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No Doubt About It

Crouch Ends Questions With Superb Season

January 03, 2002|J.A. ADANDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LINCOLN, Neb. — Don't blame yourself if you've bet against Eric Crouch before. Happens all the time. Recruiters misjudged his ability and desire to play quarterback. His coaching staff once made the wrong call on him. He has even had his own moments of doubt, some as recently as six weeks ago.

But whenever he seems to be cornered or trapped, he leaves the doubters grabbing at a whole lot of nothing, like those Missouri defenders he played like fools in that 95-yard run.

You thought he was done after the crushing in Colorado. The Buffalo fans chanted, "No more Heisman!" The Rose Bowl looked impossible.

Truth be told, Crouch was thinking the same way.

"I counted it out," he said. "I counted both of them out."

Coach Frank Solich gathered the team for a meeting. He broke it down, told his players that to get to the Rose Bowl, they would probably need four teams to lose: Oklahoma, Florida, Tennessee and Texas.

And for Crouch to win the Heisman, he would have to overcome a traditional voter bias against option quarterbacks.

But there he was Dec. 8, standing in the New York Marriott Marquis with the straight-arming statue in his hands.

And here he is, getting ready for the Rose Bowl game in Pasadena.

How did he reach these destinations?

First of all, take a look at those fleet feet.

"He's got as much speed as, I think, any quarterback in the country," Solich said.

Second, there's his strength, which allows him to break tackles.

"We played Iowa and he just ran the guy over to get in the end zone," tight end Tracey Wistrom said.

Then there are his juke moves.

"It's nothing I work on, I just react," Crouch said. "That's the consequences sometimes of reacting to certain things. Sometimes I make people miss and it looks bad. Sometimes I get hit real hard and I'm the one that looks bad."

But there's one attribute that keeps popping up when discussing Crouch.

"I guess as much as anything, we've loved his toughness," Solich said. "He's been able to take every snap and stay on the field for us. If it wasn't for that toughness, the strength and the speed, he wouldn't be able to demonstrate them. They'd take him out of games, because he's taken some great shots."

Off the field, there's another element to Crouch that allows him to put the whole package together: time management. He has more organizational skills than a Palm Pilot. He handles practices, weightlifting, film study and never-ending interview requests. He has a 2-year-old daughter, Alexi, with his longtime girlfriend, Nicole Kousgaard. Fans hound him, to the point he recently was devoting two hours a day to signing autographs. You'd think his signature was the most valuable thing in Nebraska, next to Warren Buffett's stock portfolio. He came back from the postseason awards tour just in time for final exams, then graduation, with in-pad practices in between.

"I'm a father," Crouch said, running down his personal list. "That's big. That would be No. 1 for me.

"I've come to put some closure on school, which is real exciting.

"Right now, family and football. I'm really focused on this championship game here. It's been a lifetime dream. Nebraska's been in a lot of national championship games. I've been born and raised here, so I got to watch and I got to see them. Now that I'm in the middle of it, it means a lot more. It's really a priority."

Nebraska football wasn't always his dream. His football fantasies revolved around the NFL and his favorite player, John Elway--he wears Elway's No. 7. Then in his sophomore year at Millard North High in Omaha, he received a recruiting letter from Nebraska, and something about that red and white stationery got him.

"Then the letters started coming, and it looked like I could get a scholarship and my school paid for," Crouch said. "I was really relieved for my family."

But any school that wanted him to play anything but quarterback was crossed off the list. That included Notre Dame. Crouch chose Nebraska, but before the start of his sophomore year, Solich made Bobby Newcombe the No. 1 quarterback. Crouch retreated to Omaha and pondered his future, ready to call it quits.

"I was really disappointed," he said. "I didn't think I was going to be contributing to the team as much as I wanted.

"I felt like I was a durable guy and I could win football games for us. I felt like I could outplay [Newcombe]. I felt like I wasn't getting a fair shake.

"I think there's really a time in everyone's life when people remove themselves from what's going on and say, 'Is this what I want to do?' Really, that's what I did."

Solich went to Omaha and had to make a recruiting pitch to Crouch all over again.

"It was that we understand how talented he is," Solich said, "and we're going to use that talent here and that we were going to make sure that he was a vital part of this offense ... regardless of where he lined up. And that we would not take him out of still competing for the quarterback job."

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