Todd Gurley is surrounded.
He was supposed to leave the field quickly following the conclusion of his first youth football camp at his alma mater, Tarboro High School, in early April. But now, there are dozens of kids and parents all looking for their own special moment with the 2015 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.
"Todd, over here!"
"Todd, can you sign this?"
"Todd, can we get a picture?"
It's an overwhelming scene on this sunny day in Tarboro, North Carolina. But Gurley grants every request with a smile — signing each autograph, indulging in each selfie. He's unfazed.
"It's cool, man, because I don't get to come home very often. And when I do, it's all love," Gurley says later. "These kids, it makes their day — or their life — just to be able to come out here and take a picture with an NFL player."
This is what a hometown hero looks like.
Witnessing the Rams' running back on this day, one thing is clear: Todd Gurley loves Tarboro. And this town loves him right back.
Tarboro is a small town like many across the nation. It's easy to miss off highway 64, about 15 miles east of the larger Rocky Mount, and 70 miles northeast of Raleigh.
There's a water tower with the town's name just off the highway to welcome you. There's a small downtown with classic store fronts — some shops closed, but many still open. Trees line Main St., which leads to City Hall. Tarboro's population has hovered around 11,000 for the last two decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"People who live in Tarboro, stay in Tarboro," Gina Bridgers says. She's been delivering mail in Tarboro for the last 18 years. "There's not a lot of businesses here. It's not anything for young people. A lot of young people are trying to get out, make something of their lives. And then they'll come back here, because, you know, it's a nice place for older people — such as myself."
And then there's Princeville, a smaller community just across the Tar River, neighboring Tarboro's town center. It's home to around 2,000 residents and is the oldest town incorporated by African Americans in the United States. But it's so small, many appear to think of it as just another part of Tarboro.
"This is the outstretches of Tarboro here, which is Edgecombe county. But it's a pretty nice place to live," Willard Scott says. He's a longtime Princeville resident. "It's endured two floods. So it's building back now and everybody's doing pretty good."
Gurley spent his high school years in Princeville, living in a mobile home with his mother, two brothers, and sister. The family moved from Rocky Mount in part to alleviate some of the financial stress on their mother.
"It wasn't bad — it was good," Gurley recalls of his upbringing, saying his mother "worked her ass off just to provide for us. And she was kind of over-doing it. And she just got tired of working so much — [and] that the rent was so high in Rocky Mount — so she ended up finding a place in Tarboro and being able to move us here."
The family lived in the Pine Valley community, which currently holds about 25 mobile homes. Those from the neighborhood remember Gurley well for his supreme athletic ability. It stood out from a young age.
Back then, Gurley would spend a lot of time playing on a grassy field toward the front of the complex, running fast enough to smoke everyone around him.
"He ran constantly — all the time," Bridgers says. "If he wasn't playing football, he was running. And we all knew just by looking at him, he was going to be something, because he was like… in the wind."
"When he was in school, he'd go to practices and stuff like that, and we used to see him running up and down that field over there," Scott says. "They used to run up and down there, man, and have a good time, you know? And we said, 'Listen, one day, that boy there is going to do something.' And sure enough, he did it."
"Yeah, man. Right there along Pine" — the road Gurley grew up on — "we're just playing there after school," Gurley says. "Just out there hitting each other — I guess that's how we got tough and started getting the brotherhood with each other."
Contrary to the way locals tell their tales, Gurley claims he wasn't always faster than everybody else.
"One thing about me, I always feel like I can always improve on something," Gurley says. "They're like, 'Oh, you're fast,' I'm like, 'Alright well, that dude's faster than me so I need to be faster.' So I always try to humble myself and always just know that there's always work to be done."
Fast and athletic as he was, at first Gurley wasn't even a major contributor to Tarboro's high school football program. In fact, there was some question as to whether he'd initially be on the team at all.
