Eric Crouch was on a beach in Jamaica last week, shirt off and sunglasses on, when he learned he was selected for the College Football Hall of Fame.
Matt Davison, Scott Frost and Tom Osborne face-timed him with the news.
"I said, 'Guys, quit pulling my leg, I'm trying to enjoy myself down here,'" the former Nebraska quarterback said Tuesday.
The 41-year-old Crouch chuckled as he recalled the moment. He's still humble. Still a gentleman. Always will be. In fact, I appreciated it earlier this week when Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos described Crouch as "a wonderful gentleman" because the 2001 Heisman Trophy winner is indeed an excellent ambassador for NU. He's unfailingly polite. At least that's been my experience with him.
Crouch has always intrigued me in that regard. As much as he is truly a gentleman, he was a ferocious competitor. From where did that ferociousness come?
"It's a good question because I'm not a fierce person," he said. "But when it comes to the game of football, I guess I didn't like losing."
He chuckled again. I've interviewed Crouch a zillion times over the years, including countless times during his almost three full years as Nebraska's starting quarterback from 1999-2001. This was as comfortable and happy as I've heard him.
Hell, he's a Hall of Famer.
Man, he was ferocious on Saturdays.
"I think a lot of it came down to just pure will and heart and guts," Crouch said. "It was just wanting to propel yourself to victory status. At the end of the day, you work so hard and you have all these people counting on you — fans and kids and, man, there's just so much history and tradition. You just didn't want to let anybody down."
Folks tend to forget the legendary Osborne recruited Crouch from Millard North as part of the 1997 recruiting class — Osborne’s last. Frost, the current Nebraska head coach, preceded Crouch as the Huskers' starting quarterback. And Davison, now an associate Husker athletic director, was a receiver on Crouch-led teams. Davison last week called Crouch "one of the toughest players I was ever around" and said his close friend "wouldn’t accept losing."
Crouch hardly lost at all at Nebraska after taking over as starter for good for the third game of the 1999 season. From that point, he was 31-5 at the controls. He wasn't a particularly big player (6-foot-1 and 205 pounds), but he was particularly tough. Tough as a leather boot. Remember all the pounding Husker quarterbacks endured back then while running the option and whatever else? He got up every time, or so it seemed.
"Eric raised the level of the people around him, all the players and even the coaches," former Nebraska quarterbacks coach Turner Gill told me in 2001.
Gill, in fact, called Crouch the best quarterback he ever coached, a strong statement considering Frost, Tommie Frazier and Brook Berringer were among Gill's pupils.
"The big thing Eric has over them is speed," Gill said back then.
Oh, yeah, Crouch was a blazer. Go back and watch "Black Flash 41 Reverse," the touchdown pass he caught in a 20-10 win against second-ranked Oklahoma that gave him a key Heisman moment in late October 2001 in front of a national TV audience. Watch how he sprinted away from two Sooner defensive backs after the catch. I'm not sure I've ever heard Memorial Stadium louder than it was at that moment.
But Crouch is like a lot of vicious competitors in that he tends to remember the losses above all.
"I really want to go play those games again," he says now.
Nebraska's 24-20 setback at Texas in 1999 — the Huskers' only loss that season — seems to really stick in his craw to this day. That NU team was loaded — a national-championship caliber outfit, he says. What a defense: Mike Brown, Ralph Brown, Keyuo Craver, Aaron Wills, Carlos Polk, Steve Warren, Tony Ortiz. On and on. Dan Alexander and Correll Buckhalter were powerhouse running backs. Davison and Bobby Newcombe were Crouch's favorite targets.
Of course, Newcombe often comes up in discussions about Crouch. I've long wanted to ask Crouch how much his battles with Newcombe for the starting quarterback job in 1998 and 1999 shaped his career.
"That really did shape it because even though I was a backup quarterback at Nebraska for a certain time (he was 4-2 as starter in 1998), I was also a backup in Toronto (in the CFL) and also a backup for a short time in Green Bay (NFL)," Crouch said. "All these places I went, I always wanted to make sure I was a good teammate to the guys ahead of me in terms of making them better. I always figured that would make me better, too.
"I did the same thing in my competitions at Nebraska. To be honest, I never thought it was my job for sure. A lot of times people say, 'You're the starter now, you can step off the gas.' I never felt like that. I always felt like I had to keep proving myself because it was such a tough position to win. Anytime you get that starter's job at Nebraska, that's not an easy task. I always felt like every practice, and every workout in the weight room, it was another way to keep saying, 'Man, I'm going to keep getting better from here on out.'
"I think that's why I felt like I kept making steps forward on the way to the top, from where I started as a freshman."
Yes, to the top. All the way to the Heisman ceremony, and the College Football Hall of Fame. Congrats to a great one.