Long before the Seahawks drafted him, and long before he was given the chance to succeed the most accomplished slot receiver in Seattle history, John Ursua received some important advice from his oldest brother: Watch Doug Baldwin.
“I always told him that one guy to keep an eye on was Doug Baldwin,” Jared Ursua said. “There are reasonable comparisons there. And Doug was blocking punts way before he was catching footballs, and that’s what I hope John recognizes. … Doug didn’t step on the stage as a 100-catch guy.”
John Ursua steps into the mix with the Seahawks’ new-look wide receiver corps after Baldwin’s apparent retirement earlier this month. At 5-feet-9 and 182 pounds, John Ursua is the slightest of all the receivers participating in the Seahawks’ organized team activities, and among the least heralded.
“The more he feels like the underdog, the better,” said Jared Ursua, who played wide receiver at Southern Utah and is now the receivers coach at Weber State in Ogden, Utah. “When you count against him, that’s when he’s most comfortable. That’s all he’s ever known.”
At 25, John Ursua is a few years older than the average NFL rookie, and his path to Seattle wasn’t a typical one.
Raised on Hawaii’s Big Island, he moved to Utah as a high school sophomore, and was a standout quarterback.
He graduated in 2012, spent a year working, then took a two-year LDS mission to Paris, Belgium and Luxembourg. He learned French, and he can speak Hawaiian.
“He’s an international man of mysteries,” Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich said.
John Ursua joined the Hawaii football program in 2015, redshirting his first year. By the time he suited up for Hawaii in 2016, it had been nearly four years since he’d played in a live game.
“It was a huge adjustment for me,” he said after the Seahawks drafted him in the seventh round last month. “But I knew what I was capable of, and I knew what my goals were, and that was to make it to the league. I knew what kind of work and dedication I would have to put into this game. I’m just glad I stuck with it.”
Added Jared Ursua: “It’s been a little unconventional. … You know how hard it is for all these stars to align, and I’m just really happy for that little turd.”
Jared Ursua, given his background as big brother and coach, is more critical of John than anyone. The past few years, he would often stay awake until 3 or 4 a.m. in Utah to watch little brother’s games in Hawaii.
“If he misses a block, he’s going to hear about it twice. First from his coach, and then from me,” Jared Ursua said. “I couldn’t help myself.”
Jared had to take on more of parental role when John moved to Cedar City to live with Jared, his wife and 1-year-old daughter for his senior year of high school. Their parents were divorced, and John needed a stable situation to complete high school. That year also happened to be Jared’s senior season playing at Southern Utah. A hectic time, it was.
“It was hard and it was a lot of work,” Jared said, “but that was a time never to be forgotten. … There’s a certain bond there, and he knows how much I love him.”
John was probably about 8 years old when Jared realized the youngest child in the family of five would end up being the best athlete of the bunch. Their middle brother, Jordan, would also wind up playing receiver at Southern Utah, but even back then John stood out.
“It was clear the kid had something different about him,” Jared said. “I was always really invested in both of them, and I knew they could be better than me.”
John Ursua had a breakthrough at Hawaii as a junior in 2017. He was leading the nation in receiving yards when he tore the ACL in his right knee in October, ending his season.
He returned for his senior year last fall and had one of the best seasons for a receiver in Hawaii history, posting 89 catches for 1,343 yards and leading the nation with 16 touchdown receptions.
Getting to the NFL, Rolovich said, “was such a consistent goal for (John) in his everyday approach. He’s a guy who loves the weight room. He’s not going to be a problem in any way. He’s going to be excited when he gets the ball in his hands. … People there are going to have a fun time rooting for him.”
Rolovich described a look he saw from John Ursua as his star receiver got into character on game days. John’s head would cock forward, his walk would become more pronounced, as if he was going somewhere with a purpose.
“The passion oozes out of him,” Rolovich said. “That’s what he lives for.”
For Rolovich, a defining moment of Hawaii’s season came last November when John Ursua hauled in a game-winning 68-yard touchdown catch with 1:25 remaining to complete a wild comeback from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit at home against UNLV. After scoring the touchdown, John and teammate Devan Stubblefield met midair in the end zone for an impromptu — and slightly awkward — celebration.
The win helped Hawaii secure its first winning season since 2010.
“It wasn’t a choreographed celebration, but for the people of our program and our state, that vision of him and Stubbs going up like that — that’s a vision I’ll never forget,” Rolovich said.
In Seattle, John Ursua has his own vision of what he wants to do, and of what he can do. His oldest brother will remain his biggest critic, and his biggest supporter.
“He’s done only a fraction of what I know he’s capable of doing,” Jared Ursua said. “There’s so much more in there and I know it will become visible to everyone there. …
“He’s an interesting little bug, and he finds ways to survive.”