In the pines an hour northeast of Birmingham, off a road that doesn't have a name, John Croyle has a softball diamond, swimming pool, gymnasium-children's center, general store, chicken house, pigpen, pond full of bullfrogs and seven brick homes. "When I look at this place I don't miss football," says Croyle, 36, who spent his college years ravaging Crimson Tide opponents as a star defensive end for Alabama. "I think about the things we have to do to make this the best children's home in America."
Croyle's Big Oak Boys' Ranch is home to 56 kids aged six to 18. His boys—abused, orphaned, neglected, unwanted—are the victims of what Croyle sees as a social fumble. "Our society has dropped the ball when it comes to our children," he says. "A mom and dad will bring their boy to me and say he's no-account, good for nothing, out of control—and they have no idea how he got that way. Well, he got that way because nobody had the time, the money or the desire to give him a decent upbringing."
Some of Croyle's boys had never seen a movie or slept in a bed before they came to Big Oak. One had never seen a sandwich. Another didn't know what a toothbrush was for. One was found shivering in an empty boxcar. Another was dipped in a vat of boiling grease by his mother. Many were physically or sexually abused; most had had scrapes with the law. "They're not bad kids, they just never had a chance," says Croyle. "We're here to give them a chance." Six-seven and thin at 210 pounds, he towers over his wards, who mob and climb him like a jungle gym when he makes his rounds on the ranch.
The best athlete Gadsden (Ala.) High ever produced, a prep All-America in football and basketball, Croyle went to Tuscaloosa in 1969 to star for Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide. A storky defensive end who swooped into backfields, he was All-SEC in 1972. Against Mississippi State his junior year he had 11 tackles, sacked the quarterback for a 32-yard loss and, for good measure, blocked a field goal attempt and ran the ball back 40 yards. During his varsity years Alabama lost one regular-season game.
As a collegian Croyle had four knee operations and two conflicting dreams: to play in the NFL and to run a Christian home for wayward boys.
His last football game was on New Year's Eve, 1973, the "Game of the Century" Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame. In the fourth quarter, with unbeaten 'Bama leading the unbeaten Irish 23-21, Croyle was "scissored, really creamed" on a trap play. He lay on the field unconscious while millions watched and worried. "I had seven or eight minutes of prime time," he says now, grinning.
Bryant helped persuade him to give up one of his dreams. "You have to marry pro football to play it well," the coach said, and while Croyle was hoping to test himself against the best football players in the world, he and his coach believed he had a higher calling. Bryant told him never to compromise. "When you start talking about John you need first to consider things a lot deeper than size and talent.... He's quite a man," the coach told the Gadsden Times. Croyle passed up the NFL draft.
On John Croyle Day in Gadsden, March 6, 1974, the honoree was presented with a $5,000 check from the Alabama Alumni Association—seed money for Big Oak Ranch. Another $15,000 was pledged by a Birmingham businessman, but Croyle needed $30,000 more to put a down payment on the land he wanted. Enter John Hannah, a 'Bama teammate whose last words to Croyle in Tuscaloosa had been, "See you in the pros." Hannah believed enough in Croyle to hand over his $30,000 signing bonus from the New England Patriots.
Hannah, a nine-time All-Pro who is now a vice-president at a Boston brokerage firm, says, "John was always tough, hard-nosed, aggressive, a good teammate, and he needed my help. I was glad to do what I could. Those boys needed a place to live." Croyle bought a ranch outside Gadsden.
He was 23. He lived in a farmhouse in the middle of the ranch—where he still lives with his wife and two children—and tried to be dad, mom, teacher and coach to five troubled boys. That summer a man from the welfare department came and asked to see his license. "I didn't know you needed a license to give a home to little boys," Croyle recalls. "I said, 'Here you are, sir,' and showed him my driver's license."
Croyle made his peace with the state and, with timely help from local businesses, church groups, Bryant and Ray Perkins—who had succeeded Bryant at Alabama before moving on to Tampa Bay—kept the bills paid and "straightened up" hundreds of unwanted boys. One of his alums is now an executive at a local manufacturing firm. Others are salesmen, construction workers and government workers. A few are in jail. "You can't save them all," Croyle says.
His boys are earnest, hardworking and unfailingly polite. They live eight to a house, under the tutelage of "house parents" who live and work at the ranch full-time. The boys wake at dawn and clean their rooms, then study, cut the grass or tend the stock. They attend nearby schools and know that if they fly right Croyle will help them get jobs, cars, apartments, even scholarships when they graduate.
"I'd rather be here than where I was going, which is jail," says Darby, 16, who has been at the ranch for 2½ years. "John is a good man. He's a fair man. He gives you a chance to change."
Bryan, 18, says he has been changed in his 18 months there. "It gave me my start. It made me turn my bad habits into good habits," he says. "Things are pretty strict here, but it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done, John is still your friend. He's probably the only adult I ever met who's like that."
"Most of us couldn't be controlled by our parents or had no parents or got in trouble with the law," says Patrick, 15. "Fugitive delinquents, you know? I heard a man in town call us that. So even though John tries to make this like a real home, we know we're here because we had problems." Patrick, who is remarkably articulate for his age, goes on to say, "This place teaches you all about authority. You're always striving for something—phone privileges, dating privileges, getting more responsibility. In a real home you wouldn't be striving for something all the time. But John wants us to make something of ourselves. He doesn't want us to be outcasts." Patrick watches a crow buzz the fishing hole. "He wants us to grow up."
Croyle solicits help for his boys in every boardroom, church, Rotary club, town meeting and supermarket he enters. When folks in town ask how that ranch of his is doing, he says, "We're still out in the woods strugglin'." Now and then, almost often enough, someone Croyle has met donates a thousand pairs of socks, a horse, a van or a truckload of chickens. The boys at Big Oak ate chicken like 56 Wade Boggses after 8,300 pounds hit their doorstep last year.
"We have to hustle," Croyle says, speeding home from a church speech in which he wowed the congregation with his horror stories and happy endings. "But I love waking up in the morning knowing I've got people to feed and house and clothe—and just help."
He parks his truck on the nameless road, jumps out and whoops at his new Softball diamond. "Isn't this great?" he says, chucking a rock across the infield's new sod. "Next we need tennis courts. What if I had a young McEnroe?"
Wishful thinking. For now, John Croyle is content. "In college I had a hand-tooled saddle hung over a chair in my room," he says. "That was Big Oak Ranch then, but I could always see it the way it is now. I knew it would grow because this is what I was meant to do. I'm a finagler—I finagle my way into a boy's heart and find a way to love him."
And the NFL career that never was?
"I think about it," Croyle says. "I've watched guys I played with doing well in pro ball, and in my heart I know I could have done it. But I made the right choice. This place is more important to me than a national championship or a Super Bowl. Here's a story for you—last Christmas, Tommy, he's nine, cute little guy, he got a bike. Now, Christmas Eve I'm up until 2 a.m. putting bikes together; then Christmas morning the boys ride them over to show me. Tommy was walking his. I said, 'You better get on that and ride it before I do.' He didn't want to ride it. He said he'd never had a bike, and he didn't want to rub the 'new' off. That was my Super Bowl."
Catfish hunter Kevin Cook fell in love with Pruett's Restaurant while in Gadsden.