- He didn’t even play varsity until his junior year of high school, but running out of a T formation in an offense that almost never passed the ball, Todd Gurley made up ground quickly—very quickly—on the way to NFL stardom.
TARBORO, N.C. — At some point in the mid-2000s, Jeff Craddock heard the name Todd Gurley. A coach at the local middle school had said to be on the lookout for the kid, and Craddock tucked the name away if only for its uniqueness.
In the summer of 2008, Darlene Simmons walked her youngest son out to the Tarboro High practice field. Craddock recognized Simmons because he’d taught her older son, Shannon Simmons, in a weight room class. She asked the coach if her son could play for his football team, and Craddock was prepared to give her the “We’re already a couple weeks into practice and he hasn’t been here” excuse when she introduced him.
“This is my son, Todd Gurley,” she told Craddock, and as immediately as the surname hit, the words of advice came rushing back.
“Oh, he can come out to play,” Craddock said. “We’ll get him up to speed.”
Gurley, the Rams running back and 2017 Offensive Player of the Year, did not dominate as a four-year starter for the small North Carolina school. In fact, he only got three carries as a freshman. He didn’t star as a three-year starter either. With the varsity team loaded with senior running backs, Todd Gurley played JV football his sophomore year, too.
“The crazy thing is, people ask me, ‘You had Todd Gurley play JV football as a sophomore?’” Craddock says. “I did, but we did win the state title!”
Gurley has the chance next weekend to bring Tarboro its second Super Bowl, ring after running back Kelvin Bryant won the first with Washington in Super Bowl XXII. It’s a town of about 11,000 people, and the high school has around 600 kids. An hour east of Raleigh, Tarboro is your typical small Carolina town. The median household income is $33,542 when the state sits at $50,320, according to government estimates. There’s not much industry or entertainment. But they do have football.
The Tarboro Vikings have won five state championships since Gurley’s sophomore year. For all of those titles—and for decades before that—the Vikings have been running the Tarboro-T, a three-back set that relies heavily on misdirection and not at all on the passing game. In its past 30 games, Craddock estimates Tarboro has had a running clock in 26 of them. The Vikings have one official pass attempt in their past two state title victories combined.
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The T, which is now taught in Tarboro from the pee-wee level through the middle school and into the high school, has the quarterback take the snap, turn his back to the line of scrimmage and put the ball up into the arms of the carrier rather than sticking it into his chest. The three backs go in different directions, with two carrying out the fake. The T is inescapable. Craddock tried to switch to the I early in his coaching tenure. It didn’t work, and he heard it from the Tarboro faithful. The I turned back into the T a few weeks into that season.
“I don’t think we have to sling it around just to say we’re a spread team. I don’t care,” Craddock says. “This is what we do. We have shown over a long period of time that what we do is successful, so I’m not going to change for the sake of change.”
It was in this system that Gurley thrived in his two varsity seasons, when he compiled more than 4,000 rushing yards. His coaches have a bag of stories from those years. Offensive coordinator Ricky Babb remembers Gurley, always with a smile, telling him he’d be the best running back he had ever coached, and that was when Shaun Draughn, a future seven-year pro, was at UNC.
There was the state title game his junior year, when Gurley was met at the line of scrimmage, bounced off no fewer than six defenders and ran 46 yards for a touchdown to give the Vikings their second straight championship. Or the next year, when he rumbled for 242 yards and four touchdowns in the state title game for the three-peat.
But the story Craddock uses at practice today came during Gurley’s junior season. Craddock has a policy that if you need to go to study hall after school, that’s fine. But don’t think that you can stay there for two hours, miss a day of practice and figure all is OK. Gurley showed up to a practice after 5 p.m. one day with a note. Craddock told him he wasn’t practicing that day and sat him for the first half of that Friday’s game.
Against an inferior opponent, Tarboro squeaked out a 21-20 road victory with Gurley dominating in the second half (and saving the coach’s bacon.)
“From that day on,” Craddock says, “my saving grace has been, if I’m going to kick Todd Gurley out of practice, I’ll definitely kick you out of practice.”
As Gurley helped lift Tarboro to the heights it has sustained through today, life outside of football posed the kind of challenges shared by many of Tarboro’s residents. He lived in Lone Pine mobile home park (now Pine Valley) and, according to reports, didn’t have cable TV. Babb, the offensive coordinator and then-JV coach, remembers sometimes getting a call from Gurley asking for a ride on school days because he overslept.
“He didn’t have an alarm,” Babb says. “He didn’t have any lights on in the house. His mom worked and was doing the best she could. I think that’s what’s made him who he is. That’s why he’s humble and appreciative and gives God the credit.”
Once, with his youngest son in the car, Craddock gave Gurley a ride home. His son, like many kids in Tarboro, adored Gurley. When they got to Gurley’s trailer, the first-grader had a tough time processing why the star football player didn’t live in a larger home.
“In time,” Craddock told his son, “Todd will have a house that our house will fit into.”
[As an aside: During Gurley’s junior year in college at Georgia, the NCAA suspended him for four games after determining he had accepted $3,000 over two years for signing memorabilia. Imagine what three grand over two years for signing your name to some gear would mean to someone with Gurley’s background. Then consider how fair a system is that not only disallows such a thing but strips the player of a quarter of his season’s games as that player is auditioning for a profession that could give him and his family generational wealth.]
Like so many from humble beginnings, Gurley hasn’t forgotten his hometown. He’s put on a free camp for area kids the last two summers. Thanksgiving coincided with the Rams’ Week 12 bye, and Gurley—who singed a $60 million contract extension in the summer to become the league’s highest-paid running back—came back to Tarboro during their playoff preparation to watch practice before handing out turkeys and hams he donated to the community.
After Tarboro won the 2017 state title, Gurley gave the school “a nice donation” that allowed financed championship rings for the team. “I want you to buy the boys nice rings,” Gurley told him. “They deserve it.” The ring ceremony would be held in March at the local community college, and Craddock invited Gurley to it, with no expectation he’d be able to attend.
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Gurley remembered the date and showed up. Craddock didn’t tell anyone about Gurley’s presence, but people soon figured it out. Slowly they began to approach him for pictures and autographs.
“Todd was like, ‘I don’t want to do anything now because it’s not about me. It’s about the boys on stage,’” Craddock recalls.
After the ceremony, the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year stuck around for all the photos and autographs anyone wanted.
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