Fred Harris has been coaching football in the Quad-Cities for about four decades and he has seen a lot of high-octane, high-stepping, high-profile running backs in that time.
Roger Craig. Tavian Banks. Marques Simmons. David Johnson.
But Harris remembers this one other guy who predated all of those backs who was every bit as good, if not better. He didn’t see all of his great runs because they sometimes occurred behind him and he’s admittedly a little biased, but Harris hasn’t seen anyone he thought was better than Curtis Craig.
“He was the standard, quite frankly, of running backs in Central history …’’ said Harris, who served as the blocking back for Craig on the powerhouse Davenport Central teams of the early 1970s. “He was the real deal.’’
Roger Craig, is biased, too. And the former San Francisco 49ers star uses the exact same word to describe an older brother he idolized and emulated.
“He set the standard,’’ Roger said. “He set the standard of how an athlete should act, how an athlete should perform and how to be the team guy that he was. I learned all of that from him.’’
Curtis Craig set a Quad-Cities area single-season rushing record in 1973, helped Davenport Central to it first state football championship that fall and went on to become a three-year starter at the University of Nebraska.
He also was a standout at Central in both wrestling and track and field, compiling a 70-6 career record on the mat and running on four state championship relay teams.
For all of that, he will be one of this year’s inductees into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame. He will be honored along with Jayme Olson and Murray Hurt on May 5 at the Quad-City Times’ annual Salute to Sports at Bettendorf High School.
Curtis Craig, 63, has served as the campus supervisor at Southeast High School in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the past 21 years. Before that, he spent a few decades working with troubled youths in Los Angeles, Iowa City and other places.
But he began having a profound effect on younger people long before that, including his own brother, who preceded him into the Q-C Hall of Fame by 32 years.
“I couldn’t wait to play sports because I would basically want to be like him in everything and do the same workouts and run the hills the way he did,’’ Roger Craig said.
“I was just blessed to have a big brother who would take his little brother and teach him the values of what it takes to be a great athlete and great person and all those sorts of things.’’
Coming to the Q-C
The Craigs' insatiable drive to get somewhere in life began with their parents.
Elijah and Ernestine Craig lived in Preston, Mississippi, in the early 1960s and already had five of what would end up being a brood of seven children. Elijah worked in a local lumber yard but recognized that the future wasn’t bright for his children in a state where repression and discrimination were rampant in the early stages of the civil rights era.
He had relatives in Davenport so in the summer of 1962, Elijah and Ernestine piled the kids into the family’s 10-year-old Ford and moved to the Quad-Cities.
“My dad had a vision that he wanted to put his kids in a better situation than what we were in in the south …’’ said Curtis, the oldest of the seven.
“He didn’t want his kids to grow up in that sort of environment. It was a big chance that he was taking, but I’m glad he did it … I didn’t really know that much about it then. I just knew we were moving but as I got older, I understood why he was moving us.’’
In Davenport, the Craigs found better educational and sociological opportunities for their children. Elijah found work as a machinist. Ernestine worked in a nursing home.
Their kids thrived, especially in athletic endeavors. It wasn’t long before Curtis was spending much of his time dabbling in all sorts of sports in a meadow known as Goose Hollow in the area just west of Central High School.
“That was a place that got a lot of us together …’’ Craig recalled. “Myself, Fred Harris and Tony Stevenson call ourselves the Goose Hollow brothers. We still call ourselves that today.’’
Craig’s first organized sports activity was a flag football league and he also played little league baseball in the summer. He remembers being influenced by a physical education teacher named Mr. Nau at Jefferson Elementary School and even more so by Lou Williams, the football coach at J.B. Young Intermediate.
“He was the one who really got us all started in stuff together, staying together, hanging together and doing good things together,’’ Craig said.
Craig said all of the great coaches he later had at Davenport Central — Jim Fox, Tom Murphy, Jack Leabo and Ira Dunsworth — wanted their athletes to be involved in multiple sports.
“Those were great mentors to have in those days,’’ he said. “They kept us busy and helped us keep our heads straight and keep us out of trouble.’’
'So much ability'
By the time Craig reached the ninth grade at J.B. Young, he already was shaping up as a phenom. The school’s newsletter reported that he broke the city record in the high jump in both the eighth and ninth grades. Lou Williams was quoted in a 1973 article in the Times as saying he thought Craig was “the best junior high school football player in the state.
“He had so much pure ability that it kind of scared me,’’ Williams said. “I remember he always wanted to play football and his winning attitude was generated all over our team.’’
Other Central faculty members commented in that same story about how humble and dedicated Craig was as a teenager.
“I’ll take a million others just like him,’’ said John Miller, who had Craig in his expository writing class. “His attitude is about the best there is.’’
That exemplary attitude carried over to sports.
“Great leader, led by example, energy, fire, everything you needed in somebody of his caliber,’’ Harris said. “Humble. His ego never got in the way.’’
High school heroics
Craig’s made his first big splash on the football field by rushing for 179 yards against Davenport West in the middle of his sophomore season and he ended up being the No. 2 rusher (behind West’s Doug Conklin) in the Quad-City Metro Conference that fall, leading Central to a 7-2 record.
As a junior, he again led the Blue Devils to a 7-2 mark while leading the entire Quad-Cities area in rushing with 862 yards and in scoring with 97 points. In addition to scoring 13 touchdowns, he also kicked 16 extra points and a field goal.
That set the stage for an almost legendary senior season.
In the meantime, he also made his presence felt in other sports.
Although he viewed wrestling as a way to stay in shape and keep busy between football and track, he had great success on the mat, placing fifth in the state as a sophomore, second as a junior and third as a senior. He was undefeated going into the state tournament in each of his last two years before losing to wrestlers from Waterloo West.
In track, he was an exceptional long jumper who held the Quad-Cities indoor record for many years although he mainly ran in relay events at the state meet.
He helped Central place second in the state in track and field, just two points behind champion Ames, as a sophomore and the Blue Devils blew everyone away in his last two years.
In 1973, Craig ran the second leg on a state champion 880 relay team as Central scored 52 points, 23 more than second-place Cedar Rapids Washington.
In 1974, Central rolled up 74 points, setting a record that would stand for 22 years. Craig was a part of three state champion relays, in the 440, 880 and mile medley. He had qualified for state in the long jump and likely would have placed but was a bigger help to the team by focusing on the relays.
All of those achievements paled in comparison to what Craig had done on the football field in the fall of 1973.
It didn’t just happen. It was the product of years of hard work. Harris remembers Craig waking him up at 6 a.m. most days so they could go run hills.
“There used to be three paths above the tennis court right there on Gaines Street where we ran hills,’’ Harris said. “Unlike some of the players today who get to the season and then try to get in shape, we stayed in shape the year round because we knew Coach Fox’s camp was no joke. You could come in out of shape. You just wouldn’t be starting. We wore out three paths running those hills on a daily basis.’’
Craig rushed for 1,785 yards and 33 touchdowns that fall despite being only 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds. He seemed nearly indestructible. After he rushed for 212 yards in a 28-7 victory over Moline, Maroons coach Ken Bunte said: “If there’s anybody better, he’s got to be inhuman.
“Our kids stuck him pretty good a couple of times and he just popped up and came back for more,’’ Bunte added.
Central did actually lose a game that season. Or at least, that’s what the record shows.
But 46 years later, Craig and Harris both insist that the Blue Devils really defeated Assumption at what was then known as John O’Donnell Stadium in the fourth game of the season.
The Knights took a 10-7 lead with a field goal to start overtime but Craig, who had 159 yards in the contest, appeared to score the winning touchdown from 3 yards out just two plays later. He lost possession of the ball but only after he was in the end zone. The officials didn’t see it that way, ruling it a fumble and giving Assumption the victory.
“It was so muddy down there you couldn’t even read players’ numbers,’’ Craig said. “I actually fumbled the ball in the end zone. I knew I was across the plane.’’
The game ended up being a catalyst for what followed.
“After the game, we said, ‘We’re not losing any more,’’’ Craig said. “As a team on the bus, we were all crying, mad, upset. We said, ‘We’re not losing any more games. Everyone has to work their tails off. We’re not losing any more games.’ We just pretty much blasted everybody all the way to the championship.’’
The Blue Devils played West Des Moines Dowling in the Class 4A state championship game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City and Craig was at his unstoppable best. He carried 40 times for 246 yards and scored five touchdowns in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score implies. The Devils opened a 37-6 lead before Dowling scored four times in the fourth quarter to make it a 37-32 final.
Picking a college
By that time, Craig had emerged as one of the most hotly recruited backs in the country. Everyone wanted him.
