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In the spotlight: Tarboro football, Craddock take center stage

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Tarboro coach Jeff Craddock reacts on Dec. 15, 2018 during the NCHSAA 1-AA state championship game against East Surry at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. He'll be at the Super Bowl on Sunday, along with former Tarboro star Todd Gurley.

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BY SAMUEL EVERS
Sports Writer

Saturday, February 2, 2019

TARBORO — By this upcoming Tuesday morning, presumably, when the organized chaos of the last two weeks will have finally subsided, and the interview inquiries will at least scatter to a few a week instead of several a day, Tarboro football coach Jeff Craddock will go back to being a high school teacher and football coach.

But, now, it's Thursday morning, three days before the Super Bowl and five days away from a potential return to normalcy, and Craddock is wondering instead if he's going to need a tuxedo this weekend.

It’s 8 a.m. and he’s charming his way through another interview while his longtime assistant football coach, Ricky Babb, is overseeing his weightlifting class in the airy room to the right of his decorated office.

At 9 a.m., he’ll head to Speight’s Trophy Shop, in Rocky Mount, to pick up the emblems of another successful fall football season for his awards banquet at 6 p.m.

Then, at 10 a.m., it’s time for another interview, this one with a local TV station.

Once that wraps, he’ll teach a few more weightlifting classes (it’s never too early to put in the effort for the 2019 season, he emphasizes), dot the Is on his banquet speech, brief his substitute teacher for the next two school days, congratulate his fifth state title-winning football team in the evening, go home and pack, then, with his wife, Jennifer, fit a full night’s sleep into half the time and get up at 5 a.m on Friday, head to Raleigh, and catch a flight to Atlanta for the Super Bowl on Sunday, where he’ll spend the weekend being chauffeured from event-to-event before finally being able to nestle into a suite and watch his former player, Todd Gurley, try his hand at winning the whole thing.

But — and this is what’s really stressing him out on this Thursday morning — he hasn’t been sent his itinerary for the weekend yet, and he’s worried about that tuxedo.

“Me and my wife, we’re simple creatures. Last time I was in a tuxedo was my wedding day and that was 23 years ago. My wife, she owns dresses she don’t wear often,” said Craddock, reclining in his office chair while sipping from a large-sized McDonald’s cup. “Me getting dressed up is khakis and a coach’s shirt. My wife has been begging me for this itinerary. Hopefully it’ll come sometime today. Hopefully I don’t have to go get sized up for a tuxedo.”

Indeed, Craddock will be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for the Super Bowl on Sunday, part of the reward for finishing second — by one point — in the voting for the NFL Don Shula High School Coach of the Year Award; the Panthers nominated him in January, and, when they called him and told him the good news — that he’d be flown out to Orlando for the Pro Bowl — he thought an assistant coach was messing with him.

“That is the type of thing we’d do,” said Andrew Harding, Craddock’s assistant coordinator, laughing.

That call kicked off a frenetic stretch that started on Jan. 24, a Thursday, when Craddock, his wife and his senior player Melik Ward headed down to Orlando.

Since then, and since a few days before that, the Tarboro football program, embedded in the sleepy town of 11,000 people, has carved out a spotlight on the national football consciousness, with outlets from the Washington Post to Sports Illustrated to every local newspaper and news station from Greenville to Charlotte wanting a word.

On some occasions, Craddock has been so occupied with other obligations his assistants have had to pinch-hit.

“I’ve done a few interviews,” Harding said. “(Ricky) Babb has. I was in the Washington Post. Maybe with S.I. I can’t remember.”

This grandiose lens that has taken focus on Tarboro is because of a community and a team that has redefined its ceiling, won many games, and sent players to college and to the professional level. They have two in the NFL, one in the CFL, and one that just retired from the NFL.

But, to be more specific, it’s because of two people: Gurley and Craddock, the Tarboro player and the Tarboro coach who both earned their way to the Super Bowl, one on the field and the other on the sideline, who both happen to be ascending at the same time.

In some ways, it’s a completely improbable situation that would get laughed out of a script-writing room.

(“Hollywood can’t write a story like this,” Craddock said. “It’s just amazing. God is good.”)

In other ways, when you consider raw probability and a decade of winning, it does make some sense.

“I’ve always told people,” Harding said, “sooner or later people are going to catch on to the story of Tarboro.”

