Before Todd Gurley ever played a down at Georgia, a senior who tried to corral him in practice compared him to Trent Richardson, who had just gone No. 3 overall in the NFL draft.
during football practice at the University of Georgia on Friday, August 1, 2014, in Athens, Ga. (AJ Reynolds/Staff, @ajreynoldsphoto)
When he started to tote the ball for the Bulldogs, Herschel Walker’s name came up like it always seems to do for the next great running back at Georgia.
Now that his star shines so bright, Gurley may be more like Greta Garbo these days.
No, Garbo never performed in front of stadiums packed with rabid football fans on fall Saturdays, but the 1930s film star and Gurley could both do without the attention that comes from being in the spotlight.
“It’s not about him being asked questions from the reporters or fans liking him, it’s about him playing the game and him being a team player in the game,” said Darlene Simmons, Todd’s mother. “He just likes it.”
Gurley would prefer to skip past the mundane responsibilities off the field leading up to a game week.
“He doesn’t like talking to y’all,” linebacker and friend Amarlo Herrera said, “but he’s very cool, a chill person.”
Just put Gurley in the backfield with a game on the line, and he’s in his element.
Gurley can hardly go out these days in Athens without being recognized, but he’s dealing with that, too.
“I know sometimes how to ignore people, even though I don’t want to do that, but sometimes you have to,” Gurley said. “It’s been like that for a while. It’s because I play offense and I’ve got hair (dreads).”
Even when he took a trip a few months back to California, where he did some skateboarding, a few people recognized him way away from the hedges.
When you’ve done what Gurley’s done in two seasons, Gurley belongs to the Bulldog Nation now as much as he does to his two hometowns.
Baltimore is where Gurley was born and raised until the first grade. He’s still partial to his Orioles and Ravens just like he is to his Duke basketball.
That makes sense because Gurley moved with his mother and siblings to North Carolina, settling in the Eastern part of the state.
“I wanted my children in a quiet, small setting like the country,” she said.
She picked Rocky Mount, where she had visited twice because her uncle had married a woman from there.
“Coming from Baltimore to North Carolina, it was kind of the country,” Gurley said. “It wasn’t bad though. I got used to it.”
They lived there until Todd was in the fifth grade and then relocated about 16 miles east to Tarboro, a town with a population of 11,348.
“The Rocky Mount utility bill was so high,” she said. “All my money was going to the utility bill and we weren’t using utilities like that. I felt like they were getting over on us and I wanted my children to be able to do things. For Todd and his brothers and my daughter to be able to do things, to go skating. If they wanted to go play ball, to play ball, go to the movies and that was taking all my money out.”
Tarboro, he said, is “just like a little mini-Athens but with no college.”
Gurley is listed on Tarboro’s Wikipedia page of notable people along with actor Ben Jones (Cooter from The Dukes of Hazard) and General Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others.
Gurley wasn’t invited to the most prominent national all-star games—the U.S. Army and Under Armour.
Maybe it had something to do with playing off the beaten path in Tarboro.
“It’s called Tarboro but they acted like it was Tarred-boro,” his mother said.
Gurley himself filled out the paperwork so he could play in the more under the radar Semper Fidelis game and the U.S. vs. the World game. Most recruiting analysts considered Gurley the second best running back in North Carolina and in the Bulldogs’ signing class behind Keith Marshall, Gurley’s friend who hailed from Raleigh.
Two years after he arrived at Georgia, Gurley has gone from under the radar to arguably the elite running back in college football.
He’s viewed by most as the top player at his position for the 2015 NFL draft if he makes the jump like most expect he will.
“People don’t want to tackle this guy,” coach Mark Richt said. “They definitely don’t want to tackle him up high. Everybody starts going low on the guy because they just don’t want to get run over, they don’t want to get trucked. This guy’s got speed, power, agility; he’s got a great stiff arm. He’s got great vision. He’s really a super back.”
Speaking of stiff arms, Gurley is listed as a 14/1 shot to win the Heisman Trophy by Bovada, the best odds of any running back.
“You have to be on a great team,” Gurley said of the Heisman. “You can’t be on an 8-5 team and expect to win the Heisman. That’s definitely not going to happen. If I was able to reach that goal, I would definitely love it because of my teammates.”
The favorites are all quarterbacks: Florida State’s Jameis Winston (2/1), Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (7/2), Baylor’s Bryce Petty (6/1) and UCLA’s Brett Hundley (12/1).
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that a running back can get it,” Richt said. “Historically it’s been running backs and quarterbacks and things have gone in cycles. I think if a back has a tremendous season and he’s on a winning team, he’ll have a chance. I think style of play does matter.”
Georgia’s 1982 Heisman Trophy winner is the biggest icon of the program.
When Gurley was first recruited by Georgia, running backs coach Bryan McClendon dropped Walker’s name.
