This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.Not too many kids in Canada, especially ones who don’t start playing football until the ninth grade, wind up making it to the NFL. Not too many guys playing at the junior college level reach the big time either. And the truth is, a pretty small percentage of Division I NCAA players realize their dreams of playing on Sundays as well.
So consider defensive end
The Cowboys’ third-round selection (81st overall) in April’s draft, Crawford possesses impressive athletic ability, and, as he continues to learn the nuances of his position, will only keep improving as a dangerous pass rusher and build upon his four combined tackles through four games.
“The thing we probably like about him most is his potential, but more than that, his motor, the way he plays,” says Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. “He is a high-energy guy and very active. He has an outstanding motor, that’s line one when you talk about him. It jumps off the screen when you watch him play and he’s somebody we’re excited about. We feel like he has real potential to grow into a first- and second-down player and also a third-down rusher. We love the demeanor he plays with and feel like he has a chance to be a real good player for us.”
A three-sport star at Catholic Central High School in Windsor, Ontario, Crawford began his football career as a running back/outside linebacker/kick returner, so it wasn’t until he got to Bakersfield College in 2008 that he first concentrated solely on playing defensive end.
Two huge seasons later, the 6-4, 285-pound Crawford wound up at nationally ranked power Boise State and flourished at one of the nation’s top programs for his final two seasons of NCAA eligibility.
“I started getting good coaching when I got to Boise and I started playing under a lot of good defensive linemen,” says Crawford, who forced three fumbles, recovered two and even returned one for a touchdown, while posting a team-high 6.5 sacks last season for a 12-1 Boise State squad. “I definitely am a student of the game now, and I need to learn a lot, and I can still learn a lot. Playing under this D-Line and Coach (Brian) Baker is going to be great. I’m definitely going to go into the meeting rooms learning a lot from the veterans and learning a lot from Coach and just trying to get better every day.”
“Because he came from Canada, he didn’t have a whole lot of special coaching there,” notes Pete Kwiatkowski, Boise State’s defensive coordinator. “Hockey is a real big deal there, and we only had him for two years and the progress he made was outstanding. And I feel like there’s still a lot of growth room for him as far as developing his technique and his craft playing defensive line.”
The one attribute that probably most helped fuel Crawford’s roundabout journey to Dallas is something that cannot be taught and is crucial to any successful team – superior character.
“He’s extremely accountable, disciplined and a hard-working guy that, if you ask him to do something once, he responds to it when he puts himself in that situation,” Kwiatkowski says. “He’s a stand-up guy. He practices his tail off, and on game day, he leaves it all on the field.”
“Unbelievable character,” agrees Jeff Chudy, head coach at Bakersfield College. “He’s humble and as polite a young man as I’ve been around, just a very conscientious guy. He’s just very appreciative of everything that’s gone on in his world and he shows a lot of gratitude. He’s been helped along the way and the people that have reached out to him, he hasn’t bitten their hand back. He’s got a lot of fans and that’s because he’s such a genuine, wholesome man, just a really polite, gracious guy.”
According to his high school coach Jalil Khoury, those endearing character traits grew out of the experience of watching how hard his mother Tara worked to provide for him and his younger brother Terrance during his childhood in Windsor.
“His impressive character can be attributed to his mother,” says Khoury, who also doubles as Central Catholic’s field events coach. “She worked multiple jobs to raise him and his brother, who played here too and is now playing at a Division II school in British Columbia. But she brought them up right, taught them right from wrong and instilled a good, honest work ethic.”
Despite being far off the beaten path of college scouts, Crawford nonetheless appeared on the radar of Boise State, who recruited both him and his Central Catholic teammate Mike Atkinson. Despite also starring in track and basketball, it was clear that football was Crawford’s sport, especially after he was named his league’s MVP as a junior.
“He was an outstanding athlete,” Khoury says. “He started on defense for us. He was also our starting running back, a starter on special teams – we got him on the field as much as possible, he was that good. And he had such a good work ethic.”
While Crawford’s intelligence or commitment to his academics was never in question, he ultimately was forced to veer off the traditional path and detour to Bakersfield when it turned out his Canadian high school curriculum didn’t quite meet NCAA standards.
