When Todd Gurley climbed up to his podium seat on the opening night of Super Bowl celebrations in Atlanta on Monday, lights exploded all around him.
Cameras clicked, television brights flashed on and off and music thudded over the loudspeakers at State Farm Arena as Super Bowl week’s messiest, most excessive night unfolded — and unraveled.
Gurley was peppered with questions for an hour, in rapid-fire succession. Some were about football. Some were wacky, planted by credentialed personalities, and Gurley fielded those with good-natured clapbacks. He even bonded with actor and comedian J.B. Smoove over Eastern North Carolina barbecue’s superiority.
It all happened so fast.
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But a couple of times at his podium sessions this week, he was asked about Tarboro, his hometown. A little “normal” poked its way into the mania, a little reminder of the community, and the people, he carries with him this week, and always.
“Home is where the love is,” he said.
And maybe then he flashed back to a quieter time, when he used to jog late at night down the narrow roads of Tarboro, a tight-knit town of 11,000 in Eastern North Carolina.
He always ran those extra miles by himself, in the dark, long after the lights in the football stadium where he used to rush for astounding piles of yards switched off. His feet carried him out of the small cord of trailers where he lived with his mother and siblings, and through the streets of Tarboro, cradled between swaths of farmland.
His former coaches said he ran because he couldn’t stand sitting alone with a fire that burned in his chest, that told him he needed to be great. To one day get out of Tarboro, to make it.
Tarboro loves its football — so much so that the Tarboro Vikings run the same “Tarboro T” offense that has been used at the high school since the 1950s. The junior high schools run it, the elementary school kids run it on the playground and coaches teach it in peewee leagues across the town. Football brings the community together, and so did watching Gurley snatch souls and leave them in the grass every Friday night from 2008 to 2012.
It was only natural that Tarboro grew to love the kid who became perhaps the best to ever wear the Tarboro Vikings uniform, who grew up to be the superstar running back for the Los Angeles Rams, who signed the biggest running back contract in NFL history and who will play on football’s mountaintop on Sunday in Super Bowl LIII against the New England Patriots.
But Tarboro loves Gurley for much more than football.
The foundation, and the feats
Ricky Babb pulled a battered old composition notebook out Tarboro Vikings head coach Jeff Craddock’s desk and flipped it open. Scrawled in black pen in 100 different ways was Gurley’s signature. Craddock made Gurley start practicing it in that little notebook halfway through his high school career. And Tarboro’s coaches have kept it in that desk ever since.
Gurley is everywhere in the football office. He’s in photos on the wall, on trophies and featured in newspaper clippings.
Babb, Tarboro’s offensive coordinator and Gurley’s former junior varsity coach and history teacher, was then joined by defensive coordinator Andrew Harding, Jamie Williams, who is Gurley’s former track coach, junior varsity basketball coach and football assistant, and Darryl Glass, another of Gurley’s junior varsity and track coaches and a longtime mentor to Gurley.
And that’s when the stories got really good.
The four men leaned back in their chairs in the Tarboro football office, and for the next hour swapped tales about Gurley’s high school days.
Like how Gurley was late coming out for the football team as a freshman because he was visiting his father in Maryland. Craddock never lets players join late, but made a rare exception for Gurley because a former middle school coach wrote Gurley’s name on the whiteboard in Craddock’s office the year before, saying “keep an eye out for this kid.”
The coaches all laughed when they recalled how Gurley actually played on junior varsity for a year because Craddock had four stellar running backs on his varsity roster.
Craddock said the thing that saved him from getting laughed out of town for keeping Gurley on junior varsity for a year was the fact that the Vikings won a state title in 2009 behind those four backs.
Babb said that Gurley batted over .300 on the eighth-grade baseball team, all without swinging the bat. He bunted every time, using his speed to get to first base. Two pitches later, Babb said, Gurley was on third.
“And people knew the bunt was coming!” Babb said. Gurley had never played baseball before that year.
“(Our high school coach) was trying to convince Todd to come out for baseball every year,” Harding said. “He’d say, ‘You can run track (too). Just show up to games!’”
Harding said on more than one occasion, opposing players would marvel to him about Gurley’s build.
