In the last several years, one of the best running backs who has graced the gridiron of the National Football League has been Todd Gurley.
His physical gifts allowed him to be the cornerstone of a franchise that returned to a major media market, and he helped it join the ranks of the elite squads in the league.
Some great athletes have to work very hard and pay their dues in order to reach lofty heights. Some, on the other hand, were blessed by the universe with the kind of gifts that allowed them to stand out on the field from an early age.
Gurley fell into the latter category.
Early Stardom On The East Coast
Todd Jerome Gurley II was born on Aug. 3, 1994 in Baltimore, Md. to Darlene and Todd Gerome Gurley Sr., and he was one of four children.
At the age of six, Gurley’s older brother Shannon got him involved in football by enrolling him in the local Pop Warner League. The league consisted of children who were ages nine to 11, but right away, Todd would prove to be a natural at the sport, as he became the best player on the squad.
Not too long afterward, Gurley and his family moved to Tarboro, N.C., which is a small town with a population of just over 10,000 in Edgecombe County.
At Tarboro High School, Gurley was Mr. Big Man on Campus. In addition to football, he played basketball and track, and in doing so, he showed just how special his physical gifts were.
His roundball coach, Leshaun Jenkins, was one of the first to recognize that Gurley was going to go far in life as an athlete. During a short organizational meeting for incoming freshman at Tarboro High, Jenkins told Gurley that his name was “going to be on the back of a jersey at a major college someday.”
Another coach who saw immense potential in Gurley was Ryan Wells, who was part of the coaching staff of the football team at Martin Middle School. He told Jeff Craddock, the football coach at Tarboro High, that Gurley was going to be a special player.
However, at first, he didn’t want to continue competing on the gridiron.
“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.”
But one day several weeks into the football season, Gurley wandered onto the football field looking for a ride home, and assistant coach Bo Robinson lit into him for not playing.
The freshman showed up to practice the next day, and he would find a place on the defensive side of the ball.
He started his sophomore season on the JV squad, but was promoted to varsity in time for the playoffs. As a junior, he began to take full advantage of his gifts.
That year, Gurley had 1,472 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, and he also played defensive back, registering 79 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. This earned him the Rocky Mount Telegram All-Area Offensive Player of the Year award.
He took the Vikings all the way to the North Carolina 2A state championship game, where he tallied 105 yards and two touchdowns to help his team to a 21-13 win and the title.
During his senior season at Tarboro High, Gurley turned opponents into his personal punching bag every single game. He had a beastly total of 2,600 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns and was named the North Carolina Associated Press Player of the Year.
The Vikings were hoping for another state championship, but a dark cloud was cast on their hopes when Gurley injured both of his ankles.
Somehow, he led his team to a win over South Columbus to reach the North Carolina 2A championship game, but it looked like he wouldn’t be able to participate in the big game.
But he was determined to make it happen, especially since he wanted to go out with a bang.
“I don’t think I practiced maybe once or twice that whole playoffs,” Gurley said. “It was really bad. But I got treatment on it and stayed in the ice bucket to make sure I’d be ready to go for the last game — the last game of my high school career.”
Gurley did play in the title game, and he showed that he could not only be a big game player but also overcome serious adversity. Even with both his ankles heavily taped, he ran for 242 yards, 197 of them in the second half, and scored four touchdowns as the Vikings were champs again with a 39-36 victory over Lincolnton High School.
“I don’t know how I did it, but that was a good feeling,” said Gurley in 2016. “I had to play. It was definitely a battle, going back and forth, back and forth. I still remember that game like it was yesterday.”
If Gurley’s dominance on the football field wasn’t enough, he was also a standout on the track and field team, especially as a hurdler and sprinter. He represented the United States in the 2011 World Youth Championships in Athletics, and he finished third in the preliminary round, running the 110-meter hurdle in 13.66 seconds.
He also competed in the prelims of the 2011 NCHSAA 2A State Track Meet, running the 100-meter dash in 10.70 seconds, good enough for a second-place finish.
But things weren’t all hunky-dory for Gurley during his senior year. That winter, Randy Higgs, a close friend of his, died in a car accident, and a few days later, his older brother Princeton was arrested in Baltimore and charged with armed robbery and assault.
