When I first meet Todd Gurley II, NFL superstar, it’s at the Hugo Boss FW20 fashion show in Milan this February. The usual pro-athlete-in-person-awe ensues. It’s just radical. Amongst the rampant manorexia, the coiffing for the be-all-end-all coiffing—the affect—Gurley’s presence is resolutely more physical. It emits heat like a pizza oven. It’s almost as if one of the statues in the sprawling plaza outside has thrown on a Boss turtleneck and taken a seat next to Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne.
Gurley is more charming, of course, than any statue. He hob knobs with the other A-listers like it’s a barbecue. Meanwhile, his legs look capable of powering a barge or a medieval battering ram. And by some definitions—that’s what he does. As one of the highest paid running backs in the NFL, Gurley’s pistons bring home the bacon, power an offense, and give the kids something to dream about. Today, he’s all smiles and politeness and flash bulb niceties. It’s clear the off-season jet setting (his next stop is Budapest) is doing him well: he vibes passport stamps. We trade a couple of quips about our respective late nights that preceded this early call time, and align on sentiments concerning LA—namely that it’s a lovely place to be but you gotta hit the road regularly in order to cope (obvi).
Naturally, there’s a trepidation around Todd Gurley II—don’t get too comfortable—because despite his kindness you’re also hip to the fact that if you misstep he could pile drive you into the marble columns that support the venue, and assure you’re never able to marvel at a physique or comprehend football stats, let alone process a thought, again… so you promise him an editorial and take your seat.
It’s tough to mentally wrap one’s head around. Sheering off your Left Tackle for a nine-yard explosion on third and six, four minutes to go and 70,000 people knowing and believing you got this. Whoo! A wall of microphones in your face. The same stupid questions. Helmet off. Another defeatist headline. Another unarmed Black man pulverized on camera. Another judgement. Another dysphoric moment where yours becomes theirs becomes all of ours… Helmet on. Injury. Contracts and awards. And a lot of money. So much money. Monday night. Helmet off. Dreadlocks. Fans, flights, endorsements, profiling. Pressure, stats, pain. Trauma, a W, an L, alienation, joy, release—the unconditionally unexplainable human experience we might all intersect with at some point or another, but with this incredibly particular, bestowed exceptionalism. It’s a lot, dude.
The next time I see Todd Gurley is at his palatial—though not obscene—pad, a stone’s toss from fabled Calabasas, home to the mega millions, mega sprawling, mega followers, among other things. We’re here for Gurley’s cover shoot, during a July sunset, which bathes in a gauzy orange glow the Malibu Mountains that cradle his home’s surrounds. Since the Milan moment some months prior, the world has been economically sacked for an immeasurable loss, we’ve all been made to stay home, we’re watching and waiting for what’s next, and to be honest it doesn’t look great.
Gurley’s quarantine crew is about. He’s shirtless and in-between fashion looks, while his circle, some youngsters in the mix, enter and exit the kitchen seemingly all at once, serving themselves salmon and mashed potatoes. He politely offers some food and then tells me, standing with a plate, that it’s time to intensify the focus. And then he tells me, standing with a plate, that it’s time to intensify the focus. He’s headed out to Atlanta in a couple of days. A new home.
Changes, transitions. This is the name of the game. You dedicate yourself to fans, to a city, to an image, to a program—but it evaporates, shape-shifts, become something else in an instant, a stack of statistics and a slo-mo reel we hope sees you dominant, extraordinary, in defiance of gravity. Football is seriously big business. The most profitable professional sport in the USA, it nets about 14 billion a year. And you know the stage. The roar of it, the controlled violence, the anatomy and the dollars swirling all around. The blimps, the lights, the babes, the $16 pretzels ($5 for cheese?).
See, Gurley, back when I met him, was a Los Angeles Ram. I’d seen him live at the makeshift Rams Stadium (The University of Southern California’s Coliseum, a 1984 Olympics venue), run over the Chiefs and Seahawks alike and without prejudice, while the spanking new SoFi Stadium was completed in Inglewood a few miles away—to the tune of five billion dollars. Goodness. And he was spectacular. What a badass!