“Coach, he has muscles in his butt,” they said. Harding laughed. “Because he would run over them! And they’d just be on the ground, looking up!”
Glass said Gurley was a self-taught hurdler who used to run a dozen 100-meter sprints after track and field practices. Gurley became a Junior Olympic hurdler and eventually placed second in the NCHSAA state championships in 2011.
“You would come out and he’d outwork everybody,” he said. “When you weren’t looking, he was working. ... He doesn’t think he’s good enough. He still doesn’t think he’s good enough.”
Added Williams, “He’s got an internal fire that I’ve never seen before. He just never quits.”
And then there was the jogging, which was about more than keeping in good physical shape. Gurley jogged to keep himself away from the shadier pursuits that temped some neighborhood kids his age.
“He could have easily gone the other way,” Glass said. “He would jog sometimes 3 miles after games, just to keep himself from getting into (trouble).”
A passion for people
As his former coaches told their stories, they all wore the kind of look that fathers get when they talk about their sons. These men love Gurley that much, as much as any friend can love someone who one day becomes a son to them, or a brother.
And it goes well beyond Gurley’s athletic feats.
“Everybody knows what a quality kid he is,” Williams said. “He just loves people so much. They’re his passion. That inner fire he has to succeed, that’s the same passion he has for people.”
Gurley has soaked in every good thing anybody has ever done for him, and then given it right back.
And there were a lot of good things, as Tarboro united over the years to lift him up and not only help keep him out of trouble, but to support him in any way they could.
Harding used to drive Gurley to recruiting visits before he committed to Georgia. They’d drive all over the southeast, sometimes for hours and through the night. Gurley always stayed awake with Harding because he didn’t want Harding to drive alone.
At times, Gurley’s house was without running water or electricity. His mom, Darlene, worked as hard as she could to provide for her family but sometimes, ends just didn’t meet.
So the Tarboro coaching staff put in a work order to the school to get the busted showers in the locker room working with hot water. Gurley’s teammates didn’t want him to feel embarrassed for having to shower at the school, so a handful of them stayed late after practices to shower, too.
Gurley returned his teammates’ and coaches’ good deeds with small acts of his own.
The coaches said he once pulled himself from what would have been a record-setting game when he was an underclassman so that the seniors could get more carries in their final season.
Harding said Gurley once tanked a 300-meter hurdle race because he had been told he would be running in the 4x100-meter race, and he wanted to conserve his energy.
“Todd very easily could’ve left that track meet as the 110-meter hurdle champ, the 300-meter hurdle champ and the 4x100 champ,” said Harding. “That 4x100 meant more to him because it meant that three other guys were going to get rings, not just him. That’s what it was about.”
It’s no surprise to Harding, Glass, Babb and Williams that when Gurley made it big, he still never forgot about Tarboro.
Why he always comes back
Gurley visits Tarboro as often as he can and usually quietly gives back to the community when he does.
During his bye week in 2016, he flew into Raleigh, where his mother now lives, and then drove to Tarboro to help with relief efforts after Hurricane Matthew ravaged the town.
He handed out Thanksgiving turkeys and hams, and then came back for Christmas, when he popped into the local Walmart and paid off $6,000 worth of layaway items.
When he donated the money for the Vikings’ football state championship rings in 2017, Gurley also showed up for the banquet and ring ceremony. But he didn’t want any attention, instead standing in the back of the room and declining to sign autographs so that the focus stayed on the players.
Residents are used to seeing him around during his bye week each year, when he’ll fly cross-country to eat a cheese biscuit at Abrams, or drive to Glass’ house and convince him to hop in his car to get some chicken wings.
“I’m like, ‘Why do you want to eat with your coach?” Glass laughed. “He says, ‘Coach, you’re my friend.
“He said, ‘One day I just want to be here and give back.’”
It’s the purest and most powerful thing in life, handed back and forth freely between Gurley and the people of Tarboro.
It radiates from the faces of his former coaches. And on the faces of those who will crowd around their television sets on Sunday, to watch Gurley, their Todd, the kid who used to jog alone in the dark through the streets of their town.
Who ran right out of Tarboro, and then kept coming back.
Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @JourdanRodrigue