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August 16, 2009

A Tori Story

The telephone sat on the counter, dark and silent, constantly mocking him.

No matter how badly Tori Gurley wanted that phone to ring, needed it to ring, it quietly perched undisturbed as the minutes of Gurley's life ticked by.

How had it gotten like this? Gurley was a two-sport star, great enough to earn scholarship offers for football and basketball, some asking him to play both at the same school. He had a state championship ring from each sport. He had the genes, passed from his former basketball standout father. He had the mental makeup, built and coaxed from a childhood that had always directed him to this point.

None of it helped as Gurley stared, unblinking, at the phone, desperately trying his hardest to force it to ring. Even a wrong number would be preferable to the interminable waiting.

* * *

Gurley was used to the waiting. He'd become one of the world's experts on it by this time.

Graduated from Rock Hill High School in the spring of 2006, Gurley walked his 6-foot-5 frame across the stage to accept his diploma, thinking about what the future held. He was on his way to the University of North Carolina on a football scholarship, but he'd been promised a chance to compete for the basketball team as well. There were bright days ahead, no doubt about it.

"Tori was very athletic," said his basketball coach, Bobby Stevens. "The one thing that we noticed right away, we called him, 'MDR,' -- Miniature Dennis Rodman. Because he always had a knack of getting the ball, and not when it hit the ground, when it was above the rim."

Gurley was packing his things for Chapel Hill, N.C., when he got the word there was a problem with his transcript. He did not academically qualify and had a couple of choices -- go to prep school for a year, get his grades up and then enroll at UNC, or head to a junior college.

Gurley wasn't happy about it but figured it was a small bump in the road. He called Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy and was told the school would like to have him, but didn't have a scholarship available.

He wasn't going to get to go to college for at least six months anyway, and he needed money to pay for his other expenses, so he talked to his mother, Tonja Childers, and made another change in his life.

"My grandmother got sick, so I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, to help take care of her," Gurley said.

"I didn't want him to get idle, so I asked him to go down and spend some time with his grandmother, to get some wisdom," Childers said. "And believe me, he did."

Gurley's grandmother, Ann Glover, lost a leg to diabetes but was still a strong woman, keeping her grandson hopping. Gurley worked two jobs, at a bank and a local Home Depot, for a year and then prepared to re-start his career.

He came back to Rock Hill in April 2007. Wanting to get back in shape, he began playing pickup ball with friends at Charlotte Country Day School.

"The University of North Carolina happened to be there, running their basketball camp," Gurley said. "I didn't know what was going on. Wes Miller, Tyler Hansbrough, they were out there playing, and they looked at me with this familiar look."

The Tar Heels remembered Gurley from his recruiting visit and invited him to join their camp, since they were a player short. Gurley didn't need to be asked twice.

"I played the game of my life that day," he said, beaming. "Marcus Ginyard, he couldn't defend me. I just played exceptionally well."

One of Miller's friends was in the audience and approached the 6-5 kid who had run the Heels ragged. He told Gurley he coached at a prep school up north and could use a center/power forward. Gurley replied that he was flattered, but he wanted to play football in college.

"He said, 'We've got a football team, too,'" Gurley said. "I woke up the next day in New Hampton, New Hampshire."

"One, we were all very impressed with his physical stature and capabilities," New Hampton assistant football coach Matthew LaMotte said. "I'm more of a football guy than a basketball guy, but from the get-go, he was a football guy. We were all pretty convinced of that."

New Hampton School allowed Gurley to resume the two-sport career he'd begun at Rock Hill High, putting him on the field for 40 catches, around 700 yards and 12 touchdowns in the fall and 10 points and eight rebounds a game in the spring. North Carolina and several other schools noticed and his recruitment re-began.

"He was so athletic that he obviously stood out right away," LaMotte said. "From a coaching standpoint, it almost makes it easier. We didn't have to un-teach him any bad habits."

The Tar Heels had gone through a football coaching change and Gurley wasn't sure if he could get the same offer to play both sports, so he began listening to other offers. Two coaches, Ron Cooper and Tyrone Nix, told him that South Carolina wanted him for football.

Gurley accepted. He'd traveled nearly 1,800 miles to find out his future home was 80 miles down I-77.

Gurley again packed his things, told his family the news and said he was coming home.

The phone rang.

* * *

Gurley's face fell the distance between having a major scholarship offer and having bupkes. Incredibly, his transcript was again red-flagged. The NCAA Clearinghouse said his SAT score was too high.

Gurley knew what was he was being accused of but there wasn't anything he could do about it. He talked with the USC coaches and the NCAA, trying to find a way he could avoid waiting while his career swirled away a piece at a time.

"They said the best thing I could do was to re-take the test," Gurley said.

Childers sent her son away from Rock Hill a second time, asking him to live with friends in Charlotte, N.C., and study. Gurley spent his days and some of his nights camped at a bookstore, poring over every word he could find to help him for the next SAT.

"I told him, 'This is going to be a birthing stage for you,'" Childers said. "'You just have to tune everybody out.' One thing about him, Tori has always made up his mind to do something and when he does that, he gets it done."

Gurley kept studying, ignoring requests from reporters wondering what had happened to him. He hit the books again and again, waiting for the next test day to arrive.

He took the SAT, again waited for the results, and got the envelope in the summer.

"I scored the same score," he said.

