Thursday, June 20, 2024

Tarboro’s star pro athletes haven’t forgotten their eastern N.C. roots

Tarboro natives Todd Gurley II, above, and Montrezl Harrell are using some of their pro sports riches to fund good projects in their hometown. Photo courtesy of Rocky Mount Telegram

By Dan Barkin

Sports fans in eastern North Carolina a decade ago knew of two Edgecombe County youngsters, Todd Gurley II and Montrezl Harrell. Gurley, a running back at Tarboro High School, demolished football teams. Harrell, a power forward at North Edgecombe High School, dominated the paint. Today, they are two of the most famous athletes in Los Angeles not named LeBron. Gurley plays for the NFL’s Rams and Harrell for the NBA’s Clippers.

They are multimillionaires. This column is about some of things Gurley, 25, and Harrell, 26, have done for kids in Edgecombe. When you are rich, it is easy to forget when you were poor. They haven’t.

In high school, Harrell and Gurley crossed paths constantly. There is a photo in The Daily Southerner of Tarboro from a basketball game nine years ago of Harrell shooting over Gurley. Gurley scored three touchdowns in the 2010 game in which Tarboro dominated, 41-0. Harrell caught a pass for three yards.

In the springtime, Harrell hurled discus at the state-level; Gurley was one of the fastest young hurdlers in the nation. Gurley later shredded SEC defenses for the University of Georgia. Harrell, playing for Louisville, was a nightmare for teams including N.C. State’s 2015 squad, which made it to the national tournament’s Sweet 16 round.

In the pros, their trajectories diverged. Gurley went first round to the Rams, Harrell, second round to the Houston Rockets. Gurley was an instant sensation. Harrell did time in the NBA’s development league. After a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2017, he emerged as a top player.

Making millions, paying back

Pro careers are typically short. Gurley and Harrell are among the few who make it to the big checks. Gurley was the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2017, then signed a four-year contract in 2018 worth $60 million. Harrell agreed around the same time to a two-year, $12 million deal. Next year, he’s likely to ink a four-year, $80 million deal.

Back home, Edgecombe County is suffering. Consider some data points from area code 252. The number of companies in Edgecombe has dropped nearly 30% over the last 20 years and the county’s labor force has shrunk by more than 20%. When Harrell and Gurley were high school rivals, the county’s jobless rate topped 17%. Annual household income of about $35,500 is less than half of Wake County‘s. Parts of Edgecombe are just 45 miles from the Raleigh Beltline.

To narrow the gap a little, the Montrezl Harrell Youth Foundation was founded about a year ago. It is run by Terrence Taylor of Rocky Mount, whose goals include showing kids wider possibilities.

“They don’t experience a lot of things that we take for granted,” said Taylor, who coached Harrell and his own son in Amateur Athletic Union basketball. “On [that AAU] team, three or four guys were better than Montrezl. He was determined. He’d say, ‘Coach, I want to get better.’”

Taylor has taken students to the Microsoft store in Durham for a workshop on coding. The foundation also took a dozen students to the Rising Stars game at the NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, and gave them gift certificates to a sporting goods store. Harrell also sponsors a travel basketball team, called Team Trezz, and hosted a free basketball camp last June. Harrell’s middle school has received a donation of books.

Taylor, when we talked before Christmas, had toys outside in his truck for students at Harrell’s old elementary school. In November, the foundation partnered with the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office to hand out 150 Thanksgiving meals.

Then, there is the Gurley side of the ledger. After Hurricane Matthew in 2016, he came to Tarboro on a bye week to help with relief efforts, serving lunches to folks at a local shelter.

In the summer of 2018, Gurley bought new uniforms and helmets for the Tarboro football team. In December 2018, 50 families were invited to the Tarboro Walmart to learn that Gurley had paid off $6,000 of the Christmas gifts they had on layaway.

Gurley holds a free annual football camp for young players, and takes a dozen or so to Dick’s Sporting Goods for a shopping spree. He secured backpacks for hundreds of elementary school students.

“My brudda”

A decade ago, Harrell was in Leggett and Gurley down N.C. 33 in Tarboro, and there wasn’t much love between the former Warrior and Viking. Today, they show up for each other’s games at times and congratulate each other on Twitter for birthdays, contracts and other things.

In September, Gurley tweeted a picture of the two at a Rams game, Gurley in uniform and Harrell wearing a camo T-shirt with Gurley’s number. “If I Call You Brudda Then You My Brudda,” tweeted Gurley, hashtag #HeDunkedOnMeInHighSchool.

Remember that picture of Harrell going up over Gurley, the one in The Daily Southerner? It was taken by Calvin Adkins when he was sports editor of the paper. The paper no longer exists, sadly, victim to hard times.

Adkins remembers Harrell before he was @MONSTATREZZ (“Between 8th and 9th grade, it was like he grew a whole 3 or 4 feet.”) He remembers the newspaper’s middle school box scores listing a T. Gurley with 100, 200 yards, and asking, “Who is this kid?” Now the world knows.

He described Gurley running all over the field at his camp, posing for pictures, waving off an aide who was telling him, “Time to go, Todd.” No, get one more, Gurley said.

“It’s where you grow up and how you grow up,” said Adkins. “These two guys are humble. They know what it’s like to be without.”

There are a lot of fortunate folks who could take a cue from these two young men from Edgecombe who are trying to make a difference back in the 252.

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