Iowa had a new coach named Bob Commings, who announced that Craig could wear any number he wanted if he chose to come to Iowa City. But the Hawkeyes had gone 0-11 in 1973. Craig never gave them much consideration.
He ended up visiting Nebraska, Notre Dame and Michigan, and considered visiting Southern Cal, too.
He had watched Nebraska win a couple of national championships a few years earlier and loved the way Cornhusker fans filled the stadium with red every Saturday.
“That was the first trip I took so I kind of gauged everybody after Nebraska,’’ he said. “There was just something I felt when I was here that I thought, ‘Man, I really like it here.’’’
He liked Notre Dame, too, but the Fighting Irish and Michigan both were likely to play him on defense.
Nebraska was committed to using him on offense, possibly even at the I-back position that was the focus of its offense. A phone call from former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers probably helped push him in that direction, too.
Craig signed with Nebraska and looked forward to seeing immediate playing time with the Cornhuskers.
A Huskers hero
Before he even got there, however, there was a setback. Craig played in the Iowa high school Shrine game late in the summer and injured his ankle five minutes into the game. He had never had any sort of injury through his entire high school career but this one delayed the start of his college career.
He ended up playing very little as a freshman, carrying the ball just once, for 16 yards.
Roger Craig thinks the ankle bothered his brother for much more than one season.
“He played on a bum ankle his entire college career,’’ he said.
Curtis became the Cornhuskers’ starting wingback as a sophomore in 1975, becoming a multi-purpose weapon who could hurt defenses as a runner, receiver, return man and occasionally even as a passer. He played in a majority of the games over the next two seasons, missing just a few games each season because of injuries, then started every game as a senior.
He finished with career totals of 644 yards rushing, 390 yards on 34 pass receptions, an average of 19.8 yards on 28 kickoff returns and 12 total touchdowns.
He scored pair of touchdowns in a 52-0 rout of Iowa State in his sophomore year and also had two scores in a 52-7 win over Kansas in his senior season.
Some of his best moments came in bowl games. As a junior, Nebraska trailed Texas Tech by 10 points in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl before Craig threw a 49-yard pass to Chuck Malito to spark a comeback that resulted in a 27-24 win. In the final game of his career, he again helped Nebraska rally from 10-point deficit to defeat North Carolina in the Liberty Bowl, catching a 16-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
But the highlight, Craig said, was a game against Alabama and legendary head coach Bear Bryant early in his senior season. The Crimson Tide was rated No. 3 in the country but Craig handled the ball eight times in that game for 98 all-purpose yards and scored on a 17-yard run in the second half as the Cornhuskers pulled out a 31-24 win.
“We got them up here and we dusted them,’’ he said. “Everybody was shocked that we beat them.’’
One last contribution
Craig was not selected in the NFL draft but he got a shot at making it as a free agent wide receiver. He had a tryout with the Chicago Bears and went to camp with the Buffalo Bills thinking he had a decent chance to make the team under new head coach Chuck Knox.
“I never dropped the ball in any of our scrimmages and I blocked well,’’ he said. “Back then, it was just how much money they had invested in you and I was a free agent. They didn’t have much money invested in me. But I made my presence felt when I was there.’’
He was let go in the next-to-last round of cuts. Canadian Football League teams expressed some interest but Craig had his degree in criminal justice with a minor in English.
“I said, ‘I don’t think so. I think I’m done,’’’ he said. “So I walked away and was proud of all the things I accomplished. I’ve never looked back and never regretted it either.’’
He went to work for the Nebraska Department of Corrections and later worked for about 10 years in Los Angeles in a youth program modeled after Boys Town in Omaha.
He did make one more contribution to Nebraska football before he left. His position coach with the Cornhuskers, John Melton, asked if there were any other players back in his home area that they should be recruiting.
“I said, ‘Yeah, my brother,’’’ Craig said. “They laughed at me and said ‘You’re just saying that because he’s your brother.’ I said ‘No, he’s going to do more than what I’ve done. I’m telling you. My brother.’’’
The Cornhuskers did sign Roger Craig, who followed an outstanding college career by becoming the workhorse back of the great San Francisco 49ers teams of the 1980s. He scored three touchdowns in a Super Bowl, became the first NFL back to collect 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season, and was one of the first five inductees into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame.
“He was just an extension of what I was trying to do and he knew that,’’ Curtis Craig said. “The opportunity was there for him and it was great. I was proud of him. There was no sense of jealousy or anything like that. No way. I said ‘That’s my bro, man.’’’