Curtis Gainwell woke up that summer morning in 2013 and knew something wasn’t quite right with him.
His body was sending him violent warnings. He had an excruciating headache, and he was a guy who never got headaches. He wasn’t feeling well.
But he was trying to walk on to the Southern Mississippi football team, and he really couldn’t afford to skip his morning weight-room session. So he went.
During the workout, Gainwell’s life changed forever. He collapsed. At an age when most kids believe they are invincible, Gainwell suffered a near-fatal stroke.
He needed three lifesaving surgeries in one day to close a serious brain bleed before his family even got a chance to see him.
Kenny Gainwell was 13 years old at the time of his big brother’s stroke. He worshipped Curtis. He was, and still is, his hero.
“I’m proud of him,” said Kenny Gainwell, the Eagles’ fifth-round rookie running back. “He means the world to me.”
It has been a long, hard road back for Curtis Gainwell. After the stroke, he pretty much had to learn how to walk and talk all over again. His father, Curtis Gainwell Sr., said he was “like a newborn baby” following the stroke.
Eight years later, he still walks with a slight limp and is limited on his right side and has some other issues. But he continues to get better. And his dogged recovery has inspired his younger brother.
“He’s just trying to get right,” Kenny Gainwell said. “What he’s gone through, what he’s had to deal with, has only made me work harder. I’m playing for the both of us.
“Every time I scored in high school or college, I would try to find him in the stadium just so I could see his smile. Every time he smiles, he makes me smile. I’m just glad to still have him here on this earth.”
Kenny Gainwell has given his brother plenty of opportunities to smile the last few years. In four seasons as a dual-threat quarterback at Yazoo County (Miss.) High School, he passed for 3,682 yards and 32 touchdowns and rushed for 4,730 yards and 75 touchdowns. He was the state’s 3A “Mr. Football” as a senior.
In his one full season at the University of Memphis as a gadget running back in coach Mike Norvell’s RPO spread offense, the versatile 5-foot-8, 200-pounder rushed for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 51 passes for 610 yards and three touchdowns.
Now he hopes to find his brother’s smile in the crowd at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday afternoons in the fall.
Gainwell, the cousin of Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, was a preseason Heisman candidate last year after his impressive 2019 performance. But, after losing four family members, including an uncle, to COVID-19, he opted out of the 2020 season.
“It was a tough, tough decision [deciding not to play],” he said. “I love football. I loved my [Memphis] teammates. But I had to do what I felt was best for myself and my family.”
The decision almost certainly cost Gainwell some money in the draft. With a few notable exceptions, most opt-outs saw their draft stock drop a round or two because NFL teams hadn’t seen them play in two years. Sixty-six players, including Gainwell, opted out last year. Only seven of those 66 were taken in the first two rounds of the draft.
Many draft analysts had Gainwell rated as a Day 2 (second- or third-round) pick. But eight other running backs ended up going before him. All those eight played in 2020.
“I was a little surprised” that he didn’t go until the fifth round, Gainwell said. “But that doesn’t really matter. I’m happy I’m with the Eagles. I’m ready to ball for them. I know I have the talent to play at this level. I’m just blessed to be here.”
Gainwell and the rest of the Eagles will hold their first training camp practice Wednesday under new head coach Nick Sirianni.
Some skeptical Eagles fans may look at Gainwell’s smallish size and wonder whether he is the second coming of Donnell Pumphrey, who was one of the team’s many bad decisions in the 2017 draft.
But Gainwell is a much stronger and more explosive runner than Pumphrey. He has exceptional contact balance, and his receiving skills might be the best of any running back in the 2021 draft.
He also has considerably less tread on his tires than Pumphrey. Pumphrey, who also was 5-8 but weighed 25 pounds less than Gainwell, played in 54 games and had 1,059 rushing attempts at San Diego State before the Eagles drafted him. Gainwell played in just 18 games and had 235 carries at Memphis.
“He took over Tony Pollard’s role in the Memphis offense in 2019, which means he was a part-time running back and part-time slot receiver,” said NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell. “He has a ton of wide receiver skills. He can make back-shoulder catches. He can win vertically. He has really good hands and adjustment ability. He’s a really interesting weapon to add to Nick Sirianni’s offense.”
Runner and receiver
Both Sirianni and his offensive coordinator, Shane Steichen, like to throw the ball to their running backs, and figure to utilize them a lot as receivers this season.
During Sirianni’s three seasons as Frank Reich’s offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, running back Nyheim Hines had 170 receptions, including a team-high 63 last year.
Steichen utilized running back Austin Ekeler as a receiver during his two seasons as the Los Angeles Chargers’ offensive lieutenant. Ekeler caught 92 passes for 993 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019. Last year, Ekeler missed six games with knee and hamstring injuries but still caught 54 passes.
The Eagles are going to training camp with eight running backs: Gainwell, Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Jordan Howard, Kerryon Johnson, Adrian Killins, Jason Huntley and Elijah Holyfield. They’ll probably keep four.
“This kid can do it all,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said of Gainwell in May. “I don’t know if he’s Charlie Garner, if he’s Brian Westbrook. But he’s like that. He’s a powerful kid.
“They played a lot of five-wide receiver sets at Memphis. So he was lining up in the slot and out wide a lot. He caught a bunch of screens, which both Sirianni and Steichen like to run.
“He played basically one year, so there’s not a lot of wear and tear. The quickness, the suddenness, he’s got all that. He can make people miss. He’s probably not an every-down back. But there aren’t many of those guys in the league anymore. To me, he looks like somebody who can give them a good one-two punch with Miles Sanders.”
Sanders rushed for 800-plus yards in both of his first two seasons with the Eagles. But 230 of his 867 yards last year came on three runs.
Looking to rebound
As a rookie in 2019, Sanders was one of the league’s top pass-catching running backs. He caught 50 passes, including five for 30-plus yards. The only running back in the league with more that year was Ekeler (6). Sanders averaged 10.2 yards per catch and had three touchdown catches as a rookie.
But last year, he wasn’t nearly as effective as a receiver. He and Carson Wentz often weren’t on the same page. The massive amount of injuries up front, which forced the Eagles to use an NFL-record 14 offensive line combinations, affected the screen game, which was a nonfactor most of the season. And the usually sure-handed Sanders had seven drops and a 53.8 catch rate.
“Me catching the ball [last year] wasn’t as good as my rookie year,” Sanders said in the spring. “Even my run discipline as far as where my eyes were supposed to be at [wasn’t as good]. And my pass-pro, I need to sharpen that, too. So I’m looking forward to getting better in every aspect of the game.”
Sanders said the screen game will be a big part of the Eagles’ offense this year.
“The screen game will definitely give the backs and slots a lot more opportunities to do things with the ball in their hands,” he said.
That includes Gainwell, who had five plays of 60-plus yards with Memphis in 2019.
“I love Kenny,” Sanders said. “He reminds me of me. He don’t say too much. He’s keeping his head down and trying to learn. Paying attention. Taking notes nonstop.
“He told me something that blew my mind. I told him I’m still starstruck when I see certain players. I’m starstruck looking at [Eagles quarterback] Joe Flacco. He said, ‘Well, I get starstruck looking at you.’ That’s crazy.”