They used to play these great, long football games in a field next to the row of mailboxes and across the street from the trailers, Todd Gurley and the kids from the neighborhood, playing in a field in a mobile home park nestled between the railroad tracks and the highway.
The sounds. Trains rolling by. Cars speeding past. All off to somewhere else, maybe the Outer Banks, maybe somewhere west, hardly ever here. The sounds of children playing football. Darlene Simmons, Gurley’s mom, would pull up a lawn chair and sit and watch her son on that field, next to the mailboxes.
“A good time,” she said recently, remembering it.
Her son is at Georgia now, 434 miles from sleepy, struggling Tarboro, where a number of downtown storefronts sit vacant, empty as the abandoned lots where homes stood long ago before floods from Hurricane Floyd wiped them away. Her son is now among the early season favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.
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In some ways Gurley’s journey started on that field across the street from the trailers. So many kids out there, Simmons said, “I couldn’t even count.” So many kids, “and all ages,” Simmons said. And then her son, Gurley, now one of the best college football players in the nation.
“And Todd looked big,” Simmons said, “big” even then in those games with the older kids.
The mailboxes, though, those are small. Little squares, four wide and three high, stacked together on little poles, 12 to a set, rusting, the numbers on the boxes all out of order – a 74 on top of an 86 with a 101 near a 70 next to a 32.
That’s the one, 32, that belongs to Simmons. The tiny mailbox that held all those letters from all those college coaches who recruited Gurley, who sent him mail every day, so much, Simmons said, that the mail lady “got nasty with me.” There was a lot.
“It got so bad I started taking a bag,” Simmons said. “Because I couldn’t hold all his mail. That box was stuffed. Thirty, forty, fifty letters – the nice, beautiful cards that they sent.”
They came from everywhere. From every school in the state. From Clemson and South Carolina, from Louisiana State and Alabama and Auburn and Notre Dame and on and on, day after day, until it was final, at last, that Gurley was headed to Georgia.
His first season there, in 2012, he became the second freshman in school history, and first since Herschel Walker, to run for more than 1,000 yards. Gurley’s second season there, more of the same.
And then the start of this season and what he did two weeks ago in a 45-21 victory against Clemson: 198 yards rushing, 293 all-purpose yards, a 75-yard touchdown run, a 100-yard touchdown on a kickoff return and two other touchdowns. And now, after that, the start of the Heisman talk.
The best they’ve ever seen
Simmons has been to New York City before. That wouldn’t be new. Gurley, though, could become the first player from a North Carolina high school to win the award.
“I’m just like, that’ll be a blessing if he wins,” Simmons said, sounding not all that fazed by the thought.
She won’t be in South Carolina on Saturday, when Gurley, now 6-1, 226 pounds, and Georgia play the Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium in front of 90-some thousand people. Simmons doesn’t get to many games, not with her job working laundry in a nursing home, and not with enough to do around the house and the grandchildren, anyway.
So she won’t be there among those tens of thousands of people, many of whom will be rooting against her son. They’ll hope the Gamecocks contain Gurley, hope that he doesn’t do what he did to Clemson. They’ll hope Gurley doesn’t run far, without understanding what he ran from, and toward.
Jeff Craddock knows. He’s the football coach at Tarboro High, a young-looking man of 44, lean, with a leg tattoo, a commanding voice, a presence, three state championships and no shortage of Gurley stories.
There was the first time he heard of Gurley, before Gurley arrived at Tarboro High. A coaching friend told Craddock that, hey, be on the lookout for this kid – remember the name Todd Gurley. And then one day in the sticky heat of early August, there arrived on the practice fields a mother with her son, and Craddock went up to the mom.
“She was like, ‘I want to introduce my son to you,’” Craddock said. “And I said, ‘Well, fantastic.’ And she said, ‘Well, this is Todd Gurley.’”
And the name, which Craddock had written on a white board, came back to him.
He thought: “You’re the kid I’ve got to keep my eye on.”
And there was the time when Gurley played on the junior varsity team and gained about 150 yards on four carries. Craddock then began to believe.
And there were the other times, too many to count, when Gurley ran through or around defenders when he first made varsity, those times when he’d score three, four touchdowns a game, and made it look easy, on his way to a 26-touchdown season his junior year. The Vikings went undefeated and won the second of their three consecutive state championships.
How many times did Craddock watch Gurley and see something he’d never seen before? It happened nearly every Friday night, it seemed, and before long Craddock, the head coach at Tarboro since 2004 and an assistant in the area years before that, was telling people this kid was the best he’d ever seen.
A couple weeks ago, Craddock and his team endured a humiliating loss in the opener. The next day was the Georgia-Clemson game – the Gurley show, it turned out – and, quickly, people around town forgot how the Vikings, a proud bunch, were embarrassed.
“It’s kind of a medicine for us,” Craddock said of Gurley, and his effect on the town.
The Tarboro varsity practices behind the home side bleachers on an uneven field where the yard lines are carved into the grass, leaving long lines of dirt every five yards. The equipment includes a football taped to a long stick, used in lineman drills, creaky, rusting sleds and white buckets with the words “perfectly whipped vanilla icing” on them. Upside down and spread out, they make a good offensive line.
Craddock plays many roles. He’s the head coach. The guy people come to with questions about uniforms. The groundskeeper. During a practice this week, he walked to the game field and laid out stencils with numbers on them and showed the junior varsity guys how to paint the field.
And so they did, shaking their cans of gold Krylon spray paint while the band practiced in the distance. Craddock helped for a while, lining up the stencils for 50 yards before returning to the other side, behind the bleachers, back to practice. There’s another role, perhaps his most important.
“Father figure,” Deshan Farmer, a Tarboro senior, said recently. “He can definitely put a good father figure on you. Keep you on track.”
Farmer is the Vikings’ senior running back, and the closest player on the team to Gurley. Some memorable running backs have played at Tarboro High: Kelvin Bryant, who ran for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons at North Carolina, before he spent eight years in the pros. Shaun Draughn, who also played at UNC, and is now with the Chicago Bears.
“There’s debates,” Craddock said, about who is the best.
For guys on the team now, though, Gurley is the standard. Farmer was a freshman when Gurley was a senior. They became close. They’re from similar backgrounds, not from the same neighborhood, exactly, and not from the same circumstances, but close.
“He just took me as one of his little brothers, basically,” Farmer said of Gurley.
Farmer spent a lot of his childhood, he said, without his father, who was in prison for seven years. Gurley’s father, meanwhile, still lives in Baltimore, where Gurley was born before Simmons took him and her other three children – Gurley is the youngest – to North Carolina, first to Rocky Mount and then to Tarboro.
They still saw each other, Gurley and his father. Holidays. The occasional weekend. The summer.
One summer, Gurley worked with his dad in a warehouse, Simmons said. It was, Simmons said, “tough work.” She told the story like this:
“He called me one day and he was like, ‘Oh, mom, how do you do it – how do you do it?’ And I was like, ‘Boy, what you talking about?’ He said, ‘Working like this. I can’t do it.’ He said, ‘I’m going to go to college.’ I said, that’s what you’re going to have to do, Todd, if you don’t want to do that kind of work. I said I had to do it to keep you all in the place and keep y’all busy and take care of y’all.”
This is a story Simmons likes to tell, one that shows Gurley’s commitment and his plan, from early on, to do what he needed to do. And when she gets to the part about Gurley telling her he was going to college, she stretches out the word, emphasizing it. Craddock tells these tales, too, about Gurley getting to school early and staying late, about his work in the weight room and the classroom, both.
Gurley shows others a way out
Gurley has spoken about those things with people still in Tarboro, with guys like Farmer. They talk at least once a week, usually more, but Gurley is busy these days. So busy that a Georgia spokesman said that he hasn’t found time for Gurley to talk to the hometown paper this season, and that Gurley has been “overwhelmed” by requests.
It must be an uncomfortable thing for him, the spotlight, given Gurley is quiet, doesn’t say much. Craddock likes that the attention hasn’t seemed to change Gurley – he’s still the same humble Todd.
Gurley set an example at Tarboro, Craddock said, both for the things he did and didn’t do. And while it’s impossible to emulate some of what he accomplished on the field, his approach off it, and the work he put in to get in position to be successful, offer a blueprint, of sorts.
“He always helps me keep my nose clean, for one,” Farmer said. “And always like stay pushing in class. Like some days he’ll shoot me texts in the morning, like make sure I get it done in the class room.”
Farmer grew up with his father in prison. One of Gurley’s brothers, Princeton Simmons, is in prison, too, incarcerated outside of Baltimore after he was charged with robbery and assault. Darlene Simmons isn’t sure when Princeton will be out. She said Gurley “just wants his brother there.”
“He was at (the high school) championship games,” Simmons said of Princeton. “But now he ain’t able to be there for him in college, physically. But he gets to watch it when they see it on TV … he knows about (Todd’s success) from us telling him about it.”
Simmons said it would be “unfair” to describe Tarboro as a dangerous place, the kind of place where it’s easy for kids to lose themselves without something like football. She said, “There’s a lot of children that are not involved in sports that are still doing good.”
But there are a lot who aren’t, too, and a lot who become stuck in a town that’s seen better days. The old-money houses still stand tall in one part of Tarboro, and the long chain of parks near downtown are as picturesque as ever.
But it’s like a lot of small eastern North Carolina towns – a town that’s slowly shrinking, where a walk through downtown feels like a walk back in time. And in the poorer neighborhoods, hope sometimes wears thin.
“It can be a little dangerous out there sometimes,” Farmer said. “But that just motivates you. ... You know where you want to be. And you know where you’re at. So you know what you’ve got to do to get there, and it just pushes you.”
After 2 years on JV, Gurley on his way now
It pushed Gurley, evidently. He didn’t play on the varsity team at Tarboro until the state playoffs at the end of his sophomore year. At the start of his junior season, he was still relatively unknown. That didn’t last long.
Gurley helped lead the Vikings to another state championship in 2010, his junior season, and they won it again in 2011. At the height of his recruitment, college coaches from all over were coming to Tarboro, hanging out with Craddock, trying to get an in.
Mail showed up at school. It filled Simmons’ tiny square box back in the neighborhood.
Once, when Gurley was still in high school, he was at Craddock’s house watching football. Craddock and his wife, also a teacher, bought the house on foreclosure – a five-bedroom place that was cheaper because of the circumstances. It came time to take Gurley home.
They dropped him off, and one of Craddock’s sons spoke up.
“I think it was Cole, my youngest,” Craddock said. “He’s like, ‘Daddy – Todd’s house is not very big.’ He’s like, ‘His house could fit inside of ours.’ And I said, ‘You know what, Cole, you’re right. But I’m going to tell you something.
“ ‘You give Todd about six years, and the house that we have now will fit in his new house.’ ”
Gurley seems on his way now. Back in his old neighborhood, the field where he played in those games as a kid was empty on Wednesday afternoon. It was quiet, except for faint sounds of light traffic in the distance, cars running down U.S. 64.
Down the street a ways, a neighbor, a man named William, said he didn’t know much about Gurley. He said he wasn’t a football fan, and he didn’t even know Gurley was playing at Georgia, making a name for himself, bringing attention to Tarboro.
The neighbor, though, remembered Gurley as a kid, and remembered those games up the street. The ones on a field near the intersection of two dead-end streets, where children played near a highway and near the train tracks, but often so far away from a way out.