Heisman: It's a full-time job

Posted: Tuesday, December 17, 2002

The Heisman Trophy he won a year ago is still in its original packing crate, somewhere in his mother's house back in Omaha.

''I've got a display case there,'' Eric Crouch said Sunday, ''but I've been kind of busy.''

At that moment, busy meant shepherding his fiancee and daughter through the maze of a New York airport to catch an evening flight back home. Twenty-four hours earlier, it meant sitting across the aisle from 1991 winner Desmond Howard at the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan, exchanging knowing smiles when Southern California quarterback Carson Palmer became the latest member of their exclusive fraternity.

Tomorrow it could mean new business opportunities, more appearances, charity work, or books, T-shirts and magazines to autograph. Being a Heisman Trophy winner is full-time work if you want it, especially if you were once a star in a place as mad about college football as Nebraska.

''In the few seconds before they announced Carson's name I was thinking, 'One of these guys' lives is about to change forever.' Because no matter what else you do, even if you don't have a great pro career, you'll be recognized in most places and remembered everywhere.

''This award has a life and a legacy all its own.''

And a curse all its own, too.

The Heisman has been won by a long line of running backs who could charitably be described as second-rate pros. Few quarterbacks with the trophy can claim to be even that lucky.

The only great one was Roger Staubach, Navy, class of 1963. The last really good one was Jim Plunkett, Stanford, 1970. Of the last five, two -- Crouch and Gino Torretta of Miami -- never played even a single down in a real NFL game. A third, Charlie Ward of Florida State, opted to play pro basketball instead. The two others -- Danny Wuerffel of Florida and Chris Weinke of Florida State -- probably wished they'd had that option.

Given that history, you'd have expected Crouch to tell Palmer to turn down the trophy, exit the Yale Club stage left and take off running like his suit was on fire. But no.

''If I was going to tell Carson anything,'' Crouch said, ''this is it: 'Be yourself.'''

That is the one regret of his own, all-too-brief pro career. Growing up in Omaha, Crouch was a quarterback. It defined who he was and what he wanted to be. He began at age 8 and by his early 20s was good enough to be entrusted with control of the offense for one of the most storied programs in the game.

But despite the Heisman, NFL scouts judged him too small for the position -- 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds -- with a suspect throwing arm to boot. The only thing that measured up to league standards was Crouch's speed and desire to please.

Told that his future was anywhere but at quarterback, Crouch offered to play wide receiver, running back, defensive back or kick returner. The move appeared to pay off when the St. Louis Rams drafted him in the third round last spring. But by the end of the summer, Crouch was hobbled by injury, homesick for Omaha and regretting his decision to let others define what he could do.

Struggling, he tore up a contract that would have paid him $1.2 million and instead made out a check to the ballclub for the $395,000 he'd accepted as a signing bonus. Friends were as astonished by the move as they were bewildered.

''It wasn't just a case of a guy talking the talk. In this case, Eric was walking the walk, too,'' said John Hoich, an Omaha businessman who has served as a mentor to Crouch.

''Sure, some people looked at it and said, 'He quit,' but very few of them were from around here. Around here, people knew what he did was heartfelt. Eric was a hero.''

But not to everybody, at least not initially. At a clinic he put on one day, ''a kid came up to Eric and said, 'You quit,''' recalled his fiancee, Nicole Kousgard. ''The word 'quit' startles you. I think it hurt Eric because he loves kids so much.''

Not that Crouch needed any more motivation. Healthy once more, he works out every morning. The rest of the day is his. With a phone call, he can arrange an apprenticeship with the savviest businessmen in town or feed his ego appearing at a banquet that same evening in front of the same crowd.

''I still love the game,'' he said. ''The only thing that has changed is I've learned playing receiver is not for me. I let other people label me as somebody who couldn't play quarterback in the pros before I got the opportunity.

''That won't happen again. I need to get fit, stay healthy, and see if somebody else will give me that chance.''

Crouch puts the odds of things falling in place at 50-50. Once he couldn't imagine life without football; now, he's learned to make do with everything but football.

''It's something special to be born and raised and play in front of people, then grow up and have those people be the same way towards you,'' he said. ''I've been blessed to have the career I did and the opportunities I did.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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