Ex-Bears wide receiver Hurd gets 15-year prison sentence in drug case
BY NOOMAN MERCHANT Associated Press November 13, 2013 6:12PM
Updated: December 15, 2013 11:50AM
DALLAS — Former Bears wide receiver Sam Hurd was sentenced Wednesday to 15 years in prison for his role in starting a drug-distribution scheme while playing for the Bears, completing a steep downfall that ended his football career and left his future in tatters.
Hurd, 28, a former Northern Illinois star, received the punishment in a federal courtroom in Dallas after pleading guilty in April to one count of trying to buy and distribute large amounts of cocaine and marijuana.
Authorities say that while NFL teammates and friends knew him as a hardworking wide receiver and married father, Hurd was fashioning a separate identity as a wannabe drug kingpin with a focus on “high-end deals” and a need for large amounts of drugs.
U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis gave Hurd a much shorter sentence than the 27 to 34 years recommended by federal sentencing guidelines. Solis noted that the case against Hurd centered on a “lot of agreements” to buy and sell marijuana and cocaine, rather than physical transactions of drugs.
But, the judge said, “You didn’t just start nickel and diming it.”
Hurd stood before him in orange jail scrubs after a rambling, emotional 30-minute plea for mercy. Behind him in the gallery were more than a dozen family members and friends.
“You had everything going for you,” Solis told Hurd, adding that he thought the case was a “tragedy.”
Federal inmates are typically not eligible for parole and required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
Hurd’s attorney Jay Ethington said Wednesday evening that he was “candidly, relieved” that Hurd did not get a longer sentence, given that he faced a potential life sentence. But he called federal guidelines that suggested Hurd deserved to die behind bars “absurd,” accusing prosecutors of going “trophy hunting for a celebrity scalp” when they engineered a sting to catch the former Bear.
“All of the cocaine that was discovered in this case came from the government — they prompted and scripted the deal,” he said. “That’s why we’re losing the war on drugs: We’re picking on people who don’t deserve it.”
Though Ethington claimed that Hurd was a marijuana addict who would never have come into contact with cocaine if he had not been set up, he said Hurd was providing his teammates with a valuable service when he supplied them with high-grade marijuana.
“Half these athletes are so beaten up they can’t get out of bed by the time they get halfway through the season — they have a medical need,” Ethington said.
Hurd’s December 2011 arrest outside a suburban Chicago steakhouse came after he tried to buy a kilogram of cocaine in what turned out to be a sting. According to a federal complaint, Hurd told an undercover agent that he wanted 5 to 10 kilograms of cocaine and 1,000 pounds of marijuana per week to distribute in the Chicago area. He claimed he was already distributing 4 kilograms a week, according to the complaint. A kilogram is about 2.2 pounds.
At the time, Hurd was a wide receiver with stints for the Bears and Dallas Cowboys who had played most of his five seasons on special teams. He was in the first year of a three-year contract reportedly worth more than $5 million.
The Bears soon cut him.
Before the sentence was handed down, Bears special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, who coached Hurd as the Dallas Cowboys’ special teams coordinator from 2009-10, said he was shocked by the allegations.
He said Hurd — who led the Cowboys in special teams tackles in 2009 and 2010 — supported him after DeCamillis broke four vertebrae when the Cowboys practice facility collapsed on May 2, 2009.
“My saying is always, ‘You don’t know somebody until you live or work with him,’ ” DeCamillis said. “And Sam would have been the last person I would have thought that out of. I can tell you that because he was a great guy to me. . . .
“It’s just a shame,” he said. “It’s a tragedy, and hopefully he can recoup some of his life and get started anew. “That’s what I’m hoping for and praying for.”
He called Hurd’s situation “a tragedy, really, because the things that really don’t come out are how good a wife he had. He’s got family that depended upon him.”
Bears defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, who played with Hurd on the Cowboys, couldn’t explain it.
“All I can say is, ‘Choices,’ ” he said. “And I’m just going to leave that at that.
“I wasn’t there to see what happened or of course, wasn’t involved or anything. Still, as an old teammate and a friend, my prayers are still with him and his family,” Ratliff said before his former teammate’s sentencing.
Bears defensive lineman Corey Wootton said Hurd was “quiet” and “very religious” when he played for Chicago.
“He’s the last guy you’d think would ever be in this kind of situation that he’s in,” cornerback Tim Jennings said. “But unfortunately this is where he’s at in life. There’s consequences with it. That’s something that he has to deal with — himself and his family. “
After he was charged and later released on bail, Hurd returned to Texas, where he grew up, but soon fell into trouble again, according to court documents. He allegedly tried to buy more cocaine and marijuana through a cousin, Jesse Tyrone Chavful, and failed two drug tests. That led a magistrate judge in August 2012 to revoke his bail and order him returned to jail.
On Wednesday, Hurd spoke near the end of the four-hour hearing, sometimes reading from handwritten notes and sometimes looking directly at Solis to plead for mercy.
While he denied leading a major conspiracy or dealing with Chavful, Hurd admitted to having a marijuana addiction and a weakness for friends who needed his help. He admitted giving $88,000 to another co-defendant, Toby Lujan, knowing that the money might go to buy drugs. And he admitted the fateful meeting at a steakhouse that ended in his arrest.
“I regret not thinking about the consequences,” Hurd said, adding: “I made some dumb, very bad decisions.”
His attorneys tried to explain his claims of having high-value customers and massive demand for drugs as mere boasting, saying he had a penchant for exaggeration. One of his lawyers, Michael McCrum, called his client “a guy showing up at a restaurant, talking stupid.”
“I think he should be punished, but for the crime that he committed,” McCrum said.
But Hurd’s failed drug tests and alleged dealings with Chavful appeared to factor heavily against him Wednesday. Prosecutors repeatedly brought up Chavful — rejecting claims by Hurd and his attorneys that the two men were talking about Hurd’s attempts to start a T-shirt printing business.
“Normally, when you dig a hole, you quit digging,” said prosecutor John Kull. “But he keeps digging.”
Chavful and Lujan have both pleaded guilty to being involved in the conspiracy. Solis gave Chavful eight years in prison for his smaller role in the scheme. Lujan will be sentenced in January.
While no other NFL players are known to have been charged in connection with the case, Hurd claimed in an interview published Tuesday by Sports Illustrated that he shared marijuana with Cowboys teammates and smoked during the last three to four years of his career “all day, every day.”
But while he gained extra notoriety due to his now-finished football career, prosecutors said Hurd’s case was simple.
“He’s not being prosecuted because he’s an NFL player,” Kull said. “He’s being prosecuted because he’s a drug dealer.”
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, asked Tuesday about Hurd, declined to comment “because I just don’t know anything about that.”
Cowboys defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, a former teammate of Hurd’s, called Hurd a “great guy in the locker room” and a “great teammate.”
“It’s very shocking to hear,” Hatcher said. “But as far as everybody smoking in the NFL, I don’t know. As long as you keep your business, whatever you do off the field is your business. I really don’t know what to say about that situation.”
Contributing: Chicago Sun-Times reporters Patrick Finley and Kim Janssen, and AP Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon in Irving, Texas.