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Building Legends by Remembering Legends

John David Crow

Sport: Football

Induction Year: 1976

In 1957, Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant of Texas A&M sent a message to Heisman Trophy voters.

“If John David Crow doesn't win the Heisman Trophy,” he said, “they ought to stop giving it.”

They got the message. Crow became the third Southwest Conference player to win college football's highest individual award, following Davey O'Brien of TCU in 1938 and Doak Walker of SMU in 1948. Since then, Earl Campbell of Texas (1977) and Andre Ware of Houston (1989) have done it.

In 38 years as a head coach at Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Alabama, Bryant's teams won 323 games and six national championships. But Crow was the only one of his players who came close to winning the Heisman Trophy. Babe Parilli of Kentucky was a distant third in 1951, but none of Bryant's Alabama stars finished higher than fourth.

When he saw game films of Crow as a senior at Springhill High School in 1953, Bryant said it was like “watching a grown man play against boys.”

Like other Heisman Trophy winners in that era, Crow's statistics were not impressive by modern standards. Even in 1957, Crow's 562 yards rushing didn't match SWC champion Jim Shofner of TCU. But Crow was a complete football player. He never missed a tackle in three years as the Aggies' safety and intercepted five passes in his senior season. On offense, he averaged less than 13 carries a game, but he also caught passes, threw a few and returned kicks. Bryant told his sports information director, Jones Ramsey, to go through the play-by-play charts and come up with a category in which Crow would lead the nation—“Players Run Over.”

The 1957 Aggies were ranked No. 1 by Associated Press for three weeks in the middle of the season, but slumped in the stretch drive with narrow losses to Rice and Texas . Many people linked the late collapse to reports that Bryant would go to Alabama (which he did), but Bryant blamed himself for not having the right players in the proper positions.

At Springhill High, Crow led the Lumberjacks to the 1952 Class A state championship as a junior. The following year, he gained 1,366 yards rushing in only 84 attempts, an average of 16.3 yards per carry, and 23 touchdowns. His career totals were 51 touchdowns and 353 points. After the Lumberjacks didn't qualify for the 1953 state playoffs because of a Thanksgiving Day loss to Minden, Crow led the basketball team to the state championship with a 56-42 victory over Minden (built around 6-8 sophomore superstar Jackie Moreland) in the finals. The same year, another future All-American running back and NFL star—Jimmy Taylor—led Baton Rouge High to the Class AA basketball title.

Crow chose Texas A&M over Oklahoma and LSU, partly because of the influence of assistant coach Elmer Smith—who had coached his older brother, Ray Crow, at Southern State College in Magnolia, Ark.

In his first year at Texas A&M, John David averaged more than eight yards per carry for the Aggies' freshmen. The following year, he scored his first varsity touchdown in an early-season match-up with Paul Dietzel's LSU Tigers at Dallas ' Cotton Bowl. Twenty years later, Bryant still called it “the greatest run I ever saw.”

A guard pulled the wrong way and ran into the other guard behind the center. It was a Chinese fire drill, but Crow managed to fight through the traffic jam and break several tackles in a 77-yard run. Then he came to the bench congratulating the linemen for great blocking. That was the start of (1) a 28-0 Texas A&M victory and (2) a string of 27 games in which Bryant's Aggies suffered only one loss.

The Aggies dropped from No. 1 in the nation to No. 3 in the SWC with a one-point loss to Rice and a two-point loss to Texas in 1957, but Crow was a first round selection of the Chicago Cardinals in the National Football League draft. When the team moved to St. Louis two years later, he set club records with 1,071 yards and 5.9 yards per carry. He set another Cardinal record with 17 touchdowns in 1962.

Always an unselfish player, Crow—who was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 1965—volunteered to switch to tight end on the eve of his final season (1968) although he was only 41 yards away from 5,000 yards rushing—which would've put him in an elite group in the days of 12 game NFL schedules.

Later, as a pro coach, he became disenchanted with prima donnas who ran out of bounds because they said they couldn't afford to get hurt.

“I never ran out of bounds like that in my life,” said Crow. “The big money, the agents, everything changed. I believed you have to do things the right way. If you do, the rewards will be there in the end.”

One reward that escaped him in an 11-year NFL career (He was All-Pro three times) was the dream of playing on a championship team.

“It slipped by me,” he said. “It was a good career, though. I made money, and I tried to put back into the game what I got out of it.'

He had 4,963 yards rushing, another 3,699 yards on pass receptions and completed 53 of 70 passes for 759 yards, scoring 73 touchdowns—38 rushing and 35 receptions.

In 1976, he returned to North Louisiana to take over the coaching reins at Northeast Louisiana University —only the second Heisman Trophy winner to become a head coach in college football. Inheriting a program that hadn't produced a winning season in six years, he struggled through two 2-9 seasons before coming up with a winner—and was selected Louisiana collegiate “Coach of the Year.” NLU beat long-time nemesis Louisiana Tech in two of his last three seasons.

Crow left the coaching profession to enter private business for a couple of years, then returned to Texas A&M—first as Associate Athletic Director and later, after the departure of Jackie Sherrill, as Athletic Director.

“The Heisman Trophy was something that happened so long ago,” he said, “I still have the award and I am proud of it and I'm not going to give it back. But the Heisman Trophy didn't affect my life to the extent that it does the winners now.”

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