DALLAS -- Former NFL 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 Chicago Bears, completing a steep downfall that ended his football career and left his future in tatters.
Hurd, 28, 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. The charge carried a minimum 10-year sentence and a maximum of life.
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 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. Hurd was released on bail and 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.
Hurd spoke near the end of a 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."
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press