The play should have been dead from the jump for Chuba Hubbard.
The Canadian running back collected the handoff to his left, but immediately felt the pressure of the Iowa State defence as he cut back to the middle of the field. With defenders in pursuit all around him, Hubbard kept his balance through arm tackles to break away for a long, go-ahead touchdown. At Oklahoma State University, Hubbard has made the spectacular something of a routine.
The Edmonton native was college football’s leading rusher last season and has long established himself as a top NFL prospect. On the field, Hubbard has made a reputation out of running away from defenders. Off it, he does not run away from the responsibility that comes with his platform.
Before the season even began, Hubbard was in the spotlight. Hubbard tweeted in June that he would not play for Oklahoma State until things at the university changed after a picture surfaced on social media of head coach Mike Gundy wearing a One America News (OAN) Network shirt. OAN—which is considered to be a far-right news organization—has been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, with one of its anchors describing it as a "criminal front group."
Hubbard using his platform as a college athlete came as something of a surprise for those familiar with the imbalanced dynamic between football programs and their players. It was an empowering moment for one of college football’s brightest stars, and a promising development for the future of college athlete autonomy.
“Everything that happened over the summertime with COVID, with me and coach, I just feel like it made our program better. It made us all better people, including myself. In the end, whether some bad stuff came from it, a lot of good things came from it also,” Hubbard told Complex.
It did not take Gundy or the university long to respond to Hubbard’s statement. Gundy apologized for his perceived support of the network and Oklahoma State launched a ‘Diversity and Inclusion Council’ this fall.
"I didn't know some of the stances they [OAN] had taken," Gundy said in an interview with ESPN. "I didn't know that. But then you look at it and say, 'OK, I was a dumbass.' I put the shirt on, not knowing enough about the shirt."
The 21-year-old Hubbard has come a long way from Bev Facey Community High School in Sherwood Park, Alberta—where he played on gameday in front of crowds of just friends and family.
"Some people don’t like what I do, some people do like what I do, but all that matters is I am what I am. Chuba Hubbard. That’s who I am and I can’t be something that I’m not."
The football scene in Oklahoma is a little bit different. In seasons past, Hubbard has become accustomed to playing for more than 50,000 Oklahoma State football fans, many chanting his name as he carries the Cowboys’ offence.
“It was never really overwhelming for me or anything like that. I kind of dreamed about this my whole life,” Hubbard said. “Once it finally happened, it was definitely a surreal moment but I wasn’t overwhelmed or anything like that. I was thankful.”
Hubbard led all of college football in rushing yards with 2,094 last season and was named a unanimous All-American. After the season, he was selected as the Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year and finished eighth in Heisman Trophy voting. That is the most votes a Canadian-born player has ever received for college football’s highest individual honour.
He isn’t alone in putting Canadian football on the map. The college football level is littered with Canadians, including receivers Terrell Jana (Virginia), Josh Palmer (Tennessee), John Metchie III (Alabama), and Ajou Ajou (Clemson). Calgary native and star linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga is on Oklahoma State as well.
“You got [Ajou Ajou] at Clemson scoring his first touchdown. Shout-out to him. There’s a lot of great Canadians playing football,” Hubbard said. “There’s a bunch of people that are all over the States playing big-time football from Canada. It just shows you how much talent we’ve got and I’m proud to be where I’m from. I’m proud to have those guys represent us well.”
Hubbard is a running back with great vision and acceleration, allowing him to flash through holes in the defence as soon as they present themselves. His ability to make subtle changes in direction as a runner combined with his Olympic-level breakaway speed make Hubbard a big play waiting to happen. If a defence gives Hubbard any semblance of an opening, he makes them pay by turning short gains into long touchdowns—just like he did against Iowa State.
Hubbard will have NFL scouts scrambling to secure his talents when he enters the draft next spring. He could have been a high-round pick this year in fact, but he chose to return to school for one last run at Oklahoma State. What brought him back was another shot at the Big 12 Conference title and the relationships he has built with his Cowboys teammates.
“Probably just the group of guys. All of these guys that I have been training with and working out with, you know all these different things with. For the last—whether it is one year or four years—I have created a bond with them. A lot of these guys are special people and I knew that we could do something special together.”
"There’s a bunch of people that are all over the States playing big-time football from Canada. It just shows you how much talent we’ve got and I’m proud to be where I’m from."
A lot of different people expect Hubbard to be a lot of different things, especially following the events of this summer.
A great football player. A great leader. Someone who is outspoken. Someone who represents Oklahoma State University and someone who represents Canada. Hubbard says he is comfortable with those expectations, though.
“No, it doesn’t weigh on me. It’s just who I am. It comes with what I do. So, I take pride in that. I try to do my best to represent everyone and everything very well. You know, sometimes I make mistakes. That’s just life. I’ve got to live and learn. I have learned a lot over the last few months especially,” Hubbard said. “I realized that some people don’t like what I do, some people do like what I do, but all that matters is I am what I am. Chuba Hubbard. That’s who I am and I can’t be something that I’m not.”
Part of Hubbard’s decision to publicly display such a strong stance is his need to have a positive impact. That is something that came from his childhood. His parents separated when he was young and his mother Candace raised him and his three siblings while working through nursing school. Candace’s selflessness left a lasting mark on her son, as did the countless people who looked out for him growing up.
“It would be hard for me to name just one thing, because there are so many things that people have done for me. My family has had its struggles and I see the way my mom... worked to help give us the best life. See everyone work and work, and just keep working and not really care about themselves but put other people before them,” Hubbard said.
“It really just opened my eyes. It wasn’t even [just] them. I had coaches. I had a lot of people that have kind of taken me under their wing and try to help me succeed and be there for me. I realize a lot of people don’t get that. That’s what the world is missing, I feel like a lot of the time. Just somebody that cares and somebody that is empathetic, and all that. I just want to be that for some people. I want to try to have an impact on the world in a positive manner.”
Oklahoma State is currently the 13th-ranked team in the nation with a 5-1 record. The Big 12 has been dominated by their arch rivals—the Oklahoma University Sooners—for years. The Sooners picked up two early losses, though, and the Cowboys seem poised to finally make a run at the conference for the first time since 2011.
Hubbard is the focal point of the Oklahoma State offence, as he was a season ago. He is the team’s most explosive playmaker and the man opposing defences will be most focused on slowing down throughout the fall.
“I don’t think about that too much. I just think about do the best you can and do what you can. I don’t try to do anything more than what I am capable of or try do something that someone else is trying to do,” Hubbard said. “I don’t try to put too much on myself or anyone else. I just play football.”