At 33, Crawford still chasing NFL dream
By MICHAEL MAROT
INDIANAPOLIS — The creases across Brandon Crawford's forehead are a mark of his experiences.
He played college football. He survived boot camp in the Marines. He worked on an automotive parts assembly line, and he's not about to let some age-old question deter his lifelong dream.
The 33-year-old defensive end has a message for scouts: He's not too old to play in the NFL.
"I believe I have a shot at getting drafted," Crawford said this week after working out in Indy. "If you turn on the film, it doesn't lie. My age might make some people put a blinder on, but I think you've got to see the film first."
Getting noticed, at Crawford's age, will be his most difficult challenge yet.
Impossible? No. NFL teams have on occasion drafted older players.
Former Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke was 28 when he was taken by the Carolina Panthers in 2001. In 1964, the Dallas Cowboys selected Navy's Roger Staubach knowing the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback couldn't play for five years because of his military commitment. Staubach arrived at training camp in 1969 as a 27-year-old rookie and went on to have a Hall of Fame career.
Crawford, however, doesn't fit the high-profile, award-winning quarterback model. Lacking that hype, he asked the St. Vincent Sports Performance program to help him make an impression.
Of the 16 players in this year's workout class in Indy, just three — Indiana safety Nick Polk, Purdue cornerback David Pender and James Madison guard Dorian Brooks — have one of the coveted 329 invitations to this week's NFL Combine.
Everyone else is still trying to prove themselves.
Boise State tight end Richie Brockel wants to show scouts his injured left foot is healthy. Indiana linebacker Will Patterson must demonstrate that he's big enough to succeed in the NFL. Former Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli is back, looking for a second chance after getting cut by the Arizona Cardinals two years ago. Morelli, who will be 25 in June, insists he's not just older.
"I've gotten bigger, faster, stronger, I'm jumping better," he said. "I think the chances are pretty good, I just need to get in front of some people."
Morelli will do that Friday in Indy when he holds a personal workout on the same day this year's big-name quarterbacks, receivers and running backs are measured and take tests during the combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
But in a numbers league, age matters, a lot.
It's why many teams avoid signing worn-down 30-year-old running backs. It's the reason once-dominant cornerbacks move to safety, or big-play receivers suddenly find themselves playing in the slot. Teams know that younger players typically have less wear and tear on their bodies, possess more speed and cost less than those 30-something veterans.
Such concerns about age could be enough to keep Morelli and Crawford off teams' draft boards.
"I don't think you want to draft somebody in the first round if they're 27 years old," said Gil Brandt, a retired NFL executive who drafted Staubach and Chad Hennings out of the Air Force Academy. "But if you're signing anybody as a free agent, I don't think it makes any difference. All they're looking for is someone that can improve your football team. And there are some guys that do that when they're 27."
Morelli and Crawford count themselves among that group.
Crawford, who grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., learned life's lessons the hard way.
As a high school senior, he was getting scholarship offers from mid-major schools and if football didn't work out, he still had financial aid from the 21st Century Scholar program. All that changed when he jumped into a friend's car for a ride to Pizza Hut. One problem: The car was stolen, Crawford was arrested and his college dream disappeared.
After graduating in 1996, he went to work in a factory until enlisting in the Marines in 1999. Crawford got through boot camp at Camp Pendleton in California and was stationed in North Carolina during the Sept. 11 attacks.
Soon he was deciphering messages, typing up deployment orders for his friends and gaining a new perspective on life.
"It made me realize that people just don't pay attention to the military and the things they do," Crawford said. "People in this country don't realize how fortunate they are to sit down and watch TV or to go to the movies. It made me thankful for the things we have and to be thankful to be part of this country."
It was one reason Crawford asked Ball State to give him a second chance.
What Crawford did with the Cardinals was nothing short of remarkable. He finished his career with 39 consecutive starts, including two bowl games, and then went back to work to make the NFL.
Since football season ended in November, Crawford has added 15 to 20 pounds of lean muscle. He expects to be measured at 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, prototypical NFL size for a defensive end, at the school's March 4 pro day.
Those who know Crawford best say his greatest contributions do not show up in the numbers.
"He works hard, he leads, he's got a good framework of where he's been," said Ralph Reiff, director of St.Vincent's workout program. "He's added a lot to this."
Morelli's career path strayed from the norm, too.
Since getting cut by the Cardinals two years ago, Morelli bided his time by working out on his own, coaching quarterbacks at Pittsburgh's Plum High School and helping his uncle with construction jobs.
All the while, Morelli maintained the dream of playing football. Morelli's wife persuaded him to move back to Indy, where he's been getting help from former NFL quarterback Jack Trudeau.
"I'm only 24 years old, and I've played against a lot of these guys in college. So when it comes to age, I feel like I haven't hit my peak yet," Morelli said. "I'm going to keep going until I exhaust all my opportunities."
Will that desire be enough for Morelli and Crawford to overcome the perception that they're too old?
They'll know in a few months.
"I guess it's kind of like an investment and you have to look for the best return you can get from it," Crawford said. "I'll let them (teams) know what my experiences have instilled in me. But you can only talk so much to people. They really have to decide is he more of a liability or more of an asset?"