Tarboro football is weaved into the fabric of the town — and for good reason. The Vikings have won four state championships, and are in the playoffs just about every year. It makes Viking Stadium the place to be on a Friday night.
"Oh man, it was packed," Gurley recalls from his playing days. "You'd have all Tarboro fans right here [on the home sideline stands]. Everybody standing all across. And if the other team's fans don't show up, we're [on the opposing sidelines] too. So it was definitely — it was crazy for sure."
"I can remember when I first started, it was nothing like it is now because we had a couple of rough seasons," Tarboro head coach Jeff Craddock says. "I can remember looking up there and I think there's maybe 25 people in the stands at kickoff. And I was like, 'Wow, we've got a long way to go.' That was in 2004.
"But there's a lot more than 25 people in the stands now, I can promise you that."
Craddock has been the Vikings' head coach for 13 years, but first arrived at the school as an assistant coach in 1995. Perhaps it's his attire, or maybe his stature, but he looks like a football coach. He talks like one, too, with a tone that conveys authority, enthusiasm, and edge.
He's made Tarboro into one of the premier football programs in the state, winning three state championships, and coaching in two more. There's pictures, trophies, and plaques in his office commemorating the bevy of success he and the program have enjoyed over the last decade — players call it the "Craddock Wall of Fame." And there's a sign in the Vikings' weight room reading, "The will to prepare to win must be greater than the will to win." That's probably why he seems proud to have put his players through a particularly tough workout on the first Friday in April.
"Ask them — they'll tell you," Craddock says with a laugh before launching into his best impression of a 17 year old with, "'That guy — he's hard. He's crazy!'"
When Craddock took over as head coach, he rebuilt the program from the ground up. Excellence became expected, and his teams began to reflect that. The Vikings were on the cusp of turning the corner when Craddock heard a name for the first time that would help bring Tarboro to new heights.
"When he was in the eighth grade, I had a football coach — Ryan Wells was his name," Craddock says. "He said, 'Listen, I'm going to give you a name of a young man who I think has a chance to be really special.' So I said, 'Well good. And that's when he went on the board and he wrote down the name, 'Todd Gurley.'
"And the name caught my attention because I've never heard of 'Gurley.' It just seemed like a different kind of a name. And I was like, 'OK.' And he's like, 'Yeah, he's got the size. To me, he just looks like he could be a really, really special player for you. So just keep your ears open.'
"I was like, 'Fantastic," Craddock adds, then laughs. "And, of course, I quickly forgot."
Even without Gurley, Craddock had constructed a championship-caliber team. And so when a young man wanted to join the football program after training camp had started in 2008, there was a bit of skepticism.
"It was August — we start August 1st, official practice. And he was in Maryland. And I think it might've been like a week or so. So he was late," Craddock says. "So we're doing drills, regular practice. And one of the coaches said, 'Hey, you've got this mom over here who wants to talk to you.' So I went over there and it was Todd's mother. And she said, 'Hey coach Craddock, how you doing? I just wanted to introduce you to my son. We wanted to know if he could come out and play football. I know it's a little late — he was up in Maryland visiting his father.' And I said, 'OK.' I can't remember if she said, 'Introduce yourself,' or whatever, but he's like, 'Well, Todd Gurley.' And as soon as I heard that name again, I was like, 'Ah. Absolutely, you can come on out here and play football for us.'"
But the future Rookie of the Year didn't sniff the varsity roster as a freshman, instead playing defense on the JV squad while varsity finished state runner up. And he wasn't a significant varsity contributor the following year either, when Tarboro won its first state championship since 1984.
"I'm actually one of the dumbest coaches in the state of North Carolina because Todd Gurley actually played JV football when he was a sophomore — I didn't pull him up [until the playoffs]," Craddock jokes while showing off a picture of Gurley wearing No. 45 during the state championship game covering a kickoff. "We were kind of loaded in the backfield. If I'd have lost that game, I would've never heard the end of it. But we won it. So I get to keep part of my honor by saying, I didn't start Todd Gurley until he was a junior."
