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Todd Gurley: UGA's reluctant star

Editor's note: This story, originally written on Sept. 11, provides a unique look at Gurley's background and upbringing. He has since been suspended indefinitely pending an investigation into an alleged NCAA violation.

TARBORO, N.C. -- A few people in this small town in eastern North Carolina predicted Georgia running back Todd Gurley's greatness long before he became a leading Heisman Trophy hopeful.

Shannon Simmons, his older brother, saw it when Gurley was only 6 years old. Because Gurley was so good at football, a Pop Warner league in Baltimore made him play on his brother's team, which consisted of kids aged 9 to 11. Gurley was the star of the team.

"I was sitting on the bench," Simmons said. "Everybody gave me grief about it."

Tarboro High School basketball coach Leshaun Jenkins recognized something special in Gurley the first time he met him, during a short organizational meeting for incoming freshmen in the spring of 2008. After spending a few minutes with Gurley, Jenkins told him, "Your name is going to be on the back of a jersey at a major college someday."

Ryan Wells, an assistant coach of Gurley's at Martin Middle School, left a few words of advice for Tarboro High football coach Jeff Craddock. Wells told Craddock that an eighth-grader named Todd Gurley was going to be a great football player someday. Craddock, who didn't know Gurley at the time, wrote his name on the top corner of a white board in his office and waited.

When incoming freshmen reported for preseason camp the next summer, Gurley wasn't there.

"I wasn't going to play football," Gurley said. "I was just going to chill. I wanted to play basketball. I decided that's what I was going to focus on. I'd played football my entire life. I was tired of it and didn't want to play anymore."

The No. 6 Bulldogs can thank -- and perhaps their opponents can curse -- former Tarboro High assistant coach Bo Robinson for stepping in. When Gurley wandered onto the football practice field looking for a ride home about five weeks into the 2008 season, Robinson gave Gurley so much grief about not playing that he was at practice the next day. The freshman team already had installed its offense, so Gurley spent the rest of the season playing defense.

When Craddock finally caught a glimpse of Gurley, he was impressed -- but he left Gurley on the JV team as a sophomore before promoting him to the varsity squad to cover kickoffs during the 2009 state playoffs. The Vikings were on their way to winning what would be the first of three consecutive Class 2A state championships and already had a stable of senior running backs on the varsity team.

"People thought I was crazy," Craddock said.

After running for 1,385 yards with 17 touchdowns as a Georgia freshman and then 989 yards during an injury-shortened sophomore campaign last season, Gurley might be the best running back in college football today. Going into Saturday's SEC East showdown against No. 24 South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, Gurley is among the top candidates to win the Heisman Trophy and is considered a probable first-round pick in next spring's NFL draft should he leave as a junior.

In Georgia's 45-21 win over then-No. 16 Clemson in its Aug. 30 opener, Gurley ran for 198 yards on 15 carries and three touchdowns and returned a kickoff 100 yards for another score. His 293 all-purpose yards broke former Bulldogs tailback Rodney Hampton's 26-year-old single-game school record.

"I'm not amazed," Craddock said. "I really saw it early in him. I knew he was going to be awesome in college. If he stays healthy, he's going to be a Hall of Fame running back in the NFL. I think he was my once-in-a-lifetime player."

At Georgia, Gurley looks like a once-in-a-generation running back, perhaps the Bulldogs' best since Herschel Walker led Georgia to a national championship in 1980 and won the Heisman Trophy in 1982. Former Georgia and NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton went as far as comparing Gurley to Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown after his performance against Clemson.

"What are the best attributes of a running back?" Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "Obviously, speed, agility, vision and power, along with pass-catching, route-running and pass-blocking. There are a lot of things that go into it. If you took all of those things, he'd score high on all of them. Some guys are great at some of them but not so great at others. Todd does everything really well."

So far, the only concern about Gurley has been his health. Last season, he ran for 154 yards with two touchdowns in a 38-35 loss to Clemson in the opener and then had 132 yards with one score in a 41-30 win over the Gamecocks. But Gurley sprained his left ankle three weeks later in a 44-41 win over LSU and missed the next three games. Ankle and hip injuries bothered him the rest of the season.

"It was frustrating," Gurley said. "I'm not going to lie -- it sucked. We went 8-5. Nobody came here to go 8-5. I thought if I was healthy I would have helped us in those games."

Now that Gurley is healthy again, the Bulldogs seem intent on riding him as far as they can.

"You have to know as a defense that you can't let this guy beat you," South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "Gurley can take Georgia and put it on his back and then beat you. They're going to find ways to get him the football. They're going to toss it to him, hand it to him [and] throw it to him. They're going to utilize what they should because of his ability. We know that he's going to get the ball, we just have to stop him when he does."

Good luck. Tackling Gurley to the ground might be as difficult as trying to get him to open up and talk about himself. Gurley's high school coaches, family members and teammates say he likes to joke around and talks incessantly once you get to know him. But Gurley is reserved and tries to deflect attention to his teammates in public, especially when he's dealing with the media.