“He was like `Herschel Walker,’” Gurley said. “I was like, `Who?’ Then he explained everything to me.”
Herschel remains revered in Athens and when he talks about how he could still play in the NFL today, those who saw him run over Bill Bates in Knoxville don’t doubt it.
Georgia, though, has only had one Bulldog even make it to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony since Walker.
That was running back Garrison Hearst in 1992 when he finished third behind Gino Torretta and Marshall Faulk. The TV broadcast included a former Heisman Trophy winner named O.J. Simpson, two years before the white bronco.
If Gurley is going to make it to New York this December, he’ll do it without a Heisman push from Georgia at the start of the season.
“Who doesn’t know who he is?” said Claude Felton, Georgia’s longtime sports information director going back to Walker’s playing days with the Bulldogs. “There’s no name recognition problem.”
Gurley will have big stages early with games on ESPN against Clemson and CBS against South Carolina.
“We’ll be on national TV every week,” Felton said.
College football knows Gurley’s game and they will get to know his story, he says, if he makes a Heisman run.
“I do think it’s a popularity contest,” Gurley said. “If you have your little story, you are definitely going to get people around the world to like you. That comes with it.”
Gurley calls his personal journey a “typical story.”
Here’s how he puts it: “Young kid. Single mother. My siblings. Come from the bottom, and I am at The University of Georgia. I talk to my mother and brother every day. And we talk about how far we have made it so far. Just how could it be? It is definitely, definitely good.”
Todd is the youngest of Darlene Simmons’ children.
Princeton is 26. Shannon is 24. Davon is 23. Todd just turned 20.
It’s about a seven hour drive for Todd when he goes back to Tarboro.
“I have a lot of friends that didn’t go to college,” Gurley said. “Some went to college and flunked out. I am glad I was able to focus. Those guys are still my friends, but I am willing to separate myself.”
Shannon and Davon still live in Tarboro. Todd saw Princeton before summer school started for the first time since he’s been at Georgia. Princeton is incarcerated in a prison outside Baltimore.
“Best day ever I got to visit my brother P,” Gurley tweeted on June 1. “it’s been 2 years I cherish every moment because there’s nothing like family #FreeP #HussleSimmons.”
Darlene Simmons said she’s not sure when Todd’s brother may be out since he hasn’t come up for a parole hearing.
Todd has a younger brother, Tarik, 8, from his father, Todd Jerome Gurley, who still lives in Baltimore.
That’s where Todd found football at the age of 6 playing Pop Warner for the Turner Station Vikings as a quarterback.
“I’m just very proud of him because he loved to play football as a child, just loved it,” said his mother, who works in a laundry room at a nursing home. “He’s a man now and my main thing for Todd is him being happy and healthy.”
A healthy Todd Gurley would certainly make Georgia fans happy.
They saw what he did in 2012 when he stayed on the field.
He put up 1,385 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, joining only Walker to hit the 1,000-yard mark as a true freshman.
Gurley couldn’t reach those numbers last season when he missed three games with an ankle injury and parts of others.
He still rushed for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns and became a big threat in the passing game with 37 catches for 441 yards and five touchdowns.
He spent some of the offseason doing injury prevention.
“I’ve been feeling good, man,” Gurley said. “I haven’t really been getting tired at all like that. I’ve been feeling great.”
The 6-foot-1 Gurley says he’s dropped about five pounds and weighs a trim 225 now.
“It’s probably the best shape I’ve seen him in since high school,” McClendon said. “Just because he’s been able to go a full offseason of not just healing up from everything but being able to recover.”
If Gurley can stay on the field, watch out.
He can give as good as he gets from the defense.
“I am a talker, man,” Gurley said. “That’s what defensive players do – talk. But I just like to shut them up. They know sometimes just not to talk because sooner or later they are going to be quiet for a while.”
Gurley won’t need to carry the load for Georgia all by himself now that Marshall is back from a torn ACL and freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb have joined the tailback fold.
“If I could get to 2,000 yards, that would be awesome,” Gurley said when someone mentioned that number. “If the Lord will bless me for that, oh my gosh. That’s going to be pretty hard to do in the SEC.”
Nobody has touched Herschel’s single season rushing totals at Georgia: 1,891 in 1981, 1,752 in 1982 and 1,616 in 1980. Hearst had 1,594 in 1992.
Can Gurley come close to those kind of numbers and be a top Heisman contender with Georgia’s backfield talent?
“Knowing Todd, he’s going to find a way to get it,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “I felt like Todd should have been in the running since freshman year just about. He’s one of the most nonchalant guys, but he just gets it done on the field. He’s a kid in a grown man’s body.”
Jenkins claims that Gurley has even taken it up a notch.
“With some of the offseason training he did and some of the flexibility stuff he’s done,” Jenkins said, “he’s definitely quicker and faster than ever.”
That’s not what opposing defenses want to hear as Gurley gears up for teams coming at him this season.