Running backs are often evaluated by their ability to "run to daylight," but perhaps it isn't the capability to seek light that defines the most gifted, but rather how they navigate through the cyclonic darkness that swirls about them at the line of scrimmage. A lot of runners, including some very good ones, are, in this way, afraid of the dark. But at six feet and 232 pounds, Dwayne Crutchfield has always thrived in murky confusion. "Every great back has the ability to run until it gets dark, and then keep going," says Donnie Duncan, Crutchfield's coach at Iowa State. "In Dwayne's case, I think it helps him to know that when he gets to those dark places, he's going to be as powerful as anybody he meets there."
Most of Crutchfield's power comes from his thighs, which measure 31 inches around, and his low center of gravity. Crutchfield has one of the lowest centers of gravity in the business. Also one of the biggest. His combination of balance and brute strength, plus an almost feral quickness whenever he's in the grasp of a would-be tackier, allows Crutchfield to dump most defenders on their centers of gravity. After Crutchfield had ripped through Oklahoma's defense for 179 yards last season. Sooner Linebacker Mike Coast said, "I have a bruised ear and a headache from trying to tackle him. It's almost like he was trying to hit us."
Just so. "I love physical contact," says Crutchfield. "I'd rather get into a hit than avoid one, rather run over you than around you." Iowa State Strong Safety Terron Rogers, who has faced Crutchfield often in practice, speaks with the conviction of a man whose body is as purple as his prose. "Crutch looks like a freight train coming at you," Rogers says. "When you're standing in front of him, you wonder what you're doing there. I know he has put more bruises on me than I've ever put on him." In a lovely piece of Iowa imagery. Cyclone Assistant Coach Clarence Hudson compares Crutchfield's style to that of a car hurtling through a cornfield. "You look out your window and on both sides you see all those cornstalks going down—boom, boom, boom," says Hudson. "That's what it's like watching Crutch. He just mows 'em down."
Crutchfield wasn't always the thresher he has become. When he arrived at Iowa State in the spring of 1980, he was fresh from a season in which he had led the nation's junior colleges in rushing, with 1,812 yards and a 7.5 yard per carry average at Garden City (Kansas) C.C. But at 248 pounds Crutchfield was also overweight, and found it difficult to switch from fullback to tailback in Iowa State's I formation. "A lot was expected of Dwayne when he came here," says Hudson, "and he didn't immediately run over everybody." Rocky Gillis, the Cyclones' incumbent tailback, outplayed Crutchfield that spring and held on to the job in preseason practice last fall, though Crutchfield had trimmed off 16 pounds.
On opening day 1980, Crutchfield had his center of gravity planted firmly on the bench throughout most of the first and second quarters. He might have remained there all season had Gillis not had the bad luck to throw up in the Cyclones' huddle and the bad judgment to do it on the Cyclones' quarterback, John Quinn. Crutchfield was sent in to replace the wretched Gillis, and he proceeded to run for 121 yards and two touchdowns before Duncan took him out at the end of the third period of a 42-7 win over Northeast Louisiana. Needless to say, Gillis never got his job back—he has since been moved to wide receiver and is no longer allowed to stand anywhere near the quarterback in the huddle—as Crutchfield piled up 1,312 yards on 284 carries and 11 touchdowns to lead the Big Eight in rushing. Though he's at best a long shot to win the Heisman Trophy with Herschel Walker around, Crutchfield may well go high in the next NFL draft because of the similarity of his style and his center of gravity with those of Earl Campbell. Like Campbell, Crutchfield comes by his pile-driver locomotion naturally. "Didn't have to do no work on those," he says, glancing down at his massive thighs. When he was growing up in West College Hill, a hard-scrabble pocket of Cincinnati, Crutch-field was always bigger than other kids his age, and during the first few years he played football, he was used at tackle and then at linebacker. It wasn't until he intercepted a pass and ran it back 65 yards for a score that he was converted to fullback. At about that time, when Crutch-field was in the sixth grade, his parents were divorced, and he moved in with his grandfather, the Reverend Howard Crutchfield, a fullback-sized Baptist preacher.
As keeper of his own legend, Crutchfield has suffered occasional lapses of memory. Last year, for instance, he told a group of Big Eight football writers about an incident that one writer later touchingly depicted as "the turning point in his life." According to Crutchfield, a chum showed up one day in the seventh grade with an automobile that he said he had "borrowed." Crutchfield got into the car "and the next thing I knew, the police were chasing us and shooting at us. We stopped the car and everybody ran but me. I put up my hands and told them not to shoot anymore. They arrested me and took me to my grandfather's house. He convinced them that I didn't know anything about the stolen car, and I haven't been in trouble since." However, when Crutchfield recounted the same story to a different audience recently, it ended with him hauling his center of gravity out of the constabulary's sight as fast as he could. "I never told my grandfather about it," Crutch said sadly. "He's not going to like it when he finds out."
As a high school senior, Crutchfield was all-state in football, Cincinnati's second-leading scorer in basketball and an all-city catcher in baseball. But his grade-point was just below the mandatory 2.0 for a Division I-A school, and he was placed at Waldorf (Iowa) College by the then Iowa State coach, Earle Bruce. When Crutchfield became so unhappy at Waldorf that he tried to quit and go home, Duncan moved him to Garden City, where he would be under the watchful eye of Duncan's friend Ray Sewalt. "He wouldn't allow any recruiters to talk to me," says Crutchfield, "and my mail was all intercepted. But I was going to Iowa State all the way and I didn't really mind." Sewalt's other contribution to Crutchfield's career was to state unequivocally to a reporter that "Dwayne Crutchfield is better than Earl Campbell." That one still gets a fair amount of play around the state of Iowa. "Coach Sewalt meant well," says Crutchfield, "but it put a lot of pressure on me."
As Iowa State's game against archrival Iowa drew closer last week, the pressure on Crutchfield increased. He doesn't eat at all on Fridays or Saturdays during the season and his mental preparation is so intense that his game face looks like a death mask. "By Friday," he says, "I'm like a zombie."
Perhaps it says more about college athletics than about Crutchfield that instead of feeling excitement or anticipation as this season approached, he was gripped with a nameless dread. "The people here have been so kind that I don't want to let anybody down," he said. Then, sadly, "My job requires me to be perfect. I'm playing with the coach's income around here—if I fumble, it may cost Coach Duncan his job. If I fumble, I feel like I've let the whole town of Ames down."
Last Saturday, Crutchfield gave a home crowd of 53,922—the largest gathering ever to see a game in Ames—exactly what it wanted to see. Starting off with a run of 40 yards on the first play of the game, he barged through the Hawkeyes for 147 yards in 36 carries. Crutchfield also scored a touchdown as the Cyclones won, 23-12. A week earlier, he had rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns to propel his team past West Texas State 17-13. "When I've got that ball I don't have any control over myself," he says, "I just see the end zone and I don't see anything else."
Sometimes Dwayne Crutchfield runs so well in the dark places because he doesn't see them at all.