“He was in the wrong level of classes. They weren’t college prep courses, so he had to go to Bakersfield,” recalls Kwiatkowski, who actively recruited Crawford all along. “He was a very skilled athlete, playing offense in high school, and he was a really good basketball player, too, with unbelievable explosion and strength. And once he focused on playing just one sport all year-round, in a structured program, he just exploded, got huge, and he can carry his 290 pounds. It’s just impressive explosion.”
“I was recruited by Michigan State and Boise State and during that process, I couldn’t clear the clearing house,” adds Crawford, who also won MVP honors from his high school basketball league. “So the coaches both suggested that I go to Bakersfield College under Coach Chudy, and he was happy to have me. I was ready for anything. I just wanted the opportunity to play at Bakersfield and I got that, I got coached well and I took the opportunity and ran away with it. My time at Bakersfield was probably the biggest impact on my football life, because of many things – the coaching, on and off the field. It was great.”
In two seasons at Bakersfield, Crawford blossomed at defensive end, recording 80 tackles, 14 sacks, including a team-high eight as a sophomore in 2009, and 27 tackles for a loss while adding two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
“In high school, he was more of an offensive player, really, than he was a defensive player, but he knew the plan all along was to play him as a defensive end,” Chudy recounts. “He was a deer in the headlights when he first came in and he was a pretty good player when he left. I attribute that to the fact that he has a desire to get better and a passion to learn about the game, and I think it just carried over to Boise.”
After making the most of his time in junior college, Crawford remained intent on attending Boise State, especially since Kwiatkowski still wanted him and because his buddy Atkinson was still there (and is now entering his senior year).
“The (Boise) coaches stuck with me throughout junior college after they offered me a scholarship in high school,” says Crawford, who piled up seven sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss as a reserve his junior year at Boise State. “I also had a friend, Mike Atkinson, who goes there and I knew he could show me the ropes and teach me the details a lot faster than I would going there as a newbie. I felt like it worked out well.”
“It was a good fit for him,” Chudy says of Crawford’s move to Boise State. “I think, in this day and age, the NFL and college football, it’s such a big business. It’s more about the fit than it is about some conference. Everybody talks about the SEC, but I don’t think that would have been the right fit for him, that type of locker room. I think he fit in perfect for where Boise was at. And he was obviously doing it with some good players, because you look at the amount of draft picks they’ve had in the last two years, and he played with them as a junior and senior, so he was surrounded by some really good players.”
Besides being impressed by his performance on the field, the Cowboys like that Crawford comes from such a highly successful and respected program that went a combined 24-2 in his two years there.
“He played at a very good program,” Garrett points out. “A number of players were drafted from Boise. It is a competitive and nationally ranked program that plays against great competition. They practice the right way – they compete hard and you can see the development of these guys. It is a really good environment to come from. We feel that he has grown every year he has been in that program. He has the physical potential to grow more. When you play the way he plays, you just feel like you put those things together. Despite his relative inexperience, we feel his upside gives him a real chance to be what we want at that position.”
“I think he’s got a great capacity to learn and a great desire to get better and a work ethic that is extremely high,” Chudy adds. “I think he’s just built that way, and it should be the same way in Dallas. I think he’s going to outwork a lot of guys, I don’t think he’s going to take a lot for granted, and I think his upside is huge.”
While Crawford didn’t start for the Cowboys right away, he has gradually worked himself into the D-Line rotation to fill in for injured starters. He hopes to eventually take over a more primary role as the season moves along.
“He is a guy you can draft that is not a starter now, but potentially has the chance to move into a starting role in the future,” says Garrett. “We talk about that word motor, it has become a cliché word in the NFL, but it is one we think is really important and it means that he is going 100 miles an hour all day long. When you have ability and you go about it that way, you are going to get better as a player and you are going to impact the game. So we are really excited about how he goes about playing the game.”
“He’s powerful, he’s strong, he plays extremely physical,” Kwiatkowski says. “He can get up under guys and he can lift 300-pounders up off the ground with his strength. And on his pass-rushing, he’s explosive. He plays every play. There’s no doubting that he’s going to play his tail off and get to the ball. He’s going to leave it all on the field.”