Jeff Craddock’s cellphone rang, and on the other end of the Tarboro High School football coach’s line was Todd Gurley.

“I’m ready to come home,” Gurley told his former coach.

It was last November and Thanksgiving was days away. The Tarboro Vikings were preparing for a third-round playoff game. The Los Angeles Rams were coming off a thrilling victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football, another check mark on their Super Bowl run.

“You don’t want to hang out in L.A.?” Craddock asked his former star running back. “You’re coming back home?”

“Coach, let me tell you something,” Gurley told Craddock. “I’m so ready to come back home right now I can’t stand it.”

On Sunday, as Gurley enters his fifth season, he once again will return to North Carolina, only this time it will be to play his first professional football game there. It will be a welcome place for him to kick off the 2019 season, after the 25-year-old arguably endured the most trying offseason of his professional career.

It’s the place where he feels at home.

Even so, Gurley’s desire to return to Tarboro during the Rams’ bye week last season came as something of a surprise to his high school coach, not because Gurley doesn’t often return to the small Edgecombe County town.

He does.

But before the season, Gurley signed a record-breaking, four-year, $60 million extension, with $45 million guaranteed. The Rams were on a 10-1 stretch run and the bye week potentially offered Gurley an opportunity to kick back and continue to live his real-life rags-to-riches dream in Hollywood, far from where he grew up in the Lone Pine Mobile Home Park.

After Gurley told Craddock the reason he wanted to visit, Craddock understood why.

“I think sometimes the bright lights and him being known wherever he goes and he looks forward to just coming back to Tarboro, where you don’t got to fight cameras, you don’t got to answer questions. He can just come to where he practiced and just watch the guys practice and just be himself,” Craddock said. “Not be portrayed as some big superstar, just Todd hanging out.”

Since he was selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft, Gurley has continued to return to Tarboro to check in on those closest to him, deliver free turkey dinners, host free football camps for kids and even grab a cheese biscuit at Abrams, a local favorite.

Many of the people who have continued to welcome Gurley home will be in attendance Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte — or at least will be watching from 240 miles away in Tarboro — when the Rams play the Carolina Panthers.

“I’m excited,” Gurley said. “Never really went to Charlotte growing up, but it will be cool just to be able to go back to North Carolina to be able to play in front of family and friends.”

For nine months, Gurley — and his teammates — have been bombarded with endless questions about the health of his left knee after an inauspicious ending last season.

Sunday will be Gurley’s first chance to prove he still is the same back who was named the ’s Offensive Player of the Year for 2017 and who last season rushed for 1,251 yards and scored a league-best 21 touchdowns.

There have been reports that he is suffering from arthritis or has a degenerative condition. None of those reports has been confirmed by Gurley or the Rams.

“It’s fine,” Gurley said Thursday when asked about his knee. “Just Week 1 now — I’m here.”

Gurley sat out the final two regular-season games last season because of soreness and iammation in the knee, which was surgically reconstructed after he tore the ACL as a junior at the University of Georgia. He returned during a 30-22 divisional-round win against the Dallas Cowboys, rushing for 115 yards and a touchdown.

But in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LIII, the three-time Pro Bowl player vanished. Gurley had five touches for 13 yards against the New Orleans Saints and spent much of the game watching from the sideline. In the Super Bowl, he rushed for 35 yards on 10 carries in a 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots.

Rams coach Sean McVay repeatedly has shouldered the blame for failing to get his star back into a rhythm in both instances. The Rams and Gurley have maintained that his health is fine.

But the offseason continued to raise flags about Gurley’s health.

The Rams matched the Detroit Lions‘ two-year, $3.3 million offer sheet to keep trusted backup running back Malcolm Brown. They selected running back Darrell Henderson from Memphis in the third round with their second overall draft pick.

Gurley did not participate in the offseason program, but he worked out with his personal trainer. He was an every-other-day participant during training camp. Along with the rest of the starters and several key reserves, including Brown, Gurley did not play in any preseason games.

McVay said Thursday that Gurley will not be on a limited snap count in his season debut.

“I’m excited to see continue to do his thing,” McVay said. “He looks good, he’s feeling good and we’re looking forward to Sunday.”

Gurley said he was not eager to show everyone that his knee is fine.

“It’s football, bro,” Gurley said. “Been playing it my whole life. It’s just another season.”

But undoubtedly, the questions have grown tiresome to the All-Pro back, who resorts to shrugging his shoulders and keeping his responses to a minimum.

Whether Gurley will acknowledge it, at long last the opportunity to silence the questions, even if only momentarily, will come in North Carolina — the same place he visits to find familiarity, to be treated like the person rather than a linchpin or L.A. Rams star.

Typically, when Gurley returns to North Carolina, he has nothing to prove.

That isn’t the case on Sunday.


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