Best NFL Athlete? Nolan Contendere

Rams Safety Nolan Cromwell, a star quarterback and world-class hurdler as a collegian, has become one of pro football's top defensive players
October 26, 1981

You see what we're up against?" says Johnnie Johnson, the Los Angeles Rams' strong safety. "I came across the field just to see if it was true. And it was. Lofton not only caught the ball with one hand, he even celebrated with one hand."

Johnson was speaking of a touchdown catch Green Bay Wide Receiver James Lofton had made earlier in the day against the Rams' secondary. It had been a spectacular reception, the kind featured in highlight films: Lofton at full lean, reaching out with his right hand, snaring the ball impossibly and raising it in victorious salute—without ever touching it with his left hand.

Johnson's lament was the usual one from defensive backs: What can you expect from us working stiffs when we have to cover these circus performers, these super-athletes? Certainly NFL fans are aware of the multiple skills of the best receivers: Lynn Swann, the 25'2" long-jumper; Lofton, the 27' long-jumper; Cliff Branch and Mel Gray, the 9.3 hundred men; the just-retired Russ Francis, who once held the national high school record in the javelin (259'9").

But is the matchup between catchers and defenders all that unfair? Are all receivers gods and all defensive backs mere mortals running around trying to maintain control—little guys with frying pans for hands, failed receivers fated to be run over on sweeps and beaten on bombs?

Roll that camera again. But this time keep it on Nolan Cromwell, L.A.'s 6'1", 200-pound All-Pro free safety. It's the Rams vs. the Giants in Giants Stadium, Sept. 28, 1980, and here comes the right-handed Cromwell sailing out of nowhere to intercept a deep sideline pass with—check it out—just one hand, his left.

Cut to Rams vs. Falcons in Atlanta on Dec. 9, 1979. Atlanta Wide Receiver Alfred Jackson has his man beaten for a sure touchdown. The ball is nearly there, but here comes Cromwell, again seemingly from nowhere, leaping high, hands higher than the goalpost crossbar, to make a shocking interception. Though he lands with a crash on his head and left shoulder, Cromwell leaps up, dodges tacklers and returns the ball 28 yards.

Clearly, if in the war of the airways the receivers have all the big guns, Cromwell is an equalizer—an MX missile—for the defense. He is such a remarkable athlete that opposing coaches hate to describe him for fear of upsetting their own premier athletes. "Maybe we can agree on this," says Atlanta's Leeman Bennett of the Atlanta Falcons. "I don't know of a better athlete than Nolan. You can't draw up a game plan against the Rams without thinking of him." "He's the kind of free safety who takes away your basic patterns," says San Francisco's Bill Walsh. "A perennial Pro Bowl player for the 1980s," says Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' director of player personnel.

The Rams' staff is less restrained. "He's great," says Coach Ray Malavasi. "He's in a class by himself, the best free safety ever," says Defensive Coordinator Bud Carson.

"Nolan is one of the most incredible football players I've ever seen," says Ram Vice-President and General Manager Don Klosterman, who has seen a few. "When I try to compare him to somebody, the only person who comes to mind is Bobby Bell, the former linebacker for Kansas City. Bell could play corner, safety, throw the ball 85 yards, center the ball either short or long, kick off, play wide receiver, quarterback. Nolan is like that, a guy who can do anything. And he can do it with such grace. I'm afraid people will think I'm Nolan's P.R. man, but I honestly can't think of anything negative to say about him."

Last season, which was only Cromwell's fourth in the NFL, his second as a starter, one of the wire services agreed with Klosterman and named Cromwell the NFC Defensive Player of the Year. For the season Cromwell had eight interceptions, the most in the conference, and 101 tackles, more than any other Ram defensive back.

Cromwell is the undisputed leader of the Rams' secondary, which is probably the best in football, with Pro Bowl performers Rod Perry and Pat Thomas at the corners and speedy millionaire Johnnie (My Money Is Deferred Over A Long Time) Johnson at strong safety. In the Rams' recent Monday night 24-7 win over Chicago the L.A. secondary limited the Bears' wide receivers to one catch for three yards—and when it jells (Cromwell claims that he's still learning, and Johnson is in just his second year), it should be even better.

"We get along great, too," says Thomas, no small claim on a team on which dissension and acrimony seem to be handed out with the jockstraps. "When J.J. signed his contract I was happy for him. I really was. We all were." And the fact that Cromwell is the only white in the bunch? "Hey, I went to Texas A&M where there were about 30,000 white students and about 100 blacks," Thomas says. "No problem. We meet together, we go out for drinks. Our secondary is united—all for one and one for all."

But back to Cromwell and the great-athlete reputation. What is a great athlete? You can start with hands. Cromwell has terrific hands. He has held on kick placements since he joined the Rams, a sign of management's trust in that vital area. And, says Carson, "He could have been a pro wide receiver."

Then there is the arm. Cromwell can throw—long, short, with accuracy, with zip. "What a quarterback he could have been," sighs Klosterman, himself a former pro signal-caller. In fact, Cromwell was a wishbone quarterback during his last two years at the University of Kansas. He didn't get to pass much and was injured his senior season, but in his junior year he ran for 1,124 yards and was named Big Eight Player of the Year. Before that, in high school in tiny Ransom, Kans., he had played everything from halfback to middle linebacker.

Jumping ability? In high school Cromwell was an all-state basketball center who could dunk.

Coordination? As a punter in high school he kicked with his right foot until he sprained the ankle; he then punted leftfooted and averaged 38 yards a kick. At the ABC Super Teams competition in Hawaii in February 1980, Cromwell devastated his trashsport opponents, leading the Rams to a first-place finish and $14,500-per-man paychecks.

Speed? As a member of the Kansas track team Cromwell ran the indoor 600 in 1:10, just 2.4 seconds off the world best. He had a relay quarter-mile split of 46.5. He was the Big Eight champion in the intermediate hurdles, and his time of 49.5 qualified him for the 1976 Olympic Trials. And once, just for kicks, he entered the decathlon and scored 6,806 points. "With practice I probably could have gotten up to 7,500," Cromwell says. Others suspect he could have gotten close to 8,000. Guido Kratschmer's world record is 8,649.

There is another element to super-athlete status, at least as it pertains to football. Call it intelligence, instinct, adaptability—it's the thing that enables certain players to take on an unfamiliar role and perform well. Two examples: The first time Cromwell was on the Rams' punt rushing team he blocked the punt. In his first start as a college quarterback he ran for 294 yards, breaking Gale Sayers' school record and setting an NCAA single-game rushing record for quarterbacks that still stands.

And a corollary to this talent is the ability to recognize and respond to situations one has never experienced. In the aforementioned Los Angeles-Chicago game the Bears tried a flea-flicker. Though all the keys read "run," something within Cromwell said "pass." When the ball was thrown, he was there and nearly intercepted it. "What surprises me about Nolan is the way he reacts," said Bear Strong Safety Gary Fencik after the game. "On that play he read his key, but he also was back for the coverage. It must be a sixth sense."

Though Cromwell's skills are well known now—just listen to Howard Cosell on the subject sometime—at the Super Teams competition he was still an unknown, except to his teammates. And they protected him like Brinks guards. "At 10 o'clock we put him to bed," says former Ram Defensive End Fred Dryer. "We carried the social burden and he slept. Then, when we finally brought him off the trailer and he whinnied going around the track, guys like Willie Stargell and Dave Parker almost died. They'd never seen anything like Nolan."

The Rams, too, had never seen anything like Cromwell when they drafted him in the second round in 1976. Part of the reason they didn't start him right away was that they didn't know where to play him. "All we knew was that he was too good to be on the bench," says Carson. Even as a sub Cromwell scored two touchdowns in his second year, one on a blocked punt and one on a 16-yard run after a fake field goal.

In 1979 L.A. traded veteran Free Safety Bill Simpson and put Cromwell at the position to utilize his interception skills, as well as to preserve him. The free safety—formerly called weak safety because he lines up on the weak side, away from the opponent's tight end—is often a team's best athlete, but not always the one you'll find in the thick of the action; the position is notorious for being the hiding place of crafty players who hate to tackle. Cromwell startled the Rams by making more tackles in two seasons than anybody else on the team except Middle Linebacker Jack Reynolds, who is now with San Francisco.

Then the Rams added a unique nickel defense—one in which a reserve cornerback took the free-safety spot while Cromwell went up to the line and covered the opponent's toughest receiver man-to-man. Because Johnson and Cromwell practice at corner every day, the alignment gives the Rams essentially a five-cornerback secondary, a terrible sight to opposing quarterbacks. There are teams that change their offenses just to keep L.A. out of the nickel; that's quite a tribute to Cromwell.

After a recent workout at the Rams' practice facility in Anaheim, Defensive End Jack Youngblood, jerseyless, cigarette hanging from his lip, casts a lure far out onto the asphalt patio outside the locker room with a new test-model reel a salesman has given him to try out. He and Cromwell watch the plug sink into imaginary bass waters. Time passes. "The big one!" screams Youngblood. With a tremendous jerk he whips the lure back toward the locker-room roof, the line sailing up and over Cromwell while Youngblood cranks frantically on the reel.

Cromwell heads for the parking lot. He fires up his pickup truck, the one with the shotgun rack and the 83-gallon propane tank in the bed, and drives to his apartment, which overlooks one of Anaheim's few strawberry patches. His wife, Ellen, greets him at the door.

"Honey," Cromwell says. "I think I might be buying a new fishing reel."

Ellen, a pretty young woman who overwhelmed Cromwell at a boat show in Kansas four years ago, smiles. They'll probably discuss this later.

The Cromwells are farm people, in Los Angeles only for the football season. After the last game they'll pack up the truck and drive back to Lawrence, where they have a home and 160 acres of bottomland on the Kansas River. Cromwell will work this acreage actively; he's not sure whether he'll put in corn or soybeans next year.

Because the Cromwells know that football isn't forever, they have put themselves on a budget they think they can live with after Nolan retires and goes into farming full-time, or coaching or business. They shun the bright lights and Tinseltown parties, the publicity that they know can tear up an all-American couple. Nolan's pickup runs on propane because it's cheap and, as he says, "that's what everybody back in Kansas is doing."

He adds, "Ellen and I are both from small towns. When you grow up in a place that doesn't even have a picture show, you learn to do things that don't cost money." Hunting, fishing and camping are his favorite pastimes.

Nolan is the fifth of William (a co-op grain-elevator manager in Ransom) and Lucille Cromwell's eight children. The family traces its roots to Oliver Cromwell. Nolan Cromwell steadfastly insists that there's nothing much unusual about his own history. To emphasize the point, he wrote on his NFL personnel survey sheet just after he was drafted, "I've really had a very boring life!!!"

But that's just a way of putting off those who might not understand the life he has led, or chosen. Indeed, out on the plains Cromwell developed a modesty, a sense of humility, an equanimity, right along with his physical skills. He doesn't brag. He's polite, friendly, laughs a lot and doesn't even appear to have a killer streak hidden deep down the way most agreeable football players do. When he tackles he tries to bring the man down, not maim him. Maulers like former Oiler Jack Tatum and Bear Doug Plank puzzle him. "I'm not much of an intimidator, I guess," he says.

"Nolan has got his own values, his own integrity," says Klosterman. "He's a plateau player. He doesn't have peaks and valleys because he's so straightforward, so capable. I can't see any insecurities or doubts in him. He's the Marlboro Man. He's one of the most stable human beings I've ever met."

Of course, this is the kind of guy you want on your team, leading the flock, and Klosterman took it upon himself to sweeten Cromwell's contract considerably last year to keep him a Ram. Not that Cromwell was going anywhere. He already had a contract and, as he says, "I've always felt a contract is a legal document. Ethically, it's not right to break it, and I wouldn't do that." That's a singular statement for a Los Angeles Ram or, for that matter, most any professional athlete.

When the Rams drafted Cromwell, they felt they were taking a big risk. He was, after all, a "projection," an offensive player changing to defense, and how many quarterbacks have made that switch? Bill Bradley, Rex Kern, Jack Mildren? Not a lot. The Ram gamble paid off. But it's interesting to consider what Cromwell could have become if things had been different. Maybe a Bruce Jenner circling the track with a tiny American flag upraised. Maybe a quarterback with fame and endorsements. Maybe a loin-clothed Tarzan squiring Bo Derek through the jungle. As one Ram secretary says, "Nolan is the only man I ever knew who looks terrific in either a beard, or a mustache, or clean-shaven."

But questions like these don't torment Cromwell. "I'm really happy playing in the defensive secondary," he says. "If the ball is thrown and I've done everything right and I know I can get there in time, it's a very good feeling. I try not to worry too much. Cornerbacks have the hardest job, by far. And then comes the strong safety. Free safety is really the easiest."

For Nolan Cromwell that's probably true.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERCromwell holds on kicks because he has sure hands and can run or throw on a fake. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERYou down Earl Campbell any way you can. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERIn Los Angeles, as well as back in Lawrence, Nolan and Ellen prefer the simple life. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERJohnson, Cromwell, Jack Youngblood, Larry Brooks: the fastest half-ton in the West.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)