Sunday, June 24, 2018
Sports

Times' Blue Chip player of the year: Nate Craig-Myers

TAMPA

Nate Craig-Myers first stepped onto the high school football recruiting scene when he was barely even a high-schooler, and the Dade City product hasn't left the limelight since. From a controversial transfer to his high-profile recruitment and everything in between, there has been no shortage of information about the Tampa Catholic senior's athletic career.

But while football is what Craig-Myers does — and does quite well, earning the No. 6 wide receiver ranking for his recruiting class — he'll be the first to tell you it's just a small part of who he is.

"Being a recruit, five-star guy, people think you think you're bigger and better than everyone else. But I feel like me. I don't let it get to my head," he said. "I stay true to myself and just let everything else play out."

Because underneath the bulky facade of Tampa Bay's most talked about high school athlete — and the Tampa Bay Times' 2016 Blue Chip player of the year — is a sensitive, small-town kid who is still learning how to stand out.

Even from an early age, Craig-Myers kept to himself. But as older half-brother Josh Johnson discovered, that didn't mean he was just sitting idly by.

Growing up, Johnson said he and his brothers would often ride around in their grandmother's van, and they made frequent trips to McDonald's for Happy Meals. While the other kids ate their food in the car, 3-year-old Craig-Myers would quietly save some of his for later.

"He would sit at the end of the seat by the window, then he would put the food underneath the seat and keep collecting it. I don't know why," Johnson said. "We would go and clean out the car, and there'd be half a Big Mac and nuggets and french fries under there."

Craig-Myers, who now plays at 6 feet 2, 205 pounds, always has loved to eat, his mother, Nicki Craig, said. So when her son was in preschool at Wesley Creative School in Dade City, she often would pack extra snacks and juice boxes.

This time, though, he didn't just squirrel them away for himself.

"He always brought back food for his uncle and his brother," Craig recalled. "He said, 'They might be hungry when they get out of school.' "

Craig-Myers might have grown up putting others before himself, but on the football field it was a different story.

At 5 years old he began playing for the Dade City Pirates with his younger half-brother Jayvaughn Myers. And though it was flag football, Craig-Myers, always bigger than the other kids on the field, didn't seem to understand the concept.

"They had flags, and the guy was running the ball, and I kept tackling him," Craig-Myers said. "Everybody who had the ball I kept tackling, so they told me I couldn't play defense anymore."

Johnson, who is six years older than Craig-Myers, said he realized his brother's potential in the sport early on. He was so big for his age, Johnson said, that people asked to see his birth certificate to ensure he wasn't too old for the team.

After learning he was too aggressive for defense, a young Craig-Myers found his niche on offense, and to this day he remembers his very first touchdown — a 30-yard run on a play they called 28 pitch. And though he had many more ahead of him in his youth-league career, Jayvaughn Myers said his brother rarely made a big deal of his trips to the end zone.

"He's always been that way," Myers said. "He never really celebrated. He just scored and got ready for the next play."

Tampa Catholic football coach Mike Gregory was teaching American history in January 2014 when Craig-Myers unassumingly walked into his classroom and took a seat in the last row of desks, without saying a word.

"You hear all the buzz and stuff, and it's one of those things where he walks in and you're like, 'Oh my gosh, you're 15?' " said Gregory, remarking on his player's imposing frame. "Of course we talked about football after class, but you couldn't get much out of him. I don't think that's changed."

That winter, Craig-Myers transferred from Pasco High — where he accrued 619 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns in two varsity seasons — to the Crusaders, a move that led to an Florida High School Athletic Association investigation into Tampa Catholic for possible recruiting violations.

Craig-Myers, who claimed all along he transferred for academic reasons, said he's glad he made the switch to a more college-prep atmosphere. And though he missed his first full season at Tampa Catholic with a broken fibula, the Crusaders were glad to have him on their side, too.

As a senior, Craig-Myers recorded 1,018 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns while adding 98 yards and two more scores on the ground. He also played defensive back, recording a team-high six interceptions.

Craig-Myers' contributions, though, stretch far beyond his stat line, Gregory said.

"He was the guy on the sideline, when things weren't going well, that was a very positive influence," Gregory said. "Never once did I see him ever be selfish about, 'Get me the ball more' or 'Why aren't things going right?' He's not that guy."

Coming from a close-knit Dade City community, Craig-Myers said he was taught from an early age the value of helping people. Since his freshman year, he has been using his athletic notability to do just that.

Craig-Myers never has missed an Unsigned Preps volunteer opportunity, the organization's president, Ricky Sailor, said, and every year he's there to feed the homeless or give out toys and gear to kids at Christmas, often bringing other Pasco County athletes with him.

Just last month, when the coach of the Zephyrhills PAL Bulldawgs youth-league team approached Craig-Myers about showing up to see him play in the Under Armour All-America Game, Craig-Myers didn't hesitate to do what he could to lend a hand.

"I told him if he needed tickets to let me know. He wanted to bring his team, so I told him, 'No problem,' " said Craig-Myers, who gave away more than 300 tickets, including 30 to the Bulldawgs. "Me growing up as a young kid, I saw guys I looked up to. Doing that for those kids … it makes me feel good."

And as far as Sailor is concerned, Craig-Myers' impact beyond the football field is only in the early stages.

"The mission is not done with Nate, and Nate knows that," Sailor said. "There's still more to Nate Craig that he will offer to that Dade City area that has yet to be seen."

When the day comes for Craig-Myers to finally make his college choice — he has narrowed it down to Auburn, North Carolina and Ole Miss, he said — there will be a packed house at Tampa Catholic, including cameras from ESPN for a live broadcast.

Most recruits would revel in that kind of exposure. Craig-Myers is still a little uneasy about it.

"I'm a little bit nervous," he admitted Wednesday. "I just don't know what they're going to ask."

His mother said she still doesn't know where her son's mind is when it comes to his next move. True to form, Craig-Myers doesn't reveal much about what he's thinking — even to her — causing his mother to constantly question him.

"I'm ready for him to say, 'Mom, this is it. This is what I want,' " Craig said, "and then I can breathe."

Gregory admits it has been hard for Craig-Myers, who is afraid of disappointing people, to tell schools no. But on Feb. 3, he'll do just that when he sits in front of the cameras to announce his decision to the world.

And Gregory knows more than anyone that football is just one part of the prize a school will be getting.

"You're going to get a quintessential teammate that everybody wants to be around. … You're going to get a very quiet, reserved kid, but he's going to go out and bust his tail every day," Gregory said.

"As a college coach or even beyond, I don't know that you can ask for any more than that."

Contact Kelly Parsons at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @_kellyparsons.

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