Princeton Gurley was an important influence on Todd, but he ended up doing prison time, and it had an effect on the young football star.
He would find comfort in Jenkins, his basketball coach, who would have dinner with him regularly and help him stay on the right path in all areas of life.
Thanks to all of Gurley’s exploits, not to mention his perseverance, Rivals.com listed him as a four-star recruit and the fifth-best running back in his class. He got offers from a couple of prominent football schools, including Clemson University and the University of Georgia.
Greatness At Georgia
In the end, Gurley committed to play for the Georgia Bulldogs, a team that he had wanted to play for since he was little.
“It was very difficult, and it kind of came down to Clemson and Georgia,” Gurley said. “I grew up wanting to play for Clemson, but deep down inside, Georgia was where my heart was at.”
His college career started on auspicious terms. Although he was a backup running back as a freshman, he logged 100 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries, as well as a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in his first game, a blowout win over the University of Buffalo.
Gurley was promoted to the starting lineup in his second game, and from there he took off like a space shuttle. In 14 contests that year, he had 1,385 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, and he earned First-Team All-SEC honors that year.
He took the Bulldogs all the way to the SEC Championship Game in 2012, where he had 122 yards and two touchdowns. Although Georgia lost to Alabama, it ended up playing in the Capital One Bowl, where it defeated Nebraska thanks to Gurley’s 125 rushing yards.
A few months later, he played on the Bulldogs track team. At the VT Elite Meet, he had a time of 8.12 seconds in the 60-meter hurdles, which was the seventh-best time in school history and earned him a sixth-place finish.
He started his sophomore campaign in a big way with a new career-high of 154 yards and two touchdowns, including a 75-yard run for a touchdown, against Clemson.
But the rest of the season would be a matter of playing through pain. Several weeks into the season Gurley sprained his left ankle and missed three games, and once he returned, he would continue to have ankle problems, as well as hip ailments.
Still, he finished the season strong, putting up 989 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, as well as 441 yards and six touchdowns as a receiver, in just 10 games.
The Bulldogs qualified for the Gator Bowl, and although Gurley had 86 rushing yards and 97 receiving yards, they lost by five points to Nebraska.
In 2014, Gurley once again started the season with a bang, exploding for 198 rushing yards and three touchdowns, plus a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in a win over Clemson.
Four weeks later, he had the most rushing yards by a Bulldog running back in two decades by tallying 208 yards to go along with two touchdowns, as Georgia got past Tennessee.
But soon Gurley would get caught in a mist of controversy.
He was suspended for four games for obtaining $3,000 during the previous two years in return for signed autographs and memorabilia, which was against NCAA rules.
Gurley returned on Nov. 15 for Georgia’s annual rivalry game against Auburn, but alas, he tore his ACL and was done for the season.
Still, he finished his junior year with an impressive 911 yards and nine touchdowns in just six games. For his career at Georgia, he finished second in rushing yards and touchdowns.
Many considered him the best running back in Georgia’s history since Herschel Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner who led it to the national championship in 1980.
In fact, at one point, Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton, himself a former Bulldog, even compared Gurley to Jim Brown, the legendary tailback from the 1950s and 1960s.
Gurley possessed elite size (he would grow to 6-foot-1 and over 220 pounds), as well as ample speed and quickness, among other qualities, that he leveraged into playing at an elite level.
“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.”
Gurley decided to skip his senior season and make himself eligible for the NFL Draft. Although there were questions about his availability for the start of the 2015 season, as well as his overall durability, he had made himself into a top pro prospect.
A Ram On The Prowl
Gurley was taken with the 10th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams. Ever since their glory years in the early 2000s, during which they were known as “The Greatest Show on Turf,” the Rams had been a laughingstock, and they hadn’t made the playoffs since the 2004 season.
Gurley practiced but did not play during the preseason due to his injury the previous year at Georgia. In Week 3 he made his NFL debut, and it was a quiet one, as he came off the bench to carry the ball just six times for nine yards.
The next week, the Rams would face the Arizona Cardinals, who were in the process of putting together an impressive 13-3 campaign. Gurley only had two rushing yards in the first half, but after intermission, he had 144 yards to help St. Louis edge the Cards 24-22.
