Former University of Alabama and NFL Quarterback Brodie Croyle is writing another chapter in his life that has nothing to do with football. What he says might astound you.
by AL BLANTON
A mile or two down a picturesque road, not far from Big Oak Girls’ Ranch in Springville, Alabama, there is a marquee sign above Red Hill Missionary Baptist Church. You might miss it, if the aging barns, the haphazard ponds and undulant hills begin to weave their spell on this land-lovers drive. The sign reads:
Bama 101 K
Auburn 84 K
Sunday school 25
Brodie Croyle passes by this sign on his way to his new job at the 300-acre ranch that his father built in 1974 for children needing a chance. He has heard the full-throated fury of that 101 K strong, their white-and-crimson shakers snapping back and forth on Saturdays in autumn like heated pistons. He has worn the armor; his blood and sweat are forever soaked in that sublime turf. And if anyone understands how football can become an idol, it’s Croyle.
The aw-shucks boy Alabamians watched grow up is now a man. Today, Brodie is dressed in a tan field coat, blue jeans, and boots. The sunglasses around his neck dangle from a set of Croakies (he’s still got a bit of college boy in him) but his hair is cropped more neatly than that machismo swoosh of his days as Alabama quarterback. He’s a retired NFL star at only 30. His football career is over, and he is busy assembling the rest of his life.
If you didn’t have a clue that he was a quarterback in a former life, you’d think he was just another guy. There is not a speck of pretention in him. He’s got a Cadillac grin, tinged with boyish mischief. He listens to George Strait. His favorite place to eat is Guthrie’s Chicken in Tuscaloosa (“tough to beat” he says). And he swears he doesn’t miss it, football that is. “Only a fool stumbles on what’s behind him,” he quips. “When that chapter closed, it was time for another.”
The book he’s already written is an awfully good one.
Chapter 1: I was brought home from a hospital in northeast Alabama and raised on a ranch. My dad was a football star at the University of Alabama, but decided not to go to the pro league. Instead, he built a ranch for kids who needed structure in their life. Growing up, some of them were my best friends.
Chapter 2: I was a quarterback. Dad never pushed me, but said if I was going to play, he’d support me in anything I did. He wanted me to be my own man. There was never any pressure from him to play. He never yelled. He was always an encourager. Sometimes, he had to rein me in. He always told me to focus on the good and learn from the bad and strive to be my best.
Chapter 3: I got a scholarship to play quarterback for the University of Alabama. I was hurt a lot, but I gave it everything I had. We won a few ballgames while I was there. My most memorable one was when we beat Florida at home in 2005. They were a bit proud of their ranking, but that day, they ran into a buzz saw. The stadium that day was as loud as I’ve ever heard it.
Chapter 4: I played for five years with the Kansas City Chiefs and retired as an Arizona Cardinal. I threw 319 total passes in the NFL, even started a few games.
Chapter 5: I gave up football a couple of years ago and decided to come back to Alabama to work for a timber company. But the Ranch was calling me home, the place I was raised, and I moved back in 2013. I now serve as Associate Executive Director. I married my wife Kelli in 2007 and we have a boy, Sawyer. We’re expecting our second child any day now. I am blessed beyond measure.
Now Croyle’s script—the part about reinventing himself post-football—has everything to do with going back to where he came from. As a child, Big Oak Ranch’s roots ran deep in him. They were vast and accommodating. Yet they did not spill out token entitlement, but instead fed the aches of the soul. Brodie’s father, John, has spoken to thousands upon thousands of people on parenting across the years. But his greatest testimony, his greatest proof that his theory is sound, is how he raised his own children, the kind of success they’ve had as they walked across the coals of life.
Brodie will say that three lessons from his father stand out above all else. He learned the value of hard work. “Anything freely given quickly loses value,” Brodie says. “My dad taught me to earn what you get. There are no handouts. He taught me that I need to be the first one to get there and the last one to leave. That applies in football, in life, and as a parent.”
