Notre Dame RB Josh Adams gives gift to coach battling cancer

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Jim Craig gave Josh Adams a gift, then Adams returned the favor.

It started nearly seven years ago, with two sprints, two coaches and one baffling number. On the first day of seventh grade football practice, head coach Mike Strayline asked each new player to run a 40-yard dash. Strayline stood at the starting line, and Craig — the team’s offensive and defensive line coach — waited at the other end, his trusty stopwatch in hand.

There were 40 kids, but 41 40-yard dashes.

“Josh runs, and he runs a 4.5 40,” Craig recalled with a chuckle. “I’m looking at my watch, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s damn fast for a seventh grader.’”

Too fast, it seemed.

“You must have done something wrong,” Strayline told Craig. It had to be a mistake. A fluke. A fleet-footed mirage. They asked the future Notre Dame phenom to go back and run it again.

4.5. Again.

“Josh, what position did you play on your last team?” Craig asked.

“I was a right guard,” Adams responded.

Craig looked at him and smiled.

“Sorry Josh,” Craig said, “but your guard days are over.”

***

Tom Hetrick’s favorite Josh Adams story didn’t unfold on a football field.

Following the 2013 season — Adams’ junior year at Central Bucks South High School in Warrington, Pa. — the team’s head coach, Dave Rackovan, announced that he was leaving to take a similar position at another school. Rackovan gathered his team to explain the situation. Then Hetrick, who had previously served as the offensive line coach, assured them that the program was in good hands. They would find another coach. But did anyone want to say something?

Adams raised his hand.

“Regardless of what happens, of who the next head coach is, we’re going to work. I’m going to work,” Adams said, standing to address his teammates. “I promise you that I’m going to give everything of me, so I expect the same of you.’”

“I didn’t ask Josh to talk. I didn’t solicit it from him,” recalled Hetrick, who was later named the team’s head coach. “He does things the right way, and the leadership follows. People are drawn to him for reasons beyond his sheer athleticism. That’s the kind of person he is.”

***

Hetrick heard other stories, too.

Adams was so prolific on Craig’s seventh- and ninth-grade teams that both groups went undefeated. Usually, the score was so lopsided that Adams barely got off the bench in the second half. In his sophomore season at Central Bucks South in 2012, his first on varsity, Adams rushed for 2,085 yards and 28 touchdowns. He followed that up with 738 rushing yards and 10 scores in the first half of the 2013 season.

Then, Adams tore his ACL. His success hit a sudden snag.

But the work kept coming, and the stories inevitably followed.

“I had a handful of people during that offseason when he was rehabbing tell me stories of how they were at school late one night, they were one of the last to leave the parking lot, and they saw Josh on the track when no one was watching,” Hetrick said. “He was running sprints. He was rehabbing. He was doing things on his own without anyone motivating or encouraging him to do it.”

The next season, Adams chugged for 1,623 determined yards and 25 touchdowns, averaging 7.8 yards per carry. He added 233 receiving yards and four touchdown catches and played linebacker on defense.

Then he went to Notre Dame, where all the 6-foot-2, 212-pound back did was break freshman records for rushing yards (835) and 100-yard games (4) in his debut season, while also claiming the longest single run (98 yards) in school history.

The ACL tear didn’t stop him. It barely slowed him down.

“People always ask me, ‘Were you shocked? Were you surprised to see this?’” Hetrick said. “‘Shock’ and ‘surprise’ aren’t good words. You get accustomed to seeing him do some of the athletic things that he’s able to do.”

***

Jim Craig didn’t know what — or who — to expect.

“Sometime next week you might have a visitor,” a friend told him. But that could mean anything. Anyone. Any time.

On Feb. 10, Craig was diagnosed with colon cancer. Shortly thereafter, he had surgery to remove the cancerous chunk of his colon. The cancer had already spread to his liver, however, and so Craig is due to begin chemotherapy next week.

“We’re staying positive. I feel fine,” he said. “It’s just a little stressful not to know what’s going to happen next.”

Another surprise arrived on Tuesday, though this one was far more welcome.

“When Josh walked through the door, I’m like, ‘Oh my God,’” Craig said. “It was just tremendous.”

Adams shook his former coach’s hand. He hugged him. For an hour and a half, they sat in his house and talked.

“The next time I see you will be in New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony,” Craig told him.

Nearly seven years ago, Craig gave Adams a position. A direction. A chance.

On Tuesday, Adams gave Craig a signed jersey in return. That, and a whole lot more.

Notre Dame running back Josh Adams visited his former middle school and high school football coach, Jim Craig, during Adams' spring break on Tuesday. He gave Craig, who is battling colon cancer, a signed jersey (Photo Provided/JIM CRAIG).

He also signed apparel and took pictures with Craig’s 12-year-old neighbor, who asked to be alerted if the local celebrity ever stopped by. He could have spent Spring Break on a faraway beach, baking under the sun with a sea of careless teenagers.

Instead, Adams visited his coach. He sparked another story.

“He understands how you treat people. He treats people with respect,” Hetrick said. “He just reeks of pure goodness.”

The running back that surprised Craig on Tuesday looked far different than the offensive guard that shocked him on a crowded field in seventh grade. He was taller, stronger, with a thin line of facial hair stretching from ear to ear.

But where it matters, Josh Adams hasn’t changed.

The same can be said for Jim Craig, despite his uncertain prognosis. As for the white Notre Dame jersey with No. 33 stamped on the front and back? Adams’ former coach hopes to wear it for many years to come.

“I wore it that whole day,” he said. “Eventually I took it off and put it on a hanger. That’s my next choice, whether to frame it and put it in my basement with all my other memorabilia and trophies.

“But I don’t know,” he added. “I just like wearing it.”

Notre Dame running back Josh Adams visited his former middle school and high school football coach, Jim Craig, during Adams' spring break on Tuesday. He gave Craig, who is battling colon cancer, a signed jersey (Photo Provided/JIM CRAIG).

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame running back Josh Adams visited his former middle school and high school football coach, Jim Craig, during Adams' spring break on Tuesday. He gave Craig, who is battling colon cancer, a signed jersey (Photo Provided/JIM CRAIG).
Notre Dame’s Josh Adams (33) celebrates with teammates following a touchdown during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl on Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN