Bigger, stronger, faster for Crawford
From no time to the big time, Mike Crawford’s blossoming football career has seen it all.
A walk-on his first year at the University of Nevada, Reno, Crawford was relegated to catching field goals during practice. But the Whittell High graduate fought his way into the starting lineup, eventually earning a most valuable player award in the 1996 Las Vegas Bowl.
Soon after, Crawford, 23, was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the sixth round of the 1997 National Football League player selection process, a dream come true he commemorated with a leap of a two-story house into Lake Tahoe.
And when the Dolphins’ season concluded Sunday with a wild card playoff loss to last year’s Super Bowl participants, the New England Patriots, the final gun marked a watershed for the young South Lake Tahoe resident: He’d made it, completing a year in the NFL.
But what was it like for him? What kinds of obstacles, diversions and expectations made playing in the world’s highest level of football an experience to remember?
One realization wave came when Crawford realized he could hang with the “bigger, stronger, faster” players.
“Before, I didn’t know if I belonged or was going to get the chance. Now it’s new challenges, getting better at this level and hopefully starting to play at linebacker,” Crawford said. “Since being drafted, I don’t think about the other good athletes. I’m good enough to play in this league.”
Playing time is a facet of the business that took Crawford for a ride. One of two rookie linebackers along with Derrick Rodgers, Crawford found himself positioned behind last year’s rookie of the year at middle linebacker, Zach Thomas. While Crawford befriended Thomas, along with other Dolphins, including Dan Marino, it meant he’d have to earn field time in other spots.
At first it was tough, as roster moves forced Crawford on to the practice squad and into a state of mind where he again wondered about his future.
But Crawford kept clawing and fighting, his trademark as a player among teammates, and gained a special teams’ role. During the final third of the season, Crawford missed just one game – unfortunately his “home game” in Oakland. But the wedge-buster did his job, earning a start each subsequent week. And with it, drawing from his three-year, $500,000-plus deal.
“Every week I watch tapes of all the linebackers, including Zach. I know I can play not just special teams,” Crawford said. “I don’t think about (not playing a lot) much. I just concentrate on getting better and doing whatever I can for this team to win.”
It’s a work ethic that continues to earn praise from his coach at Nevada, Jeff Tisdel, who said he uses Crawford as an example of what an athlete can accomplish when he or she puts their mind to it.
“He’s a great young man on and off the field. I think people create their own opportunities and make their own breaks. He epitomizes what Wolfpack football is all about,” Tisdel said. “I hope he continues to excel and I think his best football is yet to come.”
The rookie experience off the field was equally eye-opening. Like many first-year players, Crawford and Rodgers were “responsible” to the veteran players. In one example, the two were required to buy breakfast for the entire linebacking corps each Friday.
And another facet of rookie life – the professional athlete lifestyle – gave Crawford a run for his money. He soon found himself a target of the media, the fans and whatever spotlight could fins his glowing white-dyed hair – an attention far greater than playing in Reno.
“It a big, big-time jump. All of a sudden you play for the Dolphins. I’ve gone from being an unknown to going on shows and getting asked for autographs. You’re under a microscope,” he said. “Sometimes it gets out of hand, with people coming up to you. There’s some weird people in Miami and they always have a story to tell you.
“But it’s part of the territory. We play this game for the fans and you have to uphold that for them.”
Overall, Crawford said he never lost his “fast pace” attitude for life – a state of mind which has taken him through door of the NFL.
“I’m never slowing down. I’m going to keep living and playing football. I came from the bottom and I’m getting closer to the top every day,” he said. “I’m fortunate and I know that.
“For the people home in Lake Tahoe, I never forget where I came from. I want to tell them it’s true that whatever you set your mind on you can accomplish. I’m not fast, not overly strong and I don’t run the 40 in 4.3. I’ve just got the will to keep pounding and keep getting rewarded.”
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