Gurley, who before this, plowed through the University of Georgia—where he earned All-SEC two years running—was drafted by the St. Louis Rams (before the team returned to its original laurels in LA, god bless) as a tenth overall selection in what’s known the draft: the ticket to ride, the big tamale, the payday. Despite missing three games courtesy an ACL injuryin his final year at Georgia, Gurley rushed for a thousand plus yards in his first season as a pro and was voted the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year. His 2017 season was bananas, where he bagged two thousand total yards and narrowly missed the MVP nod to some yahoo called Tom Brady, but was awarded NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Gurley has been named to three Pro Bowls. He took the Rams to a Super Bowl [where the more seasoned Patriots and their Tom Brady—him again— squashed our California dreaming: it was rough, Gisele wore a white T-shirt we presume, and sorry if reliving this just saw you throw up in your mouth].
But then, days before the Rams—met with a salary cap that would limit their ability to pick up free agents or stretch their wings in other ways—were made to pay a bucket of money to Gurley in guaranteed pay (NFL contracts have tiered return based on timelines and deadlines, basically), he was cut from the team, just two years after signing a history-making, four year, $60 million contract extension. This was a veritable kick in the proverbial balls if you’re a Rams fan, and one of the more talked about enterprise decisions in some time.
The discourse around this big decision concerned Gurley’s injury-familiar left knee, which many blamed for his fourth season with the Rams that followed the Super Bowl appearance—by all accounts statistically strong—not amounting to what his previous efforts had posted. This was reflected in more time on the bench and fewer touches, and a lot of presumably annoying ass speculation in the media.
In my opinion, however, this downturn wasn’t about Gurley’s knee. Rather, Rams coach Sean McVay, who at age 30 a few years prior, became the youngest ever head coach in the NFL and has a 35-17 career record, saw his hyper-contemporary offensive ethos—which maximized Gurley’s extraordinary speed and ability—broken down, skewered, and picked apart, stymied, by certain opposing coaches, making said season after the Super Bowl appearance consummately lackluster. Add the situation with the offensive line—those responsible for clearing the holes at the line of scrimmage for Gurley’s league-leading explosions, which was injured, sought greener pastures, or otherwise—and the Rams missed the playoffs by a hair. Alas, this talk is all well in the past. Gurley’s still got extraordinary juice in him— the best running back in the league—and is likely to create a new and exciting output back where his career truly started, with an offensive line that has only improved at the rate that the Rams’ has declined.
The Falcons of Atlanta, Gurley’s new squad and who he remarks have an offense consummately stacked with first round draft picks, “which already kind of tells you the potential that we have”, scooped up the star for a one year, six million dollar agreement, the extension of which will likely predicate on his performance down in his alma mater state of Georgia, and Gurley’s willingness to stay of course.
“I’ve been in and out of sleep all damn day,” he tells me a couple days following the photo shoot, having just landed in ATL. “Red eye last night. I mean, I feel like it’s like coming back home for me. Being able to already play here in college, and all my friends being here, being 6 hours away from home in North Carolina. The love is definitely already here. It’s going to be fun. I just kind of want to lock in. Start eating right. Focus on football. Keep the main thing the main thing.”
Leaving LA is always a mixed bag. It’s a transient place, they’ll tell you, but it still leaves a tan line, and sometimes an ugly one. Gurley, like the many sparkling personalities that came before him, wasted no time in the Big Orange flanking his scene with stars in their respective fields—a wee responsibility for his landing on Flaunt’s cover. The guy’s a phenomenal athlete who’s popping up at top-shelf fashion shows, absolutely, but he’s also moving with the right circles of the magazine’s editorial alumni! Consider Gurley’s putting his pad on the celebrity gossip map (read: TMZ) following Instagram posts that featured pickup basketball with buddies Quavo of Migos and rapper YG—not bad! Yet being in LA, despite the glam factor (and its fangs!) started to really weigh on the guy, with all the speculation and pressure.
“Shit,” he remarks on leaving The City of Angels behind, “It’s just really a new start for me, man. You know, they don’t have to keep worrying about answering questions about me, and I don’t have to ask the questions back. I’ll be able to showcase my talent and show the Falcons what I can do. Yeah, it’s been fun in LA for a period of time, but it’s time for a new start. I am excited to come back to a city that already embraces me.”
If the momentum that Gurley had in his first few seasons as a pro was bucked by the requisite nature of going it as a professional athlete—injury, being a very expensive man to have around, and the constant pressure—a global pandemic has screwed with things all the more. Gurley seems cool, though, taking it in stride as he seems to do most things. Yes, sports all over the world have been upended, and when Gurley kicks off his first game as a Falcon, it will be in front of his teammates, their staff, and the audio video crews—no fans. Regarding the pandemic that’s given cause to this unheard of circumstance, I ask how he spent his quarantine time and he expresses that he hasn’t been able to see family and has only been holed up in LA, “just trying to take care of stuff on the business side. You know, networking and staying in contact with people. Trying to get my foundation started and off the ground.”
