Extra Points: Keep Swinging – University of North Carolina Athletics

by Lee Piece

Several times a week, Tar Heel receiver Tili Craft and FCA Team Chaplain Mitch Mason exchanging text messages and phone calls. They compare notes on hospitals, treatments, medications, pain, and anxiety. They try as much as possible to avoid falling into an abyss why me? —Why has Mason been in a two-year battle against a rare neurological disease known as idiopathic small fiber neuropathy, so why did Kraft develop at the age of 20 a rare form of lung cancer?

Mason might send a passage from the Bible. He might tell Kraft that his personal goal is to live long enough to meet his grandchildren and that Kraft should be scoring a goal to win the game. Their illnesses do not share common ground. But the challenges of going from one day to the next are very similar.

“The most important thing is that Tilley understands that we are going through something we can’t control,” says Mason, who was brought to Chapel Hill from Clemson by Larry Fedora in 2012. The result. You cannot obey and give up. Whatever happens, do what your doctor tells you to do every day. Then trust in God.”

Mason closes it every time by typing “keep swinging”.

No matter the pitch, keep swinging.

“It really hit me,” Kraft says. “Mitch told me, ‘We’re in this together.’ We have to keep fighting.”

***

Tili Craft He was the tenth player to commit to the coach Mac Brown and his crew before winning their first game during the exciting 2019 season that marked the beginning of the Mack 2.0 era of football in Carolina. Kraft was a petite 6-foot-4 from Sumter, a medium-sized town half an hour east of Columbia, when he visited Chapel Hill for spring practice one weekend in early April 2019.

future coach Lonnie Galloway He was befriended by Mark Barnes, head coach at Sumter High with roots in the North Carolina coaching circuits, where he was head coach at Shelby’s Crest High and also offensive coordinator under Brother Daryl for Richmond County’s top teams in the late 1980s. That featured future Tar Heels by Mike Thomas and Oscar Sturgess. Barnes cautioned Galloway that he had a long, fast receiver who might well suit an attack planning to use tar heels. Kid could also vault, registering 23’6 in the high jump, which was good for sixth nationally that year.

“I thought he ran really well and he was the kind of big receiver, tall, tall kid, we were looking for,” Galloway says. “He ran 22 things in the 200 meters and 4.44 in the 40s. He got hold of the ball well, he came from a good program with a good coach and he scored in producing good players. He is a smart kid, an honor roll student who had a lot to like about him.”

Kraft and his mother visited Chapel Hill on a maiden spring on Saturday. They wandered around the campus and football facility, sat with the attacking coaches and met up with loads of tar heels. Galloway called the following Monday to extend the grant offer, and Kraft said it would take two days to make a decision. By Wednesday, he had been locked up and loaded to Chapel Hill.

“I fell in love with the atmosphere, the technical staff, the players and the rules of the game,” he says. “The team had a lot of energy. I felt so welcome. I felt at home the first day I got here. My recruiting ended a bit early. Carolina is the hardest.”

Kraft was an early affiliate in January 2020 and his development faltered out of the gate with the 2020 Covid shutdown stiletto – no spring soccer, no access to the weight room and no organized group activities. When the restraints of the epidemic were thawed and the Tar Heels began working toward Augustus’ camp, Craft was buried in the depth chart. His job was to build strength and attractiveness (he added 20 pounds after 18 months on campus), learn the nuances of receiving college and wait until the talent crunch subsides. She has certainly done so now, with Carolina losing over the past two years Dazz Newsome, Dyami Brown, Khafre Brown, Bo Corales and Emery Simmons. Kraft played in seven games in 2020 and four in 2021, mostly on special teams.

“I learned a lot from guys like Dyami, Dazz, and Beau. They were very old at reception, and they helped show me the ropes,” Kraft says. “My biggest challenge was learning to play press coverage. In high school, you never had a DB in your face. You do everything in college. I felt like I was making progress. The coaches were really looking for me to be able to kick off this spring. I was excited. For this spring. The opportunity was there. It was up to me to absorb it.”

Then came the day in late February when Kraft was lifting weights and felt a sharp pain in his back. He left the exercise and went to the training room. Muscle strain? Back cramps? And so began a three-week ordeal for training staff and doctors trying to figure out what was wrong. He missed lessons because of the pain, does he suffer? He tried to get into some soccer practice in the spring but it was very limited. Then on March 14, Kraft was riding an elevator at the Kinan Football Center when his back spasmed and he fell to the ground. By chance, Sally Brown was in the elevator and rushed for help. Later Kraft was taken to the emergency room. There was clearly something beyond a potential football injury.