The Vikings won that state championship 28-3 — without attempting a single pass.
"Tarboro had lost that first year in the state championship game. We ended up winning the next year — my sophomore year," Gurley says. "I think the thing that helped us out was that very first state championship game — it was just a blowout. And nobody wanted to see that feeling or have that feeling again."
**Gurley began to contribute like one might expect in his junior year, when he rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and racked up 26 touchdowns, leading the Vikings to its second consecutive state championship.
Craddock says he realized just how special Gurley was as a player during that season. The Vikings run a Wing-T offense — the Tarboro-T, they call it — which means plenty of handoffs and misdirection. While Craddock wanted to stay balanced in his play calling and player usage, there came a point in time where that no longer made sense.
The third game of Gurley's junior season, Craddock says, "We called, I think it was 'criss-cross,' and one of my other running backs gets the ball, and the hole was huge. And if Todd has the football it's like a 60-yard-touchdown run. And we had one of our other guys and he got like 15 yards. And I talked to my guy upstairs, I said, 'Where is Todd?! Why is Todd not in the game?!' So I'm fussing. And he's like, 'Coach, look beside you.' And I look and Todd's standing beside me. And I look at Todd standing beside me, and I said, 'Todd! So what are you doing son?' He said, 'Coach, I'm just letting my boys get some burn.' And I said, 'Let me tell you something. The days of you letting your boys get burn are over. You are the starting half back.'
"I was just trying to look out for my boy sometimes," Gurley says. "Kendall [Jacobs] was good — I just felt like he never really got the opportunity. So when he would go in and have a good play or so, I'd just be like, 'Man, you're good — take these couple plays.' Because, like, we're all trying to get out of here. He's getting looks [from colleges] and he's a year older than me. So I'm like, 'Man, honestly, just take these looks' — because I know he can do what I can do."
Some of Craddock's coaching staff also felt his ire over what he deemed as their misuse of the star running back — even in the state championship game.
"It was 4th-and-1. I think it was the first drive of the second half, and I think the ball was right on the 45," Craddock says. "So I click over to my offensive coordinator, and I say, 'Hey, man, we're going for it.' I don't call and tell him what play to run. I just assume that, hey, we've got Mr. Gurley in the backfield, give the ball to Todd. If they can stop him for one yard, God bless.
"So, we snap the ball — I see us run a quarterback sneak. And my temperature started [rising], my face just turned 100 shades of red because I'm looking right down the line and I'm like, 'I'm not so certain he got it.' And I'm just fuming. So the chains go out — we got a great spot — and they pulled the chains, and we've got that first down by about this much" — Craddock raises his hands to show about three to five inches. "So I got to my offensive coordinator, and in a not-so-polite way, I said, 'The next time it's 4th-and-1, you give the ball to No. 1' — that was Todd, No. 1.
"Later in that drive, it was fourth down again, and we ran isolation left — or criss-cross left, I can't remember which one — and he ran for eight or 10 yards and an easy first down. And I'm clicking over [saying], 'See?! That's how you do it!'"
Gurley rushed for a pair of touchdowns in that game, making the Vikings back-to-back state champions.
The next year was more of the same, with Gurley amassing over 2,600 yards rushing and 36 touchdowns as a senior. He racked up 242 yards and four touchdowns in Tarboro's third consecutive state championship victory. A noted closer, Gurley had 197 yards and three TDs in the second half.
Jessie Nunery, sports editor of the Rocky Mount Telegram, covered the Vikings when Gurley was in high school and says he'll always remember how the running back's character stood out in the postgame celebration.
"I tell this story often. As soon as the game was over, you see his teammates running around in circles, happy that they won. Todd literally walked over to another player and picked the guy up and patted him on the head for a great game," Nunery says. "And that's just the way he was, you know? He just played 'ball."