Gurley’s foundation, M.A.D.E. (Make a Difference Everyday), which seeks to support youth by focusing on their physical, social, and educational health, runs training and motivational camps, and participates in other forms of outreach. M.A.D.E. recently hosted an Instagram Live panel between an esteemed ensemble of Black figures in culture, sport, and activism: Jalen Rose, Kimberly Jones, Waka Flocka, Bun B, Desi Banks, Grady Jarrett, and Martin Luther King III.
“Just being able to learn the knowledge from Kimberly Jones, MLK the third, you know,” Gurley remarks, when I ask him about his takeaway on the panel a few days after its broadcast, “Those are older people who have more knowledge and more experience—being activists, being Black, being successful. I learned a lot from them—different numbers being spent in the school system, for example, but also taking on different challenges. We players always feel like we have to start a different initiative or different programs. But sometimes, you can just link with someone who has already started something. When you link the old with the new, I think it makes it even better.”
The panel covered key subjects that are inextricable from the contemporary dialogue—racism, police brutality, systemic inequality, and nonviolent protest (illumined by MLK the 3rd, who cited the trillion dollars Black America spent last year and how its scrupulous redirect would be a significant impetus to change). Sports players are in a complicated, and often criticized, position here. Early in the panel, former NBA star, Jalen Rose, asks Gurley, “So Todd, what about those people that say, ‘We hear you protestors, we understand that Blacks want equality, but don’t interrupt my football’?”
“It’s just ignorance, man,” Gurley responds. “But, when you’re in a position like I’m in, you have to use your platform for something bigger and that’s why we’re doing this call right now. We love to play football, but hey man, we’re all Black people, and we wouldn’t be here without Black people. Obviously, there’s nothing like us. Everybody loves us, they love our culture, they love what we do, they love the way we make people laugh, the comedians. From artists, musicians. And there’s a reason why today they’re on the street protesting with us as well, because they feel a connection with what’s going on in this world. And it goes back to being more than an athlete, more than just a football player, trying to think outside the helmet. To really take action and be able to go out there and put our foot down and just learn.”
Of course, George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis catalyzed this summer’s phase of the Black Lives Matter movement. In sports, there have been symbolic measures of unity and taking seriously the conditions of inequality that are baked into this country. The NBA, the professional basketball league, uniformly opened their resumed league (after a disruption during quarantine) in Orlando’s audience-free The Bubble on a knee in solidarity of the movement, with players replacing their last names on jerseys with statements demanding change, and ‘Black Lives Matter’ in a giant decal on the hardwood—something not criticized by the league and its commentators, but lauded. Still, the key word here is symbolic. Change, as Gurley attests, is a long way off and a long time coming, and it’s in these moments where he expresses the paramount importance learning from the legacy preceding that he reminds us he’s still a young man in formation, no matter the net take or the worldly stage.
“We always have our helmet on anyway, so it’s hard to recognize us,” Gurley continues, considering the nature of racial profiling, no matter the status or history of the individual. “We are still Black men in America. A lot of times, especially me being with dreads, a lot of guys with dreads look alike—apparently. That’s why we are trying to push stuff on the commissioner here in the NFL. The whole Colin Kaepernick situation, him not being able to be in the league. You know, everyone watches the Super Bowl, everyone watches football on Sundays, so we gotta be able to push the league to do more for the Black communities. If you look at most of the NFL rosters, a majority of the football players and star players are Black. So it starts with us. I think a lot of people know that.”
During the pandemic, there has been an unprecedented amount of chitter chatter concerning mental health. A wealth of stress-easing products have the hit the marketplace, podcasts concerning mental health have spiked, meditation apps are ubiquitous, and varying platforms that champion being able to connect to how you’re feeling and why, and what’s to do about it, have merged into the mainstream. But how about Black America? Moreover, how about Black American men? As the most oppressed, imprisoned, and marginalized population, how do they relate to the mental health movement? Gurley considers the question. “Just being a Black person period—a lot of us deal with mental health issues,” he offers. “And most of the time when people say ‘mental health’, they use the word ‘crazy’. But it is different type of thing—where people are dealing with emotions, as far as the game, or dealing with family problems, or even dealing with different health conditions. That all plays a role in mental health. You know, a lot of people don’t know these things because they are not educated on them. But once you get educated, and actually talk to someone about it, I feel like you will know more about it in depth.”