“I spoke to him on the phone, and I heard in his voice that something wasn’t right,” says his mother, September Craft, a sergeant with the Sumter Police Department. To the emergency room at about 1 a.m., I sat with him for probably two hours. Then the emergency doctor came and said he had cancer. It was as if the world was taken from me. She started crying, “I can’t lose my son, his whole life is in front of him! He is such a great kid, why is this happening to him?”

All of the resources of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center were organized around Craft, and Brown mobilized the program and pulled Craft into his collective bosom. His colleagues immediately created the hashtag #TYLEESTRONG and asked Brown if they could dedicate the spring game to Tyle. Anna Galloway, daughter of Lonnie, created stickers with Jersey Kraft #13, the main visual. The equipment crew considered putting Kraft’s name on each shirt for players to wear on Saturday, but there wasn’t enough time.

“Our team gained a new perspective on life,” Brown says. “Tylee one day got him checked out and he had a bad back, and the next day he had cancer. We all know it could be us tomorrow. It changes your outlook on a lot of different ways. In a weird way, I thought COVID stopped our team together two years ago. Now I feel like getting around Tylee unites our team in the same way.”

I reached out to two cancer survivors with ties to the Carolina sports community – Emily Grund, senior on the swim and diving team, and Jovan DeWitt, football assistant for two years from 2020-21. Grund was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in September 2021 , but thanks to early detection and her team at UNC Lineberger, she announced in October that the leukemia had recovered. DeWitt was on the Nebraska football staff when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in January 2019. He had endured 38 rounds of radiation and had lost more than 100 pounds by May, when a CAT scan revealed he had no cancer cells left in his body. He joined Tar Heel in early 2020 and spent two seasons as an outside quarterback coach and special teams coordinator; He has since moved on to a job on the soccer team at Florida International.

“People are diagnosed with cancer every day, but it’s rare to see a healthy young student-athlete get it,” Grund says. “As a student athlete, you never think this will happen to you. There is a limited support group for us. The people in our circle of friends don’t understand what they are saying or how to help, despite their best intentions. I tell Tylee that if he needs someone to vent or Talking to someone who has been through and understands the pain, stress, and anxiety that others can’t fully comprehend, I’m happy to be that person.”

Craft’s treatment protocol began immediately, and so far has included one session of chemotherapy every week for three weeks. Early returns are good, and a potential round of radiation has been raised. He lives in the SECU House off campus in Chapel Hill with his mother, watches a lot of sports and movies on TV and drops by training if he feels like it.

“He’s got a great attitude and his mom’s got a great attitude,” he says. Dr.. Mario Siuka, director of sports medicine at Carolina. “The bad part is he’s young and healthy. How does he get cancer? But that’s the good part too. He’s equipped to fight it. The sports arena will help him. You have to deal with him head-on. It’s not easy to deal with. Universiade is not. He has coaches, teammates and a great team of professionals around him.”

“It’s an honor to be a strong-minded kid,” Galloway adds. “He is in great spirits and everyone is following his lead. This team is in a fight with him.”

Craft was in training Thursday morning, spending 15 minutes riding a stationary bike, doing some stretching exercises and checking out Tar Heel’s attack in transition — a new quarterback, a new offensive line coach, and a receiving corps who needs a talented infusion fast. If only Kraft could be that guy.

“It’s good to be with men,” he says. “I love watching our attack. We made two new plays. They moved Bryson NesbitTo the receiver (from the narrow end), he has made a few huge plays. I love watching it.”

With that, he returns to the SECU House to watch TV and wait for a Friday morning procedure for a port implant, a device placed under the skin used to facilitate chemotherapy. Provided that outpatient procedures go well and he feels comfortable on Saturday, Kraft will be at Keenan Stadium for the spring game at 3 p.m. One day at a time, one swing at a time.

Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace (Carolina 79) has written Bonus Points since 1990, is the author of Football in the Woods and has been part of the Tar Hill Sports Network broadcast crew since 2004. Write at leepace7@gmail.com and follow @LeePaceTweet .

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