Tarboro's alumni tree has many branches

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Tarboro's Saiid Murphy pumps up the crowd during the NCHSAA 2-A state championship game against East Lincoln on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem.


Sports Writer

Friday, December 8, 2017

Former Tarboro High linebacker Saiid Murphy knew his situation was unique once he began talking with his college teammates at Gardner-Webb University about their high schools.

“The thing about Tarboro is that the whole town has this mentality that once you play for the football team you’re family,” said Murphy, who graduated in 2014. “You feel the support no matter how long ago you played. I didn’t go more than about two weeks without hearing from Coach Babb or another coach checking in on me.

“Most of my teammates at Gardner-Webb can’t go home and lift at their high school’s weight room, and their coaches don’t bother to check in. In this town, it’s Tarboro football that brings you back here.”

Tarboro High assistant football coach Ricky Babb stood underneath a banner that hangs above head coach Jeff Craddock’s office. The banner celebrates the Vikings’ 2011 state championship.

That season marked the final of three consecutive state championships, and the final high school season for Tarboro’s most memorable star — running back Todd Gurley. Babb spoke about the school’s most prolific icon, now a running back for the Los Angeles Rams, but stresses that it’s the collection of players as a whole that makes a program what it is. At Tarboro, the little guy isn’t so little.

“Everybody remembers the big names,” Babb said. “Those guys have the most spotlight. You see them on TV. But we have had so many guys come through here that take different paths. Some guys had trouble staying eligible to play, and other guys we had to always keep an eye on. Now, there’s not a better feeling than seeing they grew up to be positive contributors to our society.”

The Vikings have had a number of stars come through the program, notables like Gurley, six-year NFL veteran Shaun Draughn and current Ohio State lineman Tyquan Lewis. Most, however, don’t share those career trajectories and instead slot into real-world jobs and hobbies.

“You look at guys like Todd and Tyquan,” Murphy said. “Those are success stories and we’re really prideful of them. Other guys move on and have memories of football. But what this program offered us most of all was a brotherhood and a feeling of being able to accomplish anything.”

Once you’re in, you’re in

Tarboro High has been the standard for football excellence in the area for the past decade.

The Vikings’ success has been chronicled in this paper during an impressive stretch where the team won three consecutive state championships in a half-decade span that included five straight appearances in title games.

Much has been written about this season’s Vikings team that will take its 14-0 record to the 1-AA state title game on Saturday against Mount Airy.

This era began when Craddock took over as head coach in 2004, then experienced his most trying season the following year. The 2005 Vikings trudged to a 3-8 record in a season full of problems. Craddock said, looking back, that if that season happened a year earlier during his first, he wasn’t sure if he would have stayed. Everything about that season tried his patience and sanity.

But he stuck with it. Tarboro went 24-23 during his first four years before rattling off those five consecutive state championship appearances. The Vikings have advanced to at least the third round of the playoffs for the past 10 seasons. An impressive feat considering public high school teams are at the mercy of the talent coming through the program.

On the surface, Tarboro is a typical small-town team. It takes all kinds to power the engine. A small portion go on to continue playing careers, while the majority graduate, find jobs and start families. The U.S. military has former Vikings players, college football teams have Tarboro graduates, sanitation workers can claim playing downs for the Vikings, and factory job workers spend breaks talking about playing days.

Murphy is a linebacker for Gardner-Webb who just finished his red-shirt junior season. Jamias Williams, who quarterbacked the Vikings to a pair of state titles in 2010 and 2011, spent time in the military and now plans to enroll at Edgecombe Community College. Williams sees a lot of similarities in this year’s team compared with the teams he played for.

Believe it or not, Williams thinks this year’s Vikings pass more than he ever did. That’s impressive, considering Tarboro has 41 passing attempts through 14 games.

“Now they pass more than what we did before,” Williams said. “But still it’s similar because we didn’t have to pass with the running backs we had. Most of the time the other coaches didn’t know who had the ball, and I’m watching this group and watching other team’s struggling with finding the ball, too.”

Others have rough patches since graduation, like Markel Howell. The former running back and safety during a pair of championship runs was involved in a shooting in 2012, just two years after graduating high school.

He was convicted and spent more than two years in prison.

“The whole time when I made that mistake I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew I was making a big mistake,” Howell said. “I had dreams to go to college and play football like a lot of guys. I had dreams of having those experiences as a twenty-something, and because I made the wrong mistake I never got to go to college.”

Howell was released from prison in 2015 and has since become an employee, a coach and a father. His daughter is four months old, he holds a job at a factory working with machines, and coaches the Little Vikings football program.

“I realized that I can’t just live for me,” Howell said. “When my daughter was born, that person staring back at you is someone else to live for.”

Current Tarboro quarterback Tae Randolph got in contact with Howell during a trying stretch last season. Randolph had questions about how to deal with tough situations. The quarterback struggled with a pair of losses to directional Nash schools Northern and Southern in consecutive weeks, before the Vikings ultimately lost in the regional final round with a state championship berth on the line.

“Tae Randolph got in contact with me and asked me my advice on what to do in a hard situation,” Howell said. “Last year they had some problems, took some losses, and I just told him don’t get too high or too low. My advice was for him as a quarterback to try to bring everybody together. What I see from him is a real leader who united them, and now they are getting ready for a really big game.”

While Howell offered advice from a good place, it was him who had wished he would have listened to the right voices when he was younger. Now, working with kids who have entire lives ahead of them, Howell hopes that some can learn from mistakes he’s made.

“I don’t want to be the one who brings up situations first, but I would be happy to talk with anyone who will benefit,” said Howell, 25. “They don’t need to make the mistakes I did. With the talent a lot of these kids have they have a lot of those guys can go far and do whaterver they want to do. I didn’t have the grades to play in college, then fell into bad situations.

“They way these guys attack football they should attack the classroom the same way.”

It’s unclear where this current group of players will end up in five or 10 years. But what is certain is that they’ll be part of the Tarboro football program for life.

“You graduate from Tarboro High,” Craddock said. “But you never graduate from Tarboro football.”