I wonder if athletes—who endure so much physical and psychological stress—are neglected or presumed exempt from this conversation as the popularity and importance of reconciling our tragically fated mental health predicament rises.“I feel like a lot of players deal with the media a lot. Letting it deal with their emotions, and vice versa,” he responds, when asked about not just the pressure they place upon themselves, but the constant comparisons, rankings, pundit opinions, and the science that statistics have become. “I feel like just having a balance of everything—just like life. I feel like a lot of people feel like they need to prove themselves, and then they always try to build you to compete with your brothers—who is best running back, or quarterback. But at the end of the day, we all went to the same colleges. We all went through the same struggles. And we are all blessed to have this opportunity to be in the league. Why break each other down when we can build each other up and work together? And then look at the young guys underneath you, and appreciate them. Because records are meant to be broken. Nothing is going to last forever. You just have to be able to appreciate it and enjoy your time in the league, and take advantage of your opportunity as well.”
It’s true that this particular stage has a frenetically flickering window for most. And what sort of opportunity might playing on a stage to no in-person audience look like? If the NBA Bubble has substantiated anything to date, it’s that the guys on this level are bona fide pros. They turn it on for themselves and for each other—period—and a certain amount of their professionalism accounts for being able to make the audience disappear anyway, right? “I mean, it’s going to be different,” Gurley says. “Because you know, just like in life, you’re comfortable with what you are used to. But I take the approach, as in, yes, I love the fans, but I don’t necessarily work out everyday with hundreds of thousands of fans around me. When I work out, and get my work done, when I am at practice, I am just with my teammates or work out by myself. So it’s just an unfortunate situation for everyone. We are living in an imperfect world right now, so you just kind of have to adjust to everything.”
Considering adjustments, the NFL offense is something of a perpetually color-flipping Rubik’s cube in a vice grip in an anti-gravity chamber, and the role of the running back, while boasting some of the most famous names in the history of the game, is in constant flux. I ask Gurley if the role has changed in recent years or remains the same. “I feel like it remains the same,” he says resolutely. “I mean, obviously the way the NFL over the last few years or so—it’s been a more pass-happy league—you still have to be able to run the ball. And a lot of running backs now are more versatile. Back in the day, it was really high power, fullback in front of you, and you just run the ball. Which, you know, I love that.”
I can see Gurley mowing down defenders for eight to ten feet worth of turf before disappearing into a dog pile of beefy arms and legs, spitting and biting and whatever else goes on in there the cameras can’t capture. Three yards and a cloud of dust? I elbow. “Exactly,” he laughs, “which, you know, that’s my type of running game. But being able to get more active in the passing game, and not put so much more toll on my body. Being able to go against one defender instead of going against eleven defenders. I feel like people always try to devalue the running back and whatnot. But, at the end of the day, we still play the same amount of plays, the same amount of games, and we still bring value to the team. Whether it is running the ball or catching the ball. The most important thing for us is protecting the quarterback, so just get all those things and go out and make stuff happen.”
Todd Gurley II is a pretty awesome dude. A class act that can gracefully bury a shoulder into a Jeep 4x4 and probably come out with the better bargain in hand at the auto dealer. And he’s a pro, of course—constantly faced with media—the moment he’s won, the moment he’s lost, and a whole lot of in-between—and accordingly he’s ever-perfecting the demeanor of the cool cucumber. Gurley’s also something of a ham, which is refreshing. He had the whole photo shoot in stitches atop the blaring Future record he’d put on during his photo shoot, teasing on the likes of Travis Scott with different poses and joking about his diverse medley of pick-up lines. And then, of course, there’s the talent. Not the kind of talent you see in pop stars or actors, cultivated and paid for and coached—that raw sort of superhuman talent, inconceivable. Yet perhaps what’s most admirable about the running back, what’s most noteworthy, is his optimism. For someone who’s seen sky high momentum occasionally bucked back to the bottoms, he retains an aura of on-the-up can-do. I remark, as we close our conversation, that he doesn’t much seem one for negativity. He laughs, “Yeah, man. Because once you put that poison in your head, then it’s already there. You know? That is what they call being a cancer to the locker room. You just kind of always have take the approach that you can control what you can control.” In 2020, I can’t think of sounder advice.
Photographed by Andi EllowayStyled by Dex Robinso
Hair: Michelle Salemi
Barber: Joel Thompson