‘Do what I do, just be Chuba’: Hubbard becomes first Canadian RB to start NFL game in 20 years

Photo courtesy: Carolina Panthers

It’s a rare occurrence for a Canadian running back to start in the NFL, but that’s exactly what Chuba Hubbard will do on Sunday.

Hubbard is the first ball carrier from north of the border to be listed No. 1 on a depth chart since Tim Biakabutuka in 2001 with the same Carolina Panthers. A hamstring injury to superstar Christian McCaffrey has given the Bev Facey Community High School graduate the opportunity to put his special skills on display.

“If I look back, being back in Canada when I was in my junior and senior year, if I really looked back and looked at everything I’ve been through and how far I’ve come, I’d definitely be proud of myself. Something I’m working on, smelling the roses along the way,” Hubbard said.

The 22-year-old wants to smell and realize success as the feature man in the backfield. After McCaffrey left the game in Week 3, Hubbard carried the football 11 times for 52 yards (4.7 yards per attempt) with a long of 14 yards and caught three passes for 27 yards — 14 touches for 79 yards — in the Panthers 24-9 win against Houston.

“I thought once he got a couple carries in a row — that’s the thing about backs, they like to get into a rhythm — I think once he got into a rhythm in the last game you saw him run with power and speed,” head coach Matt Rhule said.

“Chuba loves to compete. He’s always been a physical back. I have full confidence in what he can do. Chuba’s gonna be our starting tailback. I think the biggest thing is keeping his feet underneath him and being a powerful, fast, slashing type of runner.”

Carolina travels to Dallas in Week 4 where Hubbard will make his first career NFL start at AT&T Stadium, affectionately known as Jerryworld after the Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. 100,000 people can fit into the facility and millions more will be watching around the world, especially in Canada.

“Everyone’s been really supportive since day one, since I was going across the border as an 18-year-old and being by myself, it took a lot of growing up. I’ve always had that support, whether it be from my family, friends — really anybody,” Hubbard said.

Since being selected by the Panthers in the fourth round, 126th overall of the 2021 NFL Draft, Hubbard has been learning everything and anything he can from McCaffrey. The most important takeaway from the All-Pro back so far: how to be a professional.

“Learning how to take care of your body on the field, off the field, take care of your mind on and off the field, do the right things on and off the field. Those little things I’ve realized in the NFL really make a difference,” Hubbard said.

The six-foot, 207-pounder was able to take all of the first-team reps at practice during the week of preparation for the match-up against America’s team. He’s received encouragement from teammates, coaches, scouts and anyone associated with the franchise.

“Someone came up to me and said: ‘We believe in you, we know you got it, just do you. That’s what I’ve been getting from everybody this whole week and I really appreciate that stuff. My teammates believe in me to get the job done and I believe in myself,” Hubbard said.

“It’s a great opportunity for Chuba. Chuba being able to find the hole and once he understands where to hit it, he gets north really fast. That’s something he does really well and we’re looking forward to him doing that,” quarterback Sam Darnold said.

The expectations and increased attention hasn’t visibly bothered Hubbard. He’s used to being a focal point and has kept a level head throughout his football career while working for the dream that will be realized on Sunday for the Sherwood Park native.

“Do what I do, just be Chuba,” Hubbard said. “You’re just going to have to wait and see.”

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.