University of Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts attracts attention with almost everything he does on the football field. He’s just as recognizable off the field, a statewide celebrity even though he’s just finished his freshman season as a football player.
So when Hurts posted a short video on his Twitter account Thursday afternoon, showing him making a surprise visit to Arts ‘n Autism – an after-school program in downtown Tuscaloosa – the tweet quickly went viral.
In the video, Hurts surprises a fan who is talking about Hurts without knowing the quarterback is behind him – until a tap on the shoulder brings the two face to face in a moment to treasure. In his Tweet, Hurts says he “couldn’t wait to meet” the fan, Justin, after hearing “his touching story.”
— Jalen Hurts (@JalenHurts) April 6, 2017
I wondered what that story was, so I called Arts ‘n Autism and found that the story has two heroes, not just one.
Justin’s full name is Justin Mixon. He was part of the very first class of autistic children to participate in Arts ‘n Autism when the program began in 1994.
“He has been with the program since kindergarten,” said Patricia Thomas, the program director. “He was a part of our first class that graduated. We are an after-school program, but as the class grew up, (we learned) that many of these kids suddenly had no place to go, even though they still needed a place. So we began our LIFEE (Learning Is Fundamental to Education and Employment) program to assist them as adults.”
Mixon, after finishing the program in 2007, was able to attend the University of Alabama and received a music degree – and decided to give back.
“When he graduated from college in 2011, he came back to teach music to other kids and to serve as a role model and an example in our LIFEE program,” Thomas said. “He teaches piano, percussion and voice, but he can really do anything. We have a ukulele, for instance, and he uses that, too.
“One characteristic of many people with autism is that they have very big interests. They will became experts in one or two things that they have an interest in, and things they don’t have an interest in, they don’t focus on as much. Justin’s big interests are music and sports.”
Last season, that sports interest was centered on Alabama’s new quarterback.
“His big idol is Jalen Hurts,” Thomas said. “That’s very important to him. Justin is a very solid, truthful, loving person and he takes the idea of a hero very seriously. He can tell you everything you want to know about Jalen, maybe more than you want to know if your time is limited.”
Eventually, a student volunteer at Arts ‘n Autism recorded Mixon talking about Hurts. The volunteer knew the player from a part-time job at the UA athletic department. She took the video to Hurts, who then took the initiative for the surprise visit.
In addition to a joyful moment, the video gave exposure to a worthy cause. Arts ‘n Autism (artsnautism.org) is a privately-funded program and a United Way agency.
“We are here to serve the entire community,” Thomas said. “We do not turn away any kid due to an inability to pay or family circumstances.”
Hurts will be back on the practice field on Friday, focusing on football and classes. But the few minutes that he took out of his off day from football to visit a loyal fan, music teacher and role model, will have a lasting impact.