Breaking Real Bad: Inside the Sam Hurd Drug Case

Source: Michael McKnight / Sports Illustrated

On Wednesday, former Cowboys and Bears receiver Sam Hurd will likely be sentenced to life in prison for drug trafficking. Is he the cocaine kingpin the government has made him out to be, or the victim of an overzealous prosecution and excessively harsh narcotics laws? An exclusive 22-month investigation reveals how it all went wrong for one of the NFL’s most promising and well-liked young talents—and why there’s more to Hurd’s downfall than we’ve been led to believe.

At 7:35 p.m. on Dec. 14, 2011, Sam Hurd’s black Escalade arrived in a light rain outside a Morton’s restaurant in Chicago and backed into a street space near the entrance. The Bears’ receiver, then 26, had driven to the steak house following practice to meet with two Mexicans who moved cocaine for one of their country’s most violent cartels, the Zetas—a murderous army known for beheading its enemies and dumping their bodies on public streets.

It had been a tense workday for the Bears, who had just lost three games in a row after starting the season 7-3, and after practice Hurd had called one of the Mexicans, Manuel, and asked if he and his cousin would come to Hurd’s suburban Lake Forest home instead of dining out. But Manuel (not his real name) had gently insisted on the restaurant, suggesting the Morton’s near O’Hare because the traffickers were headed that way to pick up cash from an incoming courier.

With his gangly strut, Hurd followed a hostess through the bustling Morton’s dining room and was seated at table 54. When the two Mexicans arrived a few minutes later, it became clear that Manuel’s cousin—a stone-faced man wearing a black leather jacket and holding an expensive cowboy hat in one hand and a white gift bag emblazoned with HAPPY BIRTHDAY in the other—was in charge. The diminutive Manuel, who had only spoken with Hurd on the phone, shook the player’s mammoth right hand as the cousin introduced himself in a soft voice: “Juan.”

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