Gridiron great: Whittell alum Mike Crawford inducted into Nevada Athletics Hall of Fame
Mike Crawford fought incredibly hard simply for the opportunity to play college football at the University of Nevada, Reno. After a stellar career on the gridiron, the Whittell High alum now has a place in Wolf Pack lore.
Crawford was inducted into the 2016 Nevada Athletics Hall of Fame class, announced by the school July 28. The former Warriors standout played linebacker for Nevada from 1993-96, and joins six other inductees in receiving the honor bestowed by the Wolf Pack athletic department.
“It’s something I feel very honored and excited for — and fortunate,” 41-year-old Crawford said. “It caps off my college career in terms of the mark I made and the history of me getting to that point. This is finishing the story of my college career.”
During his time at Nevada, Crawford’s story started with begging the football program to let him walk on before eventually splitting time between playing and handling equipment for the team. He eventually earned a scholarship and starting position before capping his career as Most Valuable Player of the Las Vegas Bowl.
“I’m sitting there watching football thinking I wanted to keep it going,” Crawford said of his first year at Nevada. “Then I started figuring out how to use being doubted and not getting an opportunity — flip it around and use it as motivation and strength.”
In the 1996 Las Vegas Bowl, Crawford had 14 tackles and a game-saving interception in the last game of his Wolf Pack career. Nevada beat Ball State 18-15, avenging a defeat from the previous season while delivering the program’s first bowl victory in 50 years.
“We lost the year before in the first college overtime game, and it was a brutal loss,” said Crawford, who has the 1996 trophy on display in his office. “Going back down there and having that type of game. I had it set in my mind that was how we were going out, so to be able to do that was special.”
Crawford said beating rival UNLV always brings back positive memories — including the 1995 game at Mackay Stadium that featured a pregame brawl. Nevada returned to Division I during Crawford’s first year in Reno, and played in the Big West during his career.
“Just being part of the program going from where it was — being part of that was big,” Crawford said. “The university is definitely on the map now, getting better caliber players.”
Crawford was named the Wolf Pack’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1996, and finished his career with 253 tackles (158 unassisted) — then a top-10 mark in program history. He was taken in the sixth round of the 1997 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins, and his No. 56 Dolphins jersey is on display at Whittell.
“Back then, Nevada was not on the map for football. Now it’s on the map — there’s a ton of guys in the NFL from Nevada,” Crawford said. “To get drafted — especially on defense — was a heck of an honor.”
WHITTELL — WHERE IT ALL STARTED
On the same field where his college career ended in triumph, Crawford’s playing days at Whittell ended in bitter disappointment five years earlier. The Warriors fell to Boulder City 14-13 in the Class 2A State Championship game at UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium, losing on a late missed extra point.
“We were this tiny little school,” Crawford said. “We beat Truckee that year and we had never beaten Truckee, we beat North Tahoe — we beat everybody — and then we went down to the state championship and lost by one point. That was terrible.”
Crawford played soccer for the Warriors during his freshman year before moving to the