Gurley sent his transcript to USC and ... waited. Again. The university had to approve all of the courses he took at New Hampton and in high school, his SAT score and his new SAT score, so the officials told him to sit and wait.

Gurley sighed, sat down and waited once more for his phone to ring.

* * *

Childers always knew her oldest child was special. Knew it from the time she met Norris Gurley, a former basketball player at Virginia Tech and Birmingham-Southern. Knew it from the time when she was seven months pregnant with Tori and was at a Birmingham backyard barbecue as a neighbor dropped by.

The late Eddie Kendricks, former original tenor for The Temptations, lived five houses up the block from Glover. He noticed Childers sitting there and began serenading her.

"Then he came up to me, touched my belly and said, 'There's a star in your stomach,'" Childers said. "I've never forgotten that."

Childers moved to Rock Hill, married Tori's stepfather and began raising her two sons, Tori and Kendall Childers, currently a senior tight end at South Pointe High School. On a shopping trip to the Disney Store at Pineville's Carolina Place mall, Tori instead requested that his toy money be spent on something else.

"He wanted a North Carolina hat," Childers said. "So we got it and got home and he stood in front of the television. He was four-and-a-half years old and said, 'I'm going to be a basketball player.'"

The chirping toddler proved prophetic. Although he started with soccer, he began playing hoops and football and kept it up until high school.

He had an automatic connection. Stevens had played and been an assistant coach at Virginia Tech before he came to Rock Hill. Tori was going out for the team and talked with his dad.

"My father asked, 'Who's the coach?,' and I said, 'Bobby Stevens,'" Tori said. "He said, 'The same Bobby that runs four-out and one-in?'"

Stevens had coached Norris Gurley at Virginia Tech and although it took him a moment, he saw the same traits in Gurley's son.

"He walked across the court at a summer workout and said, 'Coach Stevens, I'm Tori Gurley and you coached my father at Virginia Tech,'" Stevens said. "I kind of shook the cobwebs out and we got to talking, and I remembered Norris."

Tori had grown up with his father's natural ability and the guidance of former NBA veteran Dell Curry, his godfather. The basketball talent was apparent, even when he took the advice of friend and teammate Phillip Adams and played football during his last two years of high school.

Plus, he was a coach's dream off the court. Tori's outgoing personality was apparent throughout every day, not just during the season.

"Always on the Internet, always looking up statistics, finding out who was the best point guard, who was the best wing player, who was the best wide receiver, and always on his iPod," Stevens said. "Always laughing and joking; just a happy-go-lucky kid."

Even when Stevens talked to Tori while he was going through his academic trials, the enthusiasm never waned.

"Very self-confident kid," Stevens said. "The one thing I found out about Tori was he was not scared."

* * *

Tori never really changed his last name. He was always Tori Gurley.

"When he enrolled at Trinity Christian School, he was going as 'Tori Gurley-Childers,' and it got shortened to 'Tori Childers,'" Childers said. "It stayed that way on all of his records, but he always referred to himself as Tori Gurley."

After returning from Birmingham in April 2007, Gurley was getting his career in motion. He had grown much closer with his father as his high-school career had blossomed, and although Norris Gurley lived in Las Vegas, the two communicated regularly.

The phone rang.

Norris had gotten into a car accident. He was pronounced dead at 12:01 a.m. on May 13, 2007 -- Mother's Day.

"That was another tough one," said Childers, who by then was divorced and raising her two sons alone. "After all he and we had been through, this was just devastating."

* * *

All of the waiting and hoops he had jumped through were stacked in Tori's memory as he brooded in August 2008. There was nothing else he could do -- his future was in USC's hands.

"One day I'm going to write a book," Gurley said later. "It's going to be called, 'What I Had To Do To Go To College.'"

The phone rang.

* * *

Gurley sped down I-77. The waiting had cost him all of preseason camp and had him on the verge of enrolling at Georgia Military College, but he was finally cleared by USC and could get back on the field. He was so excited that he almost forgot to call GMC and tell them he wasn't coming, so anxious to get to his new home that he joked he'd be happy to get a speeding ticket.

Gurley, still known as "Tori Childers," made it to Columbia the day before USC's 2008 season-opener. He practiced with the scout team all year, usually emulating the opponent's tallest receiver, and when 2009 spring practice began, he took another step.

"Tori?," asked receiver Joe Hills. "Oh yeah, he's doing real well. I'm trying to get him to show me some of his tricks."

Tori officially got his name changed to Tori Gurley and dedicated the 2009 season to his late father. "I told my mom, 'I don't believe in tattoos or piercings or anything; I want to be known by the last name Gurley,'" he said.

Childers had no problem with it.

"He's like his father," Childers said. "Very humble, a very good man. I just thank God for him."

He wasted little time impressing his coaches and teammates.

During USC's first scrimmage of fall camp, Gurley led the team with five catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns, drawing praise from coach Steve Spurrier. "He broke two tackles on one of them," Spurrier said. "He caught a little hitch pass and juked some guys and scored from about (18) yards out. Tori really had an excellent night."

"It's been great competition out here among the wide receivers, and everyone is taking the opportunity to get better," Gurley said. "When you're playing hard, you'll rise to the occasion and that will make the team better."

Gurley may have to split his playing time. He may have to wait another year to truly be an impact player.

His phone hangs off his belt or lays quietly in his room these days.

If it rings, Gurley can afford to ignore it.

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