In each of the next three games he tallied at least 128 rushing yards, and his 566 rushing yards in his first four pro starts became the most by anyone since the AFL-NFL merger.
In Week 8 against the San Francisco 49ers, he had a monster run where he showcased his speed.
Todd Gurley torched the 49ers as a rookie! The longest run of his career 71 yards to pay-dirt pic.twitter.com/NwDC3jswBW
— RAMS ON FILM (@RamsOnFilm) January 7, 2022
Gurley ended his rookie year with 1,106 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 12 starts on an outstanding 4.8 yards per carry. He was selected to be in the Pro Bowl. He also made it onto the NFL All-Rookie Team, was named Offensive Rookie of the Year and was voted by his peers as the 22nd best player in the league.
Owner Stan Kroenke had attempted to get the Rams’ home stadium, the Edward Jones Dome, renovated, but he couldn’t obtain enough funding. As a result, for the 2016 season the Rams moved to Los Angeles, the city that they had called home from 1946 to 1994.
Playing in the nation’s second-largest media market would give Gurley more visibility on the field, and it opened him up to marketing opportunities, including a commercial for Carl’s Jr., a fast-food chain found mostly in California.
Just after their move, the Rams made a big splash, trading a slew of draft picks for the top pick in the 2016 draft, which they used to select quarterback Jared Goff.
Although it didn’t immediately pay dividends, the big trade would herald a new era of Rams football, as did Gurley himself. He had something of a sophomore slump, as he put up 885 rushing yards and six touchdowns in ’16 and averaged an anemic 3.2 yards per carry.
As they did the previous season, the Rams finished with a losing record and missed the playoffs. Late in the season, they fired head coach Jeff Fisher and made John Fassel the interim head man.
Gurley didn’t seem to be a fan of Fisher’s offensive scheme. After a blowout loss to the Atlanta Falcons, he went off a bit.
“We looked like a middle school offense out there,” Gurley said after the loss. “I mean, I’m going to be quiet. My mom said if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t even say it. I’m just going to leave it as that.”
Just days after the end of the regular season, L.A. continued to revamp the team, as it hired Sean McVay to be its new head coach. McVay, at age 30, was the youngest coach in league history, and he had come up as the Washington Redskins’ offensive coordinator under head coach Jay Gruden.
The Rams suddenly became the highest-scoring team in the NFL during the 2017 campaign, and Gurley would lead the way. If pundits felt that his rookie season was a fluke because of his underwhelming second year, Gurley would make them look like fools.
Just a vintage Todd Gurley run. Avoids the free tackler in the backfield, stiff arms the next open tackler, then races through the endzone. Sean McVays first meeting against Arizona, 2017 pic.twitter.com/jW9kxuBstC
— RAMS ON FILM (@RamsOnFilm) December 11, 2021
The running back was simply sensational with 1,305 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, despite sitting out the final game of the season. McVay’s passing-oriented scheme also helped Gurley by allowing him to put up 788 yards and six touchdowns in the air.
Perhaps his best game of the season came in Week 15 against the Seattle Seahawks when he went off for 152 rushing yards, 28 receiving yards and four total touchdowns in a 42-7 beatdown.
The Rams essentially took their place as leaders of the NFC West for the first time in over a decade with this dismantling of the Seahawks in Seattle during the 2017 season. Todd Gurley made it 34-0 at halftime with this Iconic touchdown run. We “made it” on this day pic.twitter.com/gKTx3Uceht
— RAMS ON FILM (@RamsOnFilm) October 6, 2021
All told, his 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns led the league and earned him his second trip to the Pro Bowl, as well as All-Pro First-Team honors and the Offensive Player of the Year award.
Suddenly, the Rams were a strong team, as they recorded an 11-5 record and finished first in the NFC West. Gurley would have 101 rushing yards in their first playoff game against the Falcons, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a 26-13 loss.
On To The Big Game
Gurley would continue to kick butt and take names in the 2018 season. Prior to the start of the campaign, he was given a four-year contract extension that was worth $60 million, and he would justify the investment the Rams made in him.
Gurley put up 1,251 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns that year, along with 580 yards and four touchdowns in the air. His numbers would’ve been higher if not for a bout of knee inflammation that kept him out of the last two games of the season.