***

When Craddock got to Orlando on Jan. 24 for a half-week of events and festivities leading up to the announcement of the winner on Pro Bowl Sunday, his representatives from the Panthers told him he was one of two finalists for the award, meaning he’d already punched his free ticket to the Super Bowl.

That was of incredible relief, Craddock pointed out, because, “You know what I do for a living, right? I’m a teacher and a coach. No, we’re not spending $10,000, $12,000 in Super Bowl tickets and a hotel.”

He spent Friday and Saturday of that week schmoozing with the other 31 coaches nominated by their respective NFL franchises, trying to soak in an all-expense paid trip while stomaching the cost of a Michelob Ultra at the sports bar inside the hotel.

On Sunday, during the first quarter of the Pro Bowl, the news was broken to Craddock that he had finished second, by a one-point margin. The winner, St. Joseph’s Prep’s (Penn.) Gabe Infante, accepted the award on the field and was quickly interviewed by an ESPN reporter during the fourth quarter. Craddock was asked to come down on the field, too.

“I was like, ‘Why do I have to walk down there?” said Craddock, laughing while griping. “They’re not going to be interviewing the runner-up guy, they want to talk to the winner. I know how this works.”

That night, he missed a call from Gurley, who had just arrived in Atlanta for the madness of Super Bowl week. Craddock was out to dinner and missed the call. He shot him a text back, using the opportunity to make a corny Super Bowl joke that he still isn’t sure Gurley appreciated.

They finally connected on Tuesday afternoon.

The first thing the All-Pro said to his old coach?

“Well, hey there, superstar coach.”

This, coming from Gurley — the richest running back in the history of the sport — was too much for Craddock.

“I said, ‘You wanna do this? Let’s think about this for a second. You’re the multi-millionaire living out in Los Angeles, hanging out with celebrities,” said Craddock, his eyes and smile getting wider. “I adored Ric Flair the Nature Boy and you’re taking pictures with the guy. And you’re getting ready to play in the Super Bowl, and you’re an All-Pro. I’m standing in my living room folding laundry and talking to Coach (Ricky) Babb. You tell me who the superstar is.”

There was a pause on the line.

“Yeah, Coach, you’re right,” Gurley said.

The two talked for about 15 minutes about the past week that was, and how happy Gurley was to get back into the routine of a normal practice schedule leading up to the Super Bowl on Sunday.

The conversation ended abruptly, because Gurley’s mother was calling her son.

“I said, ‘Yeah, you better take that call,’” Craddock said.

That day, Tuesday, was perhaps the peak of the madness. Craddock was back at Tarboro High but needed a substitute teacher to hold down his weightlifting classes because he was up to his waist in interviews.

He did a 45-minute walk around with a local TV station, appeared on the David Glenn Show, the sports-talk program Craddock sometimes listens to in the car, and, on Wednesday, did another 45-minute interview with Sports Illustrated that might never even see the light of day, depending on how Gurley does in the Super Bowl.

The S.I. writer called at 5 p.m., right after another marathon day that he thought might just be over.

But what was he going to do, turn that person down?

“It’s a great problem to have,” Craddock said. “It’s not even a problem, it’s a blessing, to be able to talk about Tarboro and Todd.”

Since this mania began, Craddock and Babb and Harding have answered every question from any person wanting to know every detail, and they all feel honored, or blessed, to do so.

From Gurley’s track merits, to his time on the junior varsity team, to his rise to fame, to the notebook they made Gurley practice his signature on, the Rams’ running back is a microcosm of the culture they’ve tried to cultivate, and they’ve been happy to dish its virtues.

“There’s a reason Todd and Tyquan (Lewis) and Takoby (Cofield) come back,” Harding said. “There’s a reason Shaun (Draughn) sticks his head in. If they didn’t love this team and love (Craddock), if they didn’t see him as a father figure, they wouldn’t.”

But, now, it’s back to Thursday morning, 8:30 a.m., and Craddock has just spent another 20 minutes answering another round of questions about his team and the bedlam of the last two weeks. This particular session is over, and, after some chit-chat, he’s ready to go back next door and teach the virtues of offseason training to his weightlifters.

If for only a moment, before perhaps the busiest weekend of his life arrives, he is just a teacher and a coach.

“It’ll be nice to get back,” Craddock said. “The kids are starting to wonder when they’re going to get their coach back.”

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