After the third state championship, Craddock coached Gurley in the Shrine Bowl — a matchup between the best players from North Carolina and South Carolina. It was a thrill to conclude their on-field partnership, with Gurley rushing for a pair of touchdowns in the contest.
"We won that game also — close game but we beat South Carolina, I think by seven. And Todd was the MVP of the Shrine Bowl that year," Craddock says. "So the young man had a great season for us. He had a great career here. Won a lot of trophies with him."
With all the yards, touchdowns, and accolades, Gurley had a hectic college recruitment process. The letters started coming January of his junior year and continued for quite a while.
"It was crazy, man," Gurley says.
He took his first visit to Duke, which was particularly exciting because he'd grown up a fan of its basketball program.
"That was like — 'Man, I've got an offer from Duke!'" Gurley says. "I think I went to a junior day. And then they had the Duke/UNC game, so I'm like, I'm going to see if I can get some tickets."
He did, attending with a coach and one of his best friends. That night, Nolan Smith scored 34 points to help the Blue Devils come back from a 43-29 halftime deficit to beat North Carolina 79-73.
"You know, when they beat Carolina, they do like a bonfire. I'm like, 'I'm coming to Duke. I don't care,'" Gurley says. "Then a couple days later, I'm like, 'Hold on — this is a basketball school. Let me just keep doing my thing and then hopefully more offers come.' Because I'd heard once that first offer comes, they're like, 'Why is Duke giving him that scholarship?' And then next thing I know, people like Georgia came. And so it was a blessing."
But when Georgia came calling, at first Gurley didn't even believe it.
"Coach Craddock was like, 'Some dude from Georgia called named coach McClendon,'" Gurley says. Bryan McClendon was the running backs coach at Georgia then, and was a part of Mark Richt's staff through 2015. "I'm like, 'Georgia? I'm not goin' to no Georgia.'"
McClendon came to Tarboro to see Gurley after being told about him at another stop on a recruiting trip.
"He started talking to me about guys like Herschel Walker, and I'm like, 'Who?'" Gurley recalls with a laugh. "Which is — that's disrespectful to not even know who that is."
"I just had a great relationship with [McClendon]. My mom did, too. I just felt like I was in good hands with him, coach Richt," Gurley continues. "Just learning the history of Georgia, I just kind of felt comfortable with myself no matter who was there or the situation. It was just — I was going to go there."
Gurley relied heavily on Craddock throughout the recruitment process, making pros and cons lists, and discussing the running back's options until he came to a final decision.
"It was crazy. I really felt bad for him," Craddock says. "He just kind of blew up and once word started getting out, everybody's coming, everybody's calling. And it's not Todd's nature — he doesn't like the spotlight, he doesn't like very much attention. And it was an experience for me to go through it with him."
That's part of why even today, Gurley and Craddock have a strong relationship. Craddock spoke of the numerous times Gurley has come to his house for dinner, spending time playing video games with the coach's three kids. The two speak regularly — once or twice a month — with Craddock making the effort to attend a Rams game each season when his schedule permits.
"He's a good dude. He's always had my best interests at heart," Gurley says. "His wife, Ms. Craddock, is like, 'Is he going to go back to school?' So she's always going to ask me, and I'm always like, 'Yes, I'm going to go back to school and finish — my mom's going to make sure.'"
Being around Gurley — especially in this, his home environment — it's clear that he became successful because he's a self-motivated man. Gurley had strong mentors in his life, to be sure — Craddock and his basketball coach Leshaun Jenkins among them. But Gurley wanted to realize the potential his talent had given him, instead of becoming a "What if?" story. He says that sometimes led him to act out of fear — fear of not being able to go back to what he used to be, or what he used to do.
"I don't want to be that guy that [you say], 'Oh yeah, I remember Todd. He used to be the man on Friday nights,'" Gurley says. "And that's no discredit to anybody else, but things in life happen. And mistakes happen. But I definitely didn't want to put myself in that situation to mess that up.