"He's kind of guarded," Richt said. "He's not really comfortable with all of this at all. I think he'd prefer to be a normal guy and teammate. But things tend to get big when you play like that. He likes his team, and he likes his teammates. He's just not that excited about all of the attention. He'd just prefer to go about his business and have fun."

In a lot of ways, Gurley seems like a reluctant superstar.

"It gets hectic sometimes, and I don't like it," Gurley said. "It's not like I'm going to go out there and act like a fool. I'm going to be the same guy and continue to do what got me here. That's how my mom raised me."

Gurley's humility might come from his humble beginnings. He's the youngest of Darlene Simmons' four children. John Simmons, his mother's husband and the father of Gurley's three older siblings, died before Gurley was born in Baltimore. Gurley's biological father, Todd Gerome Gurley, still lives in Baltimore, hence the Roman numeral II that the younger Gurley wears on his jersey.

After her husband's death, Simmons wanted the children to get out of the city and grow up in a small town.

Gurley and his family initially settled in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and then Tarboro, a town of about 11,000 people, which is located about 75 miles east of Raleigh. The family moved into a small mobile home at Lone Pine Mobile Home Park, where his mother still lives. Darlene Simmons, who works the third shift at a nursing home, taught her children to be thankful for everything they received, even if they didn't have many luxuries.

"That's how they were raised," Darlene said. "If we eat oatmeal for dinner, be thankful. If we eat steak for dinner, be thankful."

One of the luxuries Gurley didn't have during high school was cable TV, so he didn't watch much college football. The first game Gurley remembers watching was when Texas quarterback Vince Young led the Longhorns to a 41-38 victory over USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl to win a national championship.

Gurley, 20, probably couldn't tell you much about the history of the Heisman Trophy. When Georgia assistant coach Bryan McClendon was recruiting Gurley, he boasted about the Bulldogs' long lineage of NFL running backs, including Walker. Gurley had never heard of Walker.

"We never watched pro football, either," Shannon Simmons said. "We didn't have the means to watch the games."

Gurley was much more interested in watching Duke basketball, which was accessible on local TV, or his brother's DVD collection of the first 20 seasons of "The Simpsons." He loves Homer Simpson the most because "he does what he wants and says what he wants. He sits around drinking a lot of beer."

"They always had the things they needed," Darlene Simmons said. "We didn't have big, expensive things, but he always had clean, pressed clothes, food and a roof over his head. He always had friends and love. We stuck together through the good and the bad."

Things weren't always good. On Feb. 20, 2012, Randy Higgs, one of Gurley's closest friends, was killed in a car accident outside of Tarboro. A few days later, Gurley's older brother, Princeton, was arrested in Baltimore on charges of armed robbery and assault. Princeton Simmons is currently incarcerated at Brockbridge Correctional Facility in Jessup, Maryland. Gurley was able to visit his brother at the prison this summer for the first time in two years and talks to him on the telephone a few times a month.

"It's affected him a lot because it's part of him that isn't here," Darlene said. "Princeton was there for him in high school. It hurts him that Princeton's not here for his college years and can't see him play. He's not able to go to the games, but he watches him on TV when he can."

In Tarboro, Gurley found a support system that would help him excel and remain grounded. On most Sunday nights during high school, Gurley ate dinner with Jenkins at Mama's Pizza in downtown Tarboro. Over pizza and wings, Jenkins talked to Gurley about staying out of trouble, choosing the right friends and working hard academically so he'd be eligible to receive a scholarship.

"I saw something special in Todd on the day I met him," Jenkins said. "I have always told him he was destined for greatness, so I'm not surprised. He's lost some things and lost some people who were important to him. I think those are the things that keep him motivated and inspired, but more importantly keeps him humble."

Gurley agreed that his motivation has not changed.

"Things got rough, but my mom always provided for us -- especially me," Gurley said. "I never had it as hard as my brothers and sisters. I was the youngest and the one who was spoiled. I don't think she understands how much I'm doing this for her and my family. When I make it, we're all going to make it, and I can see her not struggle anymore."

Until Gurley exploded onto the college football scene, Tarboro's most famous native was Ben Jones, who played "Cooter" on the TV hit "The Dukes of Hazzard" and was a two-time Congressman from Georgia in the early 1990s. Tarboro's most recent export to the Peach State is excelling in something that might be much more important to Southerners than politics.

"It's all anybody talks about around here," Craddock said. "Tarboro High football has been kind of put on the back burner."

Earlier this week, Melton Graham, 21, leaned against a car near Gurley's mother's home. When a reporter asked him about Gurley, Graham beamed with pride.

"He wanted to make it out of here," Graham said. "He's going to make it. I know he's going to win the Heisman Trophy this year. The Heisman Trophy winner is going to come from right here."