After countless heating pads, numerous muscle relaxants and relentless treatment sessions.
After back spasms became so unbearable that UNC junior wide receiver Tylee Craft could no longer practice or attend class.
Even after Craft collapsed in the elevator at Kenan Football Center, he had to be carried into the practice room by defensive line coach Tim Cross and teammate Eli Sutton.
For weeks, Craft’s back pain was always treated like this – back pain.
But for September Craft, all it took was one call to realize something was seriously wrong with her son, Tylee.
Fake enough that the Sumter Police Department sergeant left his house the same night in mid-March and made the 3.5 hour drive to be by his son’s side.
It was her voice, her sobs that woke Tylee Craft in the middle of the night with her unexpected diagnosis – a rare form of lung cancer.
“I didn’t really feel a path,” Tylee Craft said. “I didn’t really think about it at the time. It was just unreal.
He’s someone whose only trips to the athletic trainer at Sumter High School were to hand in paperwork. It was the same person who had suffered little more than a sprained hamstring and a sprained toe in his previous two years with the program, when he posted some of the best vertical times and UNC football team sprint.
“I wouldn’t even say it was the furthest thing on my mind because it literally wasn’t on my mind,” junior receiver Justin Olson said. “It was just a complete shock.”
Despite the shock and trepidation that accompanied Craft’s diagnosis, an overwhelming sense of unity has emerged in the dressing room since.
The team rallied around Craft, dedicating this year’s spring game to him. For them, it’s not a question of if, but when he joins his teammates – his family – on the pitch.
“We are there for him through everything”
Shortly after Craft’s diagnosis on March 14, assistant coach Lonnie Galloway held a position meeting to break the news to the wide receiver unit.
“It was tough,” Galloway said. “It makes them all think, ‘What are you dealing with when you think about what Tylee is going through? It shook them to realize that this game can be taken away from you like this.
Although the news came as a complete shock and progress was uncertain, the team was sure of one thing: they would be there for Craft every step of the way.
Galloway drives dinner parties to the SECU family home where Craft is currently staying. His teammates and friends text and call him to check in, or just berate his favorite NBA team, the Miami Heat. Online, #TyleeStrong quickly emerged and was shared across social media platforms by teammates and official UNC football accounts.
None of this was an overtly organized effort, but rather individual gestures made by players and staff to show their support. But when it came time for the annual spring game, there was a collective agreement for it to be named after Craft.
“It’s a tough situation for everyone, and he’s part of the team’s family,” senior receiver Antoine Green said. “It’s just that we dedicate it to him. It was a great feeling for everyone, and it inspired us even more to go for it.
The #TyleeStrong Spring Football Game, held on April 9, was a celebration of the football team’s spring training session ahead of the 2022 season.
Having had a port – a venous access device used to deliver chemotherapy treatments – installed the day before the game, Craft wasn’t sure he’d feel well enough to attend. But there he was that Saturday afternoon, walking through Kenan Stadium, beaming from ear to ear.
With a count of “Family on me, 1-2-3”, Craft broke up the pre-game huddle and the game was officially on.
“I was just happy to be there and certainly happy to see the team compete and put on a show for the fans who have been waiting to see them,” Craft said. “So it felt good to see fans, see friends, see family and be around the team pretty much all day.”
Besides the pre-match ceremony, additional support could be spotted by a watchful eye throughout the stadium.
On the back of each player’s helmet was a blue sticker bearing Craft’s shirt number, 13. Buttons of a similar design made by Galloway’s daughter Anna were pinned to jackets, including the navy puffer jacket of head coach Mack Brown.
During the match, Galloway paced the sidelines of the pitch donning a white Chapel Hill Sportswear “Tylee Strong” t-shirt. The shirts were sold before and during the game, with all proceeds supporting the Craft family.
“We just wanted to show that we’re there for him through it all, and he’s going to be okay, because he is,” junior receiver Josh Downs said.
“It’s a different team now”
Craft is expecting his next checkup and round of scans in early May. From there, the medical team at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center will reevaluate his treatment and determine next steps.
In the meantime, he is looking forward to getting up early and going to training, which has been reduced to just three times a week. While Craft’s in-person involvement with the program was limited to those few visits, his ongoing impact on the team remains undisputed.
“The effort they put in, they probably thought of me,” Craft said. “They see me fighting and going through my battles, they’re going to keep fighting and going through their battles and off the pitch. So that probably encouraged them a little bit more to try harder. I mean, that’s a different team now.
It’s a mentality derived from Craft’s continued tenacity and calm demeanor. Described by close friends as an “oldhead,” Craft’s wiser-than-ever mindset inspires both his sideline teammates and shapes his day-to-day fight.
“It was natural to try to think positive, and I knew I had to think positive and set myself goals to strive for and achieve,” Craft said. “So I can beat that and not just get caught up in the moment and feel sorry for myself and ‘Why me?’ – I just stay positive and roll with the hits I got.
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