Front-Runner A softy off the field and tough as nails on it, Nebraska's fleet-footed Eric Crouch has emerged as the top Heisman contender

November 26, 2001

What's it like being Eric Crouch in Lincoln, Neb.? "Let me put it
this way," says Crouch, the Cornhuskers' senior quarterback. "The
fans know what doors I come out of and what days I come out of
them."

Three evenings a week, after dining at the training table, Crouch
heads to class. As he left the football complex on just such a
walk last Thursday, he was approached by a dozen or so autograph
seekers. During the five-minute trip he made small talk and
signed his name. "It's pretty intense, and that's O.K.," says
Crouch. "I understand my role here. I find the joy in it."

Leading the Cornhuskers to an 11-0 record and a No. 1 ranking in
the BCS ratings, as Crouch has done, is but one facet of that
role. Between discharging his football duties and carrying 11
credit hours (including working as a lab instructor overseeing 30
students in an exercise and health-behavior class), Crouch, an
exercise-science major, is winning games but losing sleep. "I'm
putting in, on average, 16-hour days," he says.

It doesn't help that he finds himself unable to turn down
miscellaneous requests, such as one made recently by one of his
students, whose young nephews had been misbehaving in elementary
school. Could Crouch speak to them? Of course he could. "It
worked out pretty well," says Crouch, "but I don't think people
realize how much time I don't have."

Last month he stopped by a Lincoln hospital to cheer up one
patient but ended up visiting everyone on the floor. He's
gregarious to a fault--until the conversation turns to his child.
Crouch lives with his longtime girlfriend, Nicole Kousgaard, and
their two-year-old daughter, Alexi. Raise the subject of Alexi,
and the usually chatty Crouch chooses his words carefully. "I'm
very proud of Lexi. I love both my girls," says Eric, who has
dated Kousgaard since they were students at Omaha's Millard
North High. "The only downside about what I do is that I have
almost no privacy. I have to feel there's something in my life
that everyone else doesn't have."

It's a source of pride to his mother, Susan Sanchez, that as a
popular grade school kid, Eric often befriended students whom
others teased. "I talk to them, become friends with them," he
would tell his mother, "and they don't get picked on anymore."
Who would have thought that such a good guy would be such a
badass on the field? Who could have predicted that this
pretty-boy would play the game with such a mean streak?

Not the Creighton Prep fullback whom Crouch knocked out of the
game as a high school sophomore in 1994. While filling in for an
injured safety, Crouch "came in low and kind of splattered the
kid," recalls Millard North coach Fred Petito. And not the Iowa
safety who met Crouch at the goal line two years ago. "It was at
the end of a 40-yard run," says Nebraska left tackle David Volk,
"and Eric dropped his shoulder, laid the guy out and went in
standing up."

As it turns out, the 6'1", 192-pound Crouch, who until this
season had spent most of his Nebraska career playing hurt and who
prides himself on his stoicism, shed some of the most storied
tears in Cornhuskers history. It happened in August 1999, when
coach Frank Solich gave junior Bobby Newcombe the starting
quarterback job. Crouch, then a sophomore, felt he'd outperformed
Newcombe in preseason camp, and got in his car and headed home.
Rumors that he'd quit the team were soon flying. "He just wanted
to come home and be with someone who cared about him," says
Sanchez. "Anybody who knows Eric knows he's not a quitter.
Everyone's entitled to cry once in a while."

Solich got on I-80 East and drove the 47 miles to Omaha to find
Crouch. They met in Petito's office at Millard North, where
Solich assured the distraught Crouch that he would be an integral
part of the Cornhuskers. Later, when it was only the two coaches
in the room, Petito recalls, Solich slumped in his chair and
said, "No one told me there'd be days like this."

Certainly not his predecessor. Having won his third national
championship in four years, legendary coach Tom Osborne had
retired following the 1997 season, taking a 255-49-3 record with
him and leaving the pantry half-stocked for his longtime
assistant and former player, who knew he could ill afford to lose
Crouch. So Solich never gave up on him. Sure enough, in the
second game of the season, against Cal, Crouch spelled Newcombe,
who was struggling. In one remarkable quarter Crouch ran for a
one-yard touchdown, threw a 70-yard scoring pass and, with
Newcombe back under center, caught a 60-yard touchdown pass.
Solich replaced Newcombe with Crouch the following week, and a
career was launched.

On a recent afternoon at Millard North, Petito recounted the
fateful summit that occurred in his office. After rummaging
through a cabinet, he pulled out a videocassette. It was Crouch's
highlight tape from his junior year in high school--the one he
sent to colleges. There's Crouch, returning six punts for
touchdowns. "After a while people stopped kicking to him," says
Petito. Every other player on both teams, it seems, is running in
slow motion--Crouch is that fast. At a football camp at Notre Dame
the summer before his senior year, he ran a 4.3 in the 40. The
Irish coaches told him they were recruiting him "as an athlete"
rather than a quarterback. Goodbye, Golden Dome. "Eric is
probably the fastest quarterback we've ever had," says Osborne
over the phone from Washington, where he's a freshman
Congressman.

"There he is, kinda nasty," says Petito, as the videotaped Crouch
bowls over a would-be tackler. "I've never seen him slide or
angle for the sideline," says Nebraska senior rover Mic Boettner,
who played with Crouch at Millard North. "He'd rather meet a guy
head-on than go out-of-bounds."

On another taped play Crouch fakes a handoff to the fullback,
seems to consider pitching to his tailback and then tucks the
ball away for a 30-yard gain. Even in high school he ran the
option with precision and panache. Crouch has no peer in the
college game at running the option, which is the main reason why
he's the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Iowa State
coach Dan McCarney says that Crouch is the best offensive player
he's ever coached against. Adds Kansas State coach Bill Snyder,
"If you get just a little bit out of position, he makes you look
like a fourth-grader."

Going into Nebraska's final regular-season game, at Colorado on
Thanksgiving Friday, Crouch has rushed for 57 touchdowns, an NCAA
record for a quarterback. His 7,555 yards of total offense (3,272
yards rushing, 4,283 passing) are the most ever by a Cornhusker.
His 95-yard carnival ride of a run against Missouri on Sept.
29--the longest by a Nebraska player--actually went for 103 yards.
After having taken the snap at his own five-yard line, Crouch
dropped back into the end zone and barely missed being sacked for
a safety before zigzagging his way to one of the most remarkable
plays of the season.

Crouch has won 35 games, another Nebraska record. None of those
games, however, has brought a national championship. By that
yardstick he falls short of the two quarterbacks who preceded
him: Tommy Frazier, who helped the Cornhuskers win national
crowns in 1994 and '95, and Scott Frost, whose '97 team shared
the title with Michigan. One reason Crouch has amassed such gaudy
numbers is that he's had to. Frazier and Frost were surrounded by
far more talent. An astounding 13 players from Nebraska's '95
Blackshirt defense went on to play in the NFL. No disrespect to
Dahrran Diedrick, who has quietly piled up 1,205 yards this
season, but Crouch has never had an I-back anywhere near as
talented as Ahman Green, whose final college season was 1997 and
who's tearing up the NFL for the Green Bay Packers. Says Frost, a
backup safety with the Cleveland Browns, "I had [current Arizona
Cardinal fullback] Joel Makovicka and Ahman Green running behind
a great offensive line. There's no question Eric's had to carry
the team at times."

This season, though, Nebraska's defense has been solid, and its
running game, behind Diedrick and Thunder Collins, potent.
Moreover, for the first time since his freshman year at Millard
North, Crouch is pain-free in mid-November. Last year he suffered
from chronic back pain, inflamed bursas in both elbows and a torn
labrum in his right shoulder that affected his passing and
required off-season surgery.

That operation was performed last January. While Crouch's rehab
went smoothly, little else in his life did. Shortly after the
surgery, he learned that James Brown, a radiologist and a
longtime family friend and mentor to Crouch, had suffered a
stroke. Crouch spent hours at Brown's bedside in intensive care.
"It meant a great deal to me," says Brown, who has recovered and
is practicing again.

