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Tylee Craft with UNC Football Coach Brown
Tylee Craft with UNC Football Coach Mack Brown.

Several times a week, Tar Heel receiver Tylee Craft and FCA Team Chaplain Mitch Mason exchange text messages and phone calls. They compare notes on hospitals, treatments, medicines, pain and worry. They try as they might to keep from falling into the abyss of why me?—why has Mason been on a two-year fight against a rare neurological disease known as Idiopathic Small Fiber Neuropathy, why has Craft at 20 years of age contracted a rare form of lung cancer?

Mason might send a passage of scripture. He might tell Craft that his personal goal is to live long enough to meet his grandchildren and that Craft’s should be to score a game-winning touchdown. Their illnesses share no common ground. But the challenges of going from one day to the next is very similar.

“The biggest thing is, Tylee understands we’re going through something we cannot control,” says Mason, who was brought to Chapel Hill from Clemson by Larry Fedora in 2012. “He’s seeing this is more about attitude. Our attitude definitely determines the outcome. You cannot cave in and quit. No matter what, every day you get up and do what the doctor is telling you to do. Then you trust God.”

Mason closes it up each time by typing, “Keep swinging.”

No matter the pitch, keep swinging.

“That really hit me,” Craft says. “Mitch tells me, ‘We’re in this together.’ We’ve got to keep fighting.'”


Tylee Craft was the 10th player to commit to Coach Mack Brown and his staff before they had won their first game during that stirring 2019 season that marked the beginning of the Mack 2.0 era of Carolina football. Craft was a 6-foot-4 junior from Sumter, a mid-sized town set half an hour east of Columbia, when he visited Chapel Hill for spring practice one weekend in early April 2019.

Receivers coach Lonnie Galloway was friends with Mark Barnes, the head coach at Sumter High who has roots in North Carolina coaching circles, having been the head coach at Crest High in Shelby and also the offensive coordinator under brother Darryl for the vaunted Richmond County High teams of the late 1980s that featured future Tar Heels Mike Thomas and Oscar Sturgis. Barnes alerted Galloway that he had a tall, speedy receiver that might fit well with the offense the Tar Heels planned to use. And the kid could jump, too, registering a 23’6 in the high jump, good for No. 6 nationally that year.

“I thought he ran well and was the kind of big receiver, a long and lengthy kid, that we were looking for,” Galloway says. “He ran a 22-something in the 200 meters and 4.44 in the forty. He caught the ball well, and he came from a good program with a good coach and a record for producing good players. He’s a smart kid, an honor roll student. There was a lot to like about him.”

Craft and his mother visited Chapel Hill one pristine spring Saturday. They toured the campus and football facility, sat down with the offensive coaches and met a lot of Tar Heels. Galloway called the following Monday to extend a scholarship offer, and Craft said he’d take a couple of days to decide. By Wednesday, he was locked and loaded for Chapel Hill.

“I fell in love with the atmosphere, the coaching staff, the players and the playbook,” he says. “The team had a lot of energy. I felt very welcome. I felt at home the first day I got here. My recruiting process ended kind of early. Carolina is the one that stuck out the most.”

Craft was an early enrollee in January 2020 and his development was tripped out of the gate with the dagger of the 2020 Covid shutdown—no spring football, no weight room access and no organized team activities. When the pandemic restrictions thawed and the Tar Heels started working toward August camp, Craft was buried on the depth chart. His mission was to build strength and bulk (he added 20 pounds after 18 months on campus), learn the nuances of college receiving and wait until a logjam of talent thinned out. It has certainly done that now, with Carolina over the last two years losing Dazz Newsome, Dyami Brown, Khafre Brown, Beau Corrales and Emery Simmons. Craft 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 older receivers, helped show me the ropes,” Craft says. “My biggest challenge was learning to play press coverage. In high school, you never had a DB right in your face. You do most every snap in college. I felt I was making progress. The coaches were really looking for me to break out this spring. I was excited about this spring. The opportunity was there. It was up to me to grasp it.”

When came the day in late February when Craft was lifting weights and felt a sharp pain in his back. He left the workout and went to the training room. A muscle pull? Back spasms? Thus began a three-week ordeal of the training staff and doctors trying to figure out what was wrong. He missed classes because of the pain; he tried to go through some spring football drills but was sorely limited. Then on March 14, Craft was riding in the elevator in Kenan Football Center when his back spasmed up and he fell to the ground. By coincidence, Sally Brown was in the elevator and rushed to get help. Later Craft was taken to the emergency room. Clearly there was something going on beyond a potential football injury.

“I talked to him on the phone and I could hear in his voice something was not right,” says his mother, September Craft, a sergeant with the Sumter Police Department “I got in the car and drove three and a half hours, getting to the emergency room about 1 a.m. I sat with him for probably two hours. Then the E.R. doctor came in and said he had cancer. It was like the world was taken away from me. I started crying, saying, ‘I cannot lose my son, he has his whole life ahead of him! He’s a great kid, why is this happening to him?'”

All the resources of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center were marshalled around Craft, and Brown rallied the program and pulled Craft into its collective bosom. His teammates immediately created the #TYLEESTRONG hashtag and asked Brown if they could dedicate the spring game to Tylee. Anna Galloway, Lonnie’s daughter, created stickers with Craft’s jersey No. 13 the prime visual. The equipment staff looked into getting Craft’s name on every jersey for the players to wear on Saturday, but there wasn’t enough time.

“Our team gained a new perspective on life,” Brown says. “Tylee checked in one day with a bad back, and the next day he’s got cancer. We all know that could be us tomorrow. It changes your outlook in a lot of different ways. In a weird kind of way, I thought COVID pulled our team together two years ago. Now I feel that rallying around Tylee is uniting our team in the same way.”

Two cancer survivors with ties to the Carolina athletic community have reached out—Emily Grund, a senior on the swimming and diving team, and Jovan Dewitt, a 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 her leukemia had been declared in remission. Dewitt was on the football staff at Nebraska when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in January 2019. He endured 38 rounds of radiation and lost more than 100 pounds by May, when a CAT scan revealed there were no cancer cells left in his body. He joined the Tar Heel staff in early 2020 and spent two seasons as outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator; he has since moved to a job on the football staff at Florida International.

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

Craft’s treatment protocol began immediately and so far has involved one session of chemotherapy each week for three weeks. Early returns are good, and a potential round of radiation has been tabled. He’s living in the SECU House just off-campus in Chapel Hill with his mom, watching lots of sports and movies on television and dropping by practice if he feels up to it.

“He has a great attitude and his mom has a great attitude,” says Dr. Mario Ciocca, the 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 athletic arena will help him. You take it head on. It’s not an easy thing to deal with, either physically or mentally, but college football isn’t either. He has his coaches and teammates and a great team of specialists around him.”

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

Craft was at practice Thursday morning, spending 15 minutes riding a stationary bike and doing some stretches and examining a Tar Heel offense in transition—a new quarterback TBA, a new offensive line coach and that receiving corps that needs a quick talent infusion. If only Craft could be that guy.

“It’s good to be around the guys,” he says. “I like watching our offense. We’ve put in a couple new plays. They moved Bryson Nesbitt out to receiver (from tight end), and he’s made a couple of huge plays. I’m loving watching it.”

With that, it’s back to the SECU House to watch TV and wait for a Friday morning procedure to implant a port, a device that is placed under the skin and is used to facilitate chemo treatments. Provided the outpatient procedure goes well and he feels good on Saturday, Craft will be in Kenan Stadium for the 3 p.m. spring game. One day at a time, one swing at a time.

This story is published with permission from and written by Lee Pace. Original story: Extra points: keep swinging