After countless heating pads, numerous muscle relaxers, and unrelenting treatment sessions.
After the back spasms became so unbearable that UNC junior wide receiver Tylee Craft could no longer push through practice or attend his classes.
Even after Craft collapsed in the Kenan Football Center elevator, and had to be carried to the training room by defensive line coach Tim Cross and teammate Eli Sutton.
For weeks, Craft's back pain was still being treated as just that — back pain.
But for September Craft, all it took was one call to realize something was seriously wrong with her son, Tylee.
Wrong enough for the Sumter Police Department sergeant to leave her house that same night in mid-March and make the 3.5-hour drive to be by her son's side.
It was her voice, her sobs that awoke Tylee Craft in the middle of the night to his unexpected diagnosis — a rare form of lung cancer.
“I didn’t really feel any type of way,” Tylee Craft said. “I wasn’t really thinking about it at the moment. It just felt unreal.”
This is someone whose only trips to the Sumter High School athletic trainer were to turn in paperwork. It was the same person who had suffered little more than a hamstring strain and sprained toe in his previous two years with the program, when he posted some of the best vertical and sprint times on the UNC football team.
“I wouldn’t even say it was the furthest thing on my mind, because it literally was not on my mind,” junior wide receiver Justin Olson said. “It was just a complete shock.”
Despite the shock and worry that came with Craft's diagnosis, an overpowering sense of unity has emerged in the locker room since.
The team has rallied around Craft, dedicating this year's spring game to him. To them, it's not a matter of if, but when he will rejoin his teammates — his family — on the field.
'We're 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’re thinking about what Tylee’s going through?’ It shook them up to understand that this game can get taken away from you like that.”
While the news was a complete shock, and the steps forward were uncertain, the team was sure about one thing: They would be there for Craft every step of the way.
Galloway drives dinners to the SECU Family House 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 taken by the players and staff to show their support. But when it came time for the annual spring game, there was a collective understanding that it should bear Craft’s name.
“It’s a tough situation on anybody, and he’s family to the team," senior wide receiver Antoine Green said. "It’s only right that we dedicate it to him. It was a great feeling for everybody, and it inspired us even more to go out there.”
The #TyleeStrong Spring Football Game, held on April 9, was a celebration of the football team’s spring session of practices ahead of the 2022 season.
After having a port — a vein-access device used to administer chemotherapy treatments — put in the day before the game, Craft wasn’t sure he'd feel well enough to attend. But there he was that Saturday afternoon, walking across Kenan Stadium, beaming from ear to ear.
With a count of “Family on me, 1-2-3,” Craft broke down the pregame huddle, and the game was officially underway.
“I was just happy to be there and definitely happy to watch the team compete and put on a show for the fans that have been waiting to see them,” Craft said. “So it just felt good to actually see some fans, see some friends, see some family and be around the team pretty much that whole day.”
Aside from the pregame ceremony, additional support could be spotted by a keen eye throughout the stadium.
On the back of every player's helmet was a blue sticker bearing Craft’s jersey number, 13. Buttons of a similar design made by Galloway’s daughter, Anna, were pinned to jackets, including head coach Mack Brown’s navy puffer.
During the game, Galloway paced the sidelines of the field donning a white “Tylee Strong” T-shirt from Chapel Hill Sportswear. The shirts were sold leading up to and at the game, with all proceeds supporting the Craft family.
“We just wanted to show we’re there for him through everything, and that he’s going to make it through this, because he is,” junior wide receiver Josh Downs said.
'It's a different team now'
Craft is waiting for 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’s looking forward to waking up early and going to practice, which has been reduced to just three times a week. Though Craft’s in-person involvement with the program has been limited to these few visits, his continued impact on the team remains undisputed.
“The effort they’ve been putting in, they’ve probably been thinking about me," Craft said. "They’re seeing me fighting and going through my battles, they’re going to keep fighting and going through their battles on and off the field. So that’s probably encouraged them a little bit more to give more effort. I mean, it’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 wise-beyond-his-years frame of mind is both inspiring his teammates from the sidelines and shaping his day-by-day fight.
"It was natural just to try to think positive, and I knew I had to think positive and set goals for myself to look for and to get to down the line," Craft said. "So I can beat this and not just get caught up in the moment and feel sorry for myself and ‘Why me?' — I’m just staying positive and rolling with the punches that I was thrown.”
@dthsports | email@example.com
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