Sanchez, Eric and his younger brother, Kyle, would drive from one
hospital in Omaha, at which Brown was convalescing, to another
across town, in which Sanchez's mother, Madeline, lay gravely
ill. Having divorced Ron Crouch when Eric and Kyle were young,
Susan raised the boys as a single mother. (She remarried, to
Corey Sanchez, in August 2000.) Madeline babysat often, and the
boys' bond with her was uncommonly strong. As her mother's pulse
faded last April, Susan told her sons to leave the room. She
wanted to spare them the sight of their grandmother's passing,
but they refused to go. "We're here for you, and we're here for
her," said Eric.

Madeline died moments later, and her grave is marked not by a
headstone but by a marble bench into which a football has been
cut. Carved into the ball is NEBRASKA. "She loved visitors," says
Susan, "and she loved Cornhuskers football."

Madeline would have been thrilled by the events of Oct. 27, when
Eric's 63-yard touchdown reception on a beautifully executed
trick play sealed Nebraska's 20-10 victory over previously
unbeaten and top-ranked Oklahoma. "What impressed me the most,"
says Gil Brandt, a renowned former scout for the Dallas Cowboys
who now scouts for the NFL, "was that he caught it clean, caught
it in his hands." Brandt is a Crouch fan and believes there's a
place for him in the NFL. It could be at receiver, could be at
safety, could be at quarterback. "Every year, you're seeing
offenses go a little bit further, become a little bit more
creative," says Brandt. "Maybe you bring Crouch in as a
third-and-one quarterback to run the option. Maybe you put him in
the shotgun on the goal line. He'd scare the heck out of people."

Could Crouch be an every-down quarterback in the league? Maybe.
While he has completed an impressive 57.1% of his passes this
season, he's also thrown more interceptions (eight) than
touchdown passes (seven). That's attributable, in part, to the
system he's in: On the relatively rare occasions they do pass,
the Cornhuskers tend to go with play-action. "A drop-back passer
can check things out during his drop," says Nebraska tight end
Tracy Wistrom, a frequent Crouch target. "When you're running
play-action, you've got to find your receiver and get rid of it
as soon as you turn around. That's a disadvantage."

"He's got a good, strong arm," says Brandt. "He can definitely
get the job done, especially once he is in the NFL, where he'll
concentrate more on his passing."

As he made his way to a class last Friday, Crouch seemed pleased
Brandt thought so highly of him. "Right now," says Crouch, "with
my schedule the way it is, to worry about only football and get
paid for it--I can't even imagine how great that would be."

He offers a brief glimpse into his private life: "On Mondays, I
get up at 6:30, get Lexi ready for day care, drop her off at
8:30." Lexi, he confirms, is out of diapers and into pull-ups.
She looks like Boo in Monsters Inc. Bedtime goes much more
smoothly if he's there to arrange her hair. "She lies down on her
pillow," he explains, a tad sheepishly, "and I tuck it all back
for her." On those nights when he gets home after Lexi is asleep,
he goes into her room before he crashes. He just wants to look at
her.

"These days," he says, "it seems like I wake up, catch my breath,
and it's time to go to bed again. Then, in the middle of the
night, I get an elbow in the ribs"--Nicole's signal that it's his
turn to minister to their crying child. Crouch goes without
complaint. He knows his role and finds the joy in it.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFERY A. SALTER/SABA COVER Who is Eric Crouch? The Nebraska quarterback's unlikely road to Heisman front-runner COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER Stepping ahead With 57 rushing touchdowns and 7,555 yards of offense, Crouch might be the best Nebraska quarterback ever. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Fire away Although he's regarded primarily as an option quarterback, Crouch possesses a strong arm and has thrown for 4,283 yards. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER

In the NFL, Crouch could be a receiver, says Brandt, or could be
a safety, or could be a quarterback.

It's a source of pride to his mother that as a kid, Eric often
befriended students whom others teased.

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