The second is commitment. “People use that term loosely. Everybody’s got New Year’s Resolutions—lose ten pounds, quit stuff, start working out. People love to commit to an outcome. My dad taught me that what makes a man is a commitment to the journey. My journey in football was nothing like I thought it would be. My outcomes were to win the Heisman and win the national championship. But God had a different plan. If things would have gone differently for me, I might not be sitting here right now. Football is not why I was put on this earth.”
The third is courage. “Courage is being willing to go against fear,” says Croyle. “It’s about making tough decisions. It’s the ability to overcome what you’re scared of. Not going the easy route.”
As much as John might have instructed otherwise, a lesson Brodie had to learn on his own was how to prioritize, for it is easy to get sucked into the vortex of the 101 K strong. He got distracted by the high-wattage of lights and the smoke of applause. “I wanted to play in the NFL since I was 12 years old. But football became my God, my idol, and my master. In Matthew, it says that you cannot serve two masters. Here I was, putting football ahead of everything else in my life.”
Croyle says that he began to get out from under this mindset when he met his wife, Kelli. “I married a Godly woman, and I got to watch her live it. Football was my job and my life, and I would leave at dark and get home at dark. Every night, she’d be in bed, reading her Bible. I finally came to the realization that this isn’t about football, and this isn’t about me. I guess it was my way of learnin’; I’m hard-headed and it took me a lot longer. It was a gradual learning process.”
That stubbornness often manifested itself on the football field. Croyle played through four years of tumult at Alabama, three head coaches, and nagging injuries. He didn’t have the luxury of playing pain-free under the tutelage of One Nick Saban. He may not have had the best coaches in terms of winning, but what he saw in one of them perhaps transcends notches in the record books. “I don’t think people realize how good a man Coach Shula is. He wasn’t too high or too low. He was the same guy every single day. This has really helped me in my family. Just to be the same guy every day.
“Coach Shula’s favorite phrase was ‘You can’t go broke takin’ a profit,” says Croyle. “Well, my comeback to that was ‘you can’t get rich makin’ minimum wage.’”
Croyle always had an affinity for throwing the deep ball, and at times zeroing in on an intended target (there’s that outcome-based mindset again) came back to bite him, such as the two-overtime game against Arkansas his sophomore year. “I threw a pick in overtime. I remember the play. It was Deuce Right Jam RIP 438 Run It H Fake Cross. I had predetermined that I was going to throw it. They intercepted it, and man do I regret throwing it,” he says.
Alabama lost 34-31 that day, but Croyle passed for 204 yards and three touchdowns.
Since finding his own Shangri-La back at the Ranch, Croyle says he doesn’t think much about football. He’s still an Alabama fan and might catch a game or two, but he’d rather let the new players have their time. Croyle also believes it’s easy to lose perspective when you get caught in all the glam. “The life expectancy of a player in the NFL is less than 2 years. That’s a short period of time in the grand scheme of life. It’s an easy world to get caught up in. You can get caught up living that kind of life. But having a foundation, a base, is the key. I don’t want football to define me,” says Brodie.
While the Ranch does not have the window-dressings of the NFL—the high-salaried gladiators of the arena and skimpily clad pom pom girls—one could easily argue that the Ranch is making a more profound impact on humankind. Instead of zipping a pass to a wide receiver, Croyle will be passing off life skills to an emotionally-wrecked teen. Instead of handing the ball off to a running back, Croyle will be giving a hot meal to a hungry child. Instead of throwing passes across the field like frozen ropes, he will be tossing children a lifeline.
Rarely does a man who achieves greatness in one field find something of greater value in another. But Brodie has found something in Big Oak Ranch that has eternal ramifications; he is investing in the lives of children who desperately need to be given a real chance at living.
Brodie Croyle will never be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He will never hoist a Super Bowl trophy above his head. He will never bring home the bronze-built Heisman, never gaze at the shine of a national championship ring on his finger. But as he sorts out his life, as he thinks about who he’s become, he says with that boyish grin, “I’d much rather be known as a great man than a good football player.”
Enough said. B
Note: This article was originally published in 2014 on 78mag.com.
Photo by Al Blanton