"Slowly but surely, you just kind of start separating yourself. You know it's all love at the end of the day when you see those guys, but just kind of start separating yourself. And just work a little harder, man," Gurley adds of his approach. "I always kind of worked a little harder, just to show, 'Alright man, he wants to be better.' Or I wanted everybody to see that I was working a little harder. And that actually paid off."
"I think he's a tremendous role model," Craddock says. "No. 1, he did it the right way. And you see a lot of people blessed with talent, and go on maybe to college, sometimes even the NFL. But they sometimes aren't living life the right way, or they're not making the best choices — maybe when they were in high school, maybe when they were in college.
"Nobody's perfect — we understand that. But Todd, for these kids to see somebody come up through who didn't have a dad at the house — it was just him and his mother and his brothers living in a trailer, so he didn't have all of the advantages that some of us have growing up. But then to know, here he comes. And he was a great athlete, he was a good student, he wasn't getting written up, he wasn't in trouble with the law. He just really worked hard."
On this sunny, early April, North Carolina day, Gurley is clearly in his element as he takes the microphone before the start of his camp. There are about 10 NFL players in attendance to help out, including Tarboro's own Shaun Draughn — current Giants running back.
"I just want to say, just listen to your parents. Make sure you're doing the right things in school. Surround yourself with great people. And dream big, you know what I'm saying? Never let nobody tell you what you can and cannot do," Gurley says to the 250 kids before they go up in groups to have their picture taken with the NFL stars.
Gurley goes around to each station on the field, clearly making an effort to interact with every child. And there are campers from all over — Tarboro, the surrounding North Carolina area, and even some from Georgia.
"Oh man, it means a lot," Gurley tells the media in his press conference. "This is my first camp, so I really wasn't expecting the outcome to be like this. But I'm excited to give back."
"Just seeing that he specifically targeted the Edgecomb County kids who, you know, might not have as much school funding or income level. But to give them this opportunity, just to see these guys and experience this — it's excellent," Nunery says.
Upon seeing Nunery at the press conference, Gurley asks if he's still working for the Rocky Mount Telegram, and inquires about another reporter, too.
"All the stories I hear — I hadn't seen him in a couple years — but all his coaches always say he's still Todd," Nunery says of the exchange. "That's what they always say, he's still Todd no matter what."
Once the competition portion of the camp is complete, the kids sit with their groups in a semicircle for a Q&A with one of Tarboro's favorite sons.
"When you won rookie of the year, how did you feel?"
"How was your college experience?"
"How many rushing yards have you had in your whole career?"
After this, the swarm. Autographs. Handshakes. Hugs. Selfies. There are those who remember Gurley from his time as a player in Tarboro, and those who know him by reputation — those who have seen what he's capable of doing in the NFL.
"Just coming back, people want his autograph — he's calm, he's patient," Craddock says. "He was signing stuff down in my office and I said, I bet you're about tired of signing your name today — because I really had a couple of things I was going to have him sign. And I'm like, 'You know what, I'll give him [some peace]. There will be another day, no big deal.' But he was like, 'No, man. It's all cool.' His thing is, he's like, 'These are my people.'"
That's why through it all, Gurley has a smile on his face.
"Man, I love Tarboro," he says. "Tarboro loves me."
It's being back here, in his comfort zone, that helps him recharge before a new season.
"When you come back here, it's like all the negativity goes out the way," Gurley says. "And people get it. You're not going to win every game. But they're just happy to see me in this position. And it just helps me to know how blessed I am, when I come back here and just go back to playing football."
And it's all still a bit surreal, being back on this field with "Gurley" printed on every camper's shirt. So much has happened, but it's only been five years since he was blowing past defenders at Viking Stadium.
"I still kind of look at this place as the same," Gurley says. "It's home. And it always will be."