The town of Tarboro has a population of just under 12,000, and it’s a safe assumption that almost all of them know who Todd Gurley is.
The current Los Angeles Rams running back won three consecutive state titles at Tarboro High (one famously earned despite being hobbled by two sprained ankles). He went on to a standout collegiate career as a Heisman hopeful at the University of Georgia before being drafted by the then-St. Louis Rams with the 10th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
While Gurley was cracking pads in the Los Angeles sunshine in early October, Hurricane Matthew cracked down on Tarboro and its neighboring communities, including Princeville. According to a CNN article, most of Princeville’s 2,000-odd residents escaped the flooding from the storm by heading across the river to Tarboro and were unable to return until waters began to recede. Still, the damage has been hard for the area to move past.
“This is a disaster area. It’s not going to recover in 24 hours, and it’s still going on as we speak, not only in Princeville but 150 miles from here,” Gov. Pat McCrory told reporters at the time. “People are playing golf 20 miles from here, and yet we have a whole town under water.”
Gurley knew that, too.
With the Rams having a bye last week, he traveled back to North Carolina to serve those in need at Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.
It was bad. It was like a ghost town. A lot of people – some people could go back into their house, some people, they’d have to rebuild their whole house.
Rams running back Todd Gurley, on the state of Tarboro after Hurricane Matthew
“I kind of rode through the town,” said Gurley on a conference call this week. “It was bad. It was like a ghost town. A lot of people – some people could go back into their house, some people, they’d have to rebuild their whole house.
“You just see everybody’s stuff on the side of the roads, furniture and all types of stuff. I definitely want to keep everybody in prayers and know they’ll get through it. Most people have been staying in a hotel the last three weeks to a month.”
Jessica Whichard, a spokeswoman for the food bank, said that Gurley and his agent had initially reached out to them with the knowledge of the prolonged affects of the hurricane.
“Based on experiences with Hurricane Floyd, we knew that inland would really be hit hard with flooding from rivers,” she said. “The rivers took about a week to crest. There were a ton of people in shelters, and so there was kind of an urgent need for hot meals with the flooding going on.
“But what we’re finding now for long-term impact is that people who had their power out for extended periods of time lost everything in their refrigerators. For some people, that can take one trip to the grocery store. But for folks in these areas, that can take weeks to recover from.
“It’s not just over once the waters start to recede.”
Wichard said the need for meals appealed to the type of assistance Gurley wanted to give Tarboro.
For updates and community support of relief efforts after Hurricane Matthew, visit foodbankcenc.org/disasterrelief.
“Our food bank works with the Tarboro Community Outreach Center, and knew that they had this distribution going on. They were running a soup kitchen and we thought it would be a great fit based on what he wanted to do for the community,” she said.
A personal touch
And Gurley went himself rather than just writing a check.
“I just helped out at the shelter, the soup kitchen,” said Gurley. “Helping people take food to the car and make a couple sandwiches. It was pretty cool just being able to see people’s faces. People were excited just to have me there just serving and helping out.
“I just wanted to give back, get back and really go see my family and just see all my friends. I just wanted to kind of do something while I was there and show my appreciation for the town.”
His involvement came as no surprise to his head coach, Jeff Fisher – he made Gurley a team captain in just his second year in the league – and did not go unnoticed by the town.
“To see (Gurley) reach out and know how long it was going to take for folks in this community, people he went to high school with, to recover and get back on their feet, you know, it was something that we really appreciated,” said Wichard. “It’s hard to keep that sense of urgency in people’s minds. So to have Todd reinforce that with his presence there.
“To take that time to come to Tarboro, it was really important.”