Jeff Craddock was in his kitchen last week when his cell phone rang. On the other end of the line a familiar voice started shouting compliments to the coach.
“Hey superstar, big time, coach,” Craddock remembered the caller saying.
The praise was well deserved. Last week the NFL announced that Craddock, the football coach at Tarboro High School, was runner up in the Don Shula NFL Coach of The Year Contest. Craddock was nominated by the Carolina Panthers, and for being one of the top two finalists, he got a trip to the Super Bowl Sunday in Atlanta.
Craddock has never been to a Super Bowl, not even “sniffed a Super Bowl” in his own words. His plan was to have some friends over and watch the big game from home. Instead, Craddock will have an all expense paid trip, and his second place finish means Tarboro High School will receive a $10,000 donation from the NFL Foundation.
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But that’s not all. Craddock will also get to watch his former running back Todd Gurley, the voice on the other end of that call, play.
Gurley, the All-Pro back for the Los Angeles Rams, will be playing in the biggest game of his life, but still found time to call his coach.
Coach and player
Craddock definitely didn’t feel like he was the “big time” person on that call from Gurley.
Earlier in the week, Craddock sent a text to his former player, who won three straight NCHSAA 2A titles at Tarboro. He knew Gurley was busy, and wasn’t sure if he would hear back from him. Craddock used a little humor in his text, typing: ‘I know you are “SUPER” busy this week so I’m not going to bother you.’
But the next day, Gurley called to congratulate Craddock, who had just returned from the Pro Bowl as part of his second place finish in the Don Shula contest.
“I said let me put this in perspective for you Todd, I said thanks for the call,” Craddock said with a laugh. “I’m not the All-Pro, I’m not living the dream out in California. I’m not the super star hanging out with celebrities.”
Craddock grew up idolizing professional wrestler Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen. He had seen photos on social media of Gurley posing with Flair. In his eyes, it was no comparison between Gurley’s super stardom and Craddock’s current responsibility of taking care of household chores.
“I’m standing in my kitchen folding clothes, talking to Ricky Babb (Vikings offensive coordinator),” Craddock told Gurley. “So you tell me who the superstar is.”
There’s no denying that. In 2017 Gurley was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 1,305 and 13 scores. This season, the Rams had one of the best offenses in the league, and Gurley has 17 rushing TDs and 1,251 yards on the ground.
The two-time first team All-Pro, was a two-year starter for Craddock at Tarboro, before attending the University of Georgia. Craddock just led the Vikings to their second straight NCHSAA 1AA state title, capping off a perfect 15-0 season. It was the fifth state title for Craddock, with three of them coming while Gurley was in high school. On the weekend where he has a chance to host another trophy, Craddock said it’s fitting this was the year he won a free trip to the Super Bowl.
“I’m a Christian man, so I believe in the blessing of the lord and I don’t think this is a coincidence,” Craddock said. “See my old player play in the Super Bowl, people say it’s a coincidence, no I don’t think so.”
FAN FOR A WEEKEND
Craddock doesn’t get to enjoy football that often. Too much going on. Even the week of his trip to Atlanta, he was busy planning a banquet for his most recent Tarboro state championship team.
On game days the head coach is in charge of everything and Craddock does the itinerary: what time to leave, what time the players get taped, what time do they take the field for pregame.
Even when he watches his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes (he is a native of Rittman, Ohio), it’s still hard for him to flip the switch from coach to fan.
“I still get irritated,” he said. “Wondering why they aren’t doing this or that.”
When he touches down in Atlanta this weekend, however, he can just enjoy everything.
“I don’t have to think or worry about organizing,” Craddock said. “It’s all done for you.”
All Craddock and his wife, Jennifer, have to do is show up in the lobby of their hotel and a driver will whisk them across town, from one NFL sponsored event to the next. He said once he starts attending all the Super Bowl related events it will sink in that he will be watching the game from Mercedes Benz Stadium and not back in Tarboro. It won’t be, however, the first time he’s seen Gurley play in the NFL.
During Gurley’s rookie year in 2015, Craddock flew to St. Louis to watch the Rams take on the Cleveland Browns, Craddock’s favorite NFL team. It was week seven and Gurley, who missed the first two games of that season, hadn’t scored a touchdown. With Craddock in the stands, Gurley scored his first two career touchdowns, finishing with 128 yards on 19 carries.
“So I have an autographed picture of Todd scoring his first touchdown against my Cleveland Browns that I have framed,” Craddock said.
Two years ago, Craddock drove home to Ohio and noticed the Rams were playing the Lions, so he made the three hour drive from Rittman to Detroit to watch Gurley in person a second time. Gurley and the Rams are 1-1 with Craddock in the building, but the stakes have never been this high.
“We had a nice 10-minute conversation and he told me congratulations and he was excited for me to come down and watch him play,” Craddock said. “He said he feels great and looking forward to having a good game.”
HUGE FOR THE TOWN
When Tarboro plays in a state championship game, the whole town comes out. They did it when Gurley played, and they did it last December when the Vikings defeated East Surry, 50-10, at Carter-Finley Stadium.
As far as football towns go in Eastern North Carolina, one would be hard pressed to find one that rivals Tarboro, where the same system is run from the youth leagues all the way up to the high school.
When the NFL announced the winners for the Don Shula award, a watch party was held in Tarboro. When the locals found out Craddock finished second, there was excitement, briefly. When it comes to anything football related in Tarboro, second place just won’t do.
“You know Tarboro,” Craddock said. “We aren’t used to finishing runner-up in much. So they were like ‘how did you not win it?’”
If he has to finish second in anything, being the runner-up for the Don Shula Coach of the Year Award is fine with Craddock. But that’s where it ends.
“As long as I’m not finishing runner up in the last game of the season, I’m a happy man.”
The success Gurley found at Tarboro has followed him at every stop. At Georgia it took him just one game into his college career to go from a backup to starter. He made a splash right away in the NFL, rushing for 1,106 yards as a rookie en route to being named the 2015 NFL Rookie of the Year.
His name was in the MVP conversation a year ago. Less than two months after his coach won another state title, Sunday could be the final chapter on an excellent year for Tarboro football if Gurley’s night ends with him holding up the Lombardi Trophy.
“That would great. I’m tickled for our community because we are so proud of him. “Our community isn’t going to be any less thrilled for Todd is they lose the Super Bowl. That’s never going to change. I want him to have the experience of winning the Super Bowl, that would be awesome for our town, for Todd.”