The Rams were again a high-scoring, explosive team, and their fans in L.A. ate it up, as it is a market in which sports is seen as entertainment as much as it is anywhere else.
Perhaps his high-water mark of the ’18 season came in Week 6 against the Denver Broncos when he had 208 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a three-point win. On three occasions he would have three total touchdowns in a single game.
The Rams finished 13-3, which was against first in the NFC West and tied for the best overall record in pro football.
The team began the postseason with a matchup against the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round. They not only possessed a solid QB in Dak Prescott and a Pro Bowl tailback in Ezekiel Elliott but also one of the league’s better defenses.
But Gurley made a mockery of Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett’s defensive schemes, as he rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown to help the Rams cruise to a 30-22 win.
— The Majors LA 🌴 (@TheMajorsLA) January 13, 2019
In their first NFC Championship Game appearance since Jan. 2022, the Rams would play the New Orleans Saints. They squeaked by in overtime, 26-23, to advance to Super Bowl LIII, their first trip to the big game as a Los Angeles franchise since Jan. 1980.
However, something was amiss with Gurley.
He only had 10 rushing yards on four carries against the Saints, leading to speculation that he was still dealing with a knee ailment, although the team denied that anything was wrong with him health-wise.
For the world championship, the Rams would face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, who were looking for their sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy in the past 16 years.
Gurley would play, but he would have only 35 rushing yards and 10 attempts. Overall, the game was a slugfest, as Pats coach Bill Belichick succeeded in slowing down the tempo and not allowing the Rams to gallop down the field.
Still, the game was tied 3-3 heading into the fourth quarter, and L.A. had a very real shot at winning it all. But Sony Michel ran for a touchdown with about seven minutes left, and Goff threw an interception, ending the Rams’ hopes of winning.
There was some weird symmetry to the Rams’ Super Bowl loss. It would be Brady’s final world title as a Patriot, with his first also coming against the Rams when they were based in St. Louis.
A Premature End To A Promising Career
In early March, an answer appeared to the question of what was up with Gurley. Jeff Howe of TheAthletic.com reported that Gurley was suffering from arthritis in his left knee, the same knee in which he tore his ACL during his junior year in college.
Apparently, it would turn out to be the cause of his eventual demise.
Gurley’s 2019 output wasn’t exactly bad. He put up 857 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns and two receiving touchdowns, and he finished fifth in the NFL in total touchdowns.
However, he was merely good, not great. After averaging 4.9 yards per carry in ’18, he only had 3.8 yards on each rush attempt in ’19.
The Rams couldn’t maintain their success of the previous two seasons, as they finished just 9-7 and failed to qualify for the postseason.
In March of 2020, with Gurley’s production dipping, the Rams decided to release him, making him a free agent. They had tried to trade him before releasing him, but they were unable to find a taker.
The Falcons decided to take a flyer on Gurley, signing him to a one-year contract that had incentives if Gurley had 1,000 rushing yards or 13 touchdowns in the upcoming season.
He wouldn’t come close to either, only managing 678 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. At times, he did show flashes of his old, healthy self.
Todd Gurley run to the CRIB 🏠
It’s his 5th TD of the season
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) October 11, 2020
The Falcons finished 4-12, and Gurley again was a free agent once the season ended.
He tried out for the Baltimore Ravens, but the team didn’t end up signing him, meaning that at the age of 27, his NFL career was over.
Running backs take a lot of punishment, much more so than wide receivers or quarterbacks. Such players tend to decline sooner than others, but they are usually able to maintain their production up until about the age of 30.
Some players, despite immense physical gifts, simply aren’t able to consistently hold up to the rigors of playing pro football. In retrospect, the red flags were there with Gurley going back to his days as a Georgia Bulldog.
He has been keeping himself busy off the field with his M.A.D.E. foundation, which he founded with his brother Shannon and Jameon Willis.
The initiative focuses on several things to impact the community, including improving educational opportunities, promoting healthy living, combating food insecurity and sponsoring football camps for kids.
It may have been easy for some fans to forget what a force he was just a few short years ago.
Remember how dominant Todd Gurley was?😤 pic.twitter.com/NcF1fkAnGD
— AAWOL (@aawolsports) May 27, 2021
Since Gurley is still young, perhaps fans will see him return to the NFL sometime in the near future if his knees will cooperate.