Before he added more than 25 pounds to his frame, he was widely regarded as one of the best young sprinters in the country.
One would think such a reputation would be a positive. But even as Hubbard dominated at Bev Facey Community High School in Sherwood Park, both Canadian and American collegiate coaches were skeptical.
"We find that the Canadian kids never get a legitimate opportunity south of the border because we're kind of the little brother to American football," says Curtis Martin, who coached Hubbard at Bev Facey. "He's not just that Canadian track kid; he's a badass football player who can run the rock."
And the numbers were too absurd to ignore forever. Across three high school seasons, Hubbard rushed for 6,880 yards and 82 touchdowns. Playing Canadian football—on larger fields with 12 players per team rather than 11—he averaged more than 15 yards per carry.
He made his debut for the under-16 Football Alberta team in 2015 against Team USA at the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium. That, coupled with a junior season in which he scored 40 touchdowns and accumulated more than 3,200 rushing yards, finally generated recruiting interest.
Colorado State was the first to offer. Oklahoma State followed shortly after. Tennessee was next in line, and the floodgates opened after that. Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, Oregon and more than a dozen other programs offered in the weeks and months that followed—a distinct departure from the way most hopeful Canadian football players are recruited.
Hubbard spent time at major programs around the SEC. But no matter how many visits he made, Oklahoma State had an allure that was unmatched.
"I feel like some schools value football more than the other things," Hubbard says. "They just kind of get overshadowed. I felt like Oklahoma State was a good atmosphere, and the people were nice. They cared about you as a person."
Rather than draw out his decision, Hubbard committed on one of the year's most meaningful days.
The nickname came to Gundy after another long run. The graceful strides. The incredible power. The way he almost glides down the field—like a Gold Glove center fielder tracking down a ball over his shoulder.
Though Hubbard showed promise near the end of his redshirt freshman season, running for at least 100 yards in three of his final four games, it wasn't until this fall that Gundy knew exactly the kind of player he had.
"I call him Secretariat," Gundy says. "He runs effortlessly and gets faster the farther he gets going down the field. He gets stronger the longer he has to run. It's absolutely beautiful."
When he arrived at Oklahoma State, Hubbard was 180 pounds. He had a sprinter's body, which is why he redshirted. Perhaps more important to Gundy than his adding size, though, was changing Hubbard's running mentality.
That he had averaged 15 yards per carry in high school also meant Hubbard wasn't being hit nearly as often as he would be in college. Coaches wondered how he would respond to more contact, but he has turned into maybe the most durable skill position player in the nation. He has carried the ball 20 times in every game this season other than a blowout victory against McNeese State in Week 2, and he has gone for at least 32 carries four times, including 37 against Texas.
"When everyone else is tired, I want to be able to surpass that and just be above everyone that we're playing against," Hubbard says. "That's how you win games. I don't really think about my carries when I'm out there. I just go up there and play."
He has also turned into a perfect blend of size and speed. Now listed at 6'1" and 207 pounds, his days of running the 100-meter dash in 10.55 seconds—something he did in the summer of 2015 at the IAAF World Youth Championships—are behind him. But he still can cover long distances in short amounts of time, as evidenced by his NCAA-leading seven 50-yard plays.
And all that running behind an offensive line that his head coach described as "beat up and makeshift." Hubbard is a mix of workhorse and game-breaker, something he has flashed each and every week this year.
"He has made a lot of money this season," one NFL scout tells Bleacher Report. "He has that first-level quickness, that burst, that can set him apart. He's also a make-you-miss-guy in a league where there aren't many of those, and there's not much wear on his body until this season. That's attractive.
"You love to see those guys who get their chance and then go make the most of it."
Perhaps the most difficult part of Hubbard's breakout season has been having his family's life become something for strangers—fans, the media, the NFL—to explore and dissect. There is curiosity in where he comes from, but exploring a life that has been difficult at times is not easy or natural for him or Candace.
Some parts of it they are willing to share. How Chuba's biological father left when Chuba was young. How Candace tried to navigate life as a single mother, going back to school to help provide for her family. How her health issues added to the struggles. How financial issues always seemed to creep back in.
Things are different now. Candace worked her way through school to become a licensed practical nurse and remarried long ago. Chuba is closing in on a professional contract that will change his family's life forever. The stability they were seeking has been found, but Chuba does not forget where he comes from.
Struggles of this sort, of course, are not unique to this family or to so many others who look at football, the NFL, as a potential means to a more prosperous future.
Hubbard is the same. He hasn't just dreamed of playing football professionally because he loves the sport; he has viewed it as a way he might provide his family with financial security.
"Chuba's always had a big heart," Candance says. "He needs to make sure everything and everyone is OK, which is unfortunate as a young child. But I think it has helped him grow. ...
"He's had to work so hard to get where he is. It didn't come easy."
Over the past few months, Hubbard's life has changed rapidly. The financial comfort he has been searching for is in reach. As his popularity has grown, so has his yearning to create a nonprofit that will benefit children growing up in situations like his own.
It's more than just an idea now. It has a name: Your Life, Your Choice. It also has a purpose.
"I want to help kids get out of a negative environment and put them in a positive one, teaching them life skills and leadership skills," Hubbard says. "Another aspect is just helping families living in poverty, helping them out with food and clothes. Just trying to bring happiness to people.
"My parents struggled and sacrificed a lot when they raised us through some rough times. But they gave a lot for us, and I want to just be able to give back to somebody."
Hubbard worked through the necessary certifications to set this in motion, though the process was much more exhaustive than he ever imagined. Not the mission, which he has been thinking about for some time. But the finer details that will allow it to flourish.
"For every Chuba Hubbard, there are hundreds of kids that aren't going to get the opportunity to try," Martin says. "And I don't think that really sits well with Chuba. With his platform, he wants to try to change that."
While No. 99 will always be sacred to Canadian sports fans—fans like Martin who grew up idolizing Wayne Gretzky—a different jersey number is becoming more prominent on youth practice fields, at least in Alberta.
Attending a local peewee football practice a few weeks ago, Martin saw a group of six- and seven-year-olds pretending to be the star running back between drills, fighting over who got to wear No. 30, Hubbard's number.
The moment struck him. Not because he didn't expect it to happen. Perhaps because it came sooner than he envisioned.
At the end of the year, Hubbard will face a decision regarding his football future—one he's not ready to make just yet.
"It would change my life," Hubbard says of the NFL. "It would change my family's life. It's the main reason why I play. I'm working toward that, and hopefully one day I can make it."
No matter what happens next year—if he's in Stillwater or if he's in an NFL city to be determined—Hubbard has left his mark. And he's done so in a matter of months, blending talent and desire and an unconquerable spirit.
Gundy thinks that mark is deep enough for Hubbard to earn Heisman consideration. Given his numbers, it's hard to argue.
But no award or trip will reflect Hubbard's impact. Or what it will become.
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.