COVINGTON, Ga. — Cozbi Craig’s introduction to the game of football was a bit unorthodox, to say the least. But it also fit his personality.
A self-described rambunctious little boy, the 6-foot, 210-pound Newton linebacker vividly remembers how one of his four older brothers pushed the pigskin into his life.
“It was my second oldest brother,” Craig recalls. “He took the clear top off of a storage bin and drew a football player on it, and he told me to run through it. If I didn’t do it, he’d make little insults and it would get me angry. But they already knew I was kind of a rough child, always going hard, had to be told to go and sit down at times, so they wanted to see if they could get me to use that energy to play football.”
Craig was approached with that proposition at the age of six, and shortly after began playing little league for the city recreation department’s Seminoles team.
“I was a little d-tackle,” he said with a laugh. “I loved the contact. I played with (Georgia Tech sophomore) Jaquan Henderson, and even then, he was one of the toughest ball players on that team. They would relay on other guys to make plays, but they’d always rely on us for the contact.”
Craig’s fearlessness to absorb and dish out punishment on the football field has been well documented by Newton assistant coach Josh Skelton. In fact, when he assesses the play and importance of the soon-to-be three-year starting linebacker, he doesn’t mince words.
“He’s a big-time ball player who is one of the best we’ve coached,” Skelton said.
Then he goes on to summarize the qualities that make him so, seemingly painting a picture that shows little has changed in Craig’s basic personality since those days he spent running through storage bin covers.
“His effort is contagious,” Skelton added. “He’s always flying around. And the way he leads and understands the game. No matter what, he’s coming into that weight room and is giving 100 percent every day. He’s going out on that field and giving you everything he’s got for four quarters, and yeah, he is a thumper as a tackler.”
With the graduation of James Hardeman, Newton’s leading tackler in the 2017 season, Craig is the top returner after racking up 73 tackles, 48 of those stops being solo hits, to go along with six tackles for losses and two sacks in nine games.
Craig says being thrown into the fire as a ninth grader against future Division I athletes helped expedite his development.
“Coach Skelton and the staff have always shown they believe in me, and so they’d throw me in even as a freshman and tell me to go get some reps,” Craig said. “At that time, we had guys like Ray J (quarterback Romario Johnson), and JJ (Holloman) and just real studs on the team that I looked up to, so getting the chance to prove I belonged against those guys was major.”
Though one of Newton’s best gap-stoppers as a middle linebacker, the senior is perhaps one of the most versatile defenders in the Rams’ back seven. He actually started his high school career as a safety.
In fact, it was in the defensive secondary where Craig feels he made his first big impression.
“It was one time in practice, they threw me out there with the ones,” he said. “The starting strong safety wasn’t there for whatever reason. So I went in on our basic cover three. I dropped back to curl the flats, let my wide receiver get past me, which was my assignment, so that the other safety could pick him up. But then I saw my quarterback, Ray J, turn his shoulder and sling the ball. I read him and ran it down and it didn’t seem like he realized I was coming for it.
“But I bit off the route and caught the ball and ran it back to the house. Everybody mobbed me. I think that was my defining moment.”
Skelton said the Newton coaches couldn’t help but drool over the possibilities of sliding that combo of athleticism and toughness into a linebacker spot.
“He started off a strong safety and definitely could play it,” Skelton said. “But we just moved him to linebacker because of how he strikes you at the point of contact. Any (college) coach would love Cozbi Craig. Colleges will take notice this year, for sure.”
Now as a senior on a defense that not only loses its top tackler to graduation, but also several members of a solid secondary, Craig says his next defining moment will be more about how he performs in the intangibles than just what he does on the field.
“Going into my senior year, I know I’ve got to ball out,” he said. “I know I’m going to be a shoulder for other guys to lean on. I’m going to take on that leadership role and lead this defense and lead this team to get beyond the first round of the playoffs. That’s the kind of legacy I’d like to leave.”
And when high school playing days are over — for him, preferably sometime in early December — Craig says a collegiate career is something he definitely wants to pursue, no matter where the recruiting process takes him.
“I just love the game,” he said. “I think sometimes people forget that we play football just because we love it. It’s not even just to get noticed or anything like that, but I just love it.”
That’s why he’s says he’s not going to be that guy who’s extra picky about playing for a certain school or on a certain collegiate level.
“Because I love the game, I definitely don’t want my last game of this season to be the last time I play,” he said. “A lot of coaches have come by and asked about me and shown interest in who that No. 6 is. It’s a pretty humbling feeling. But wherever this process takes me, that’s who I’ll play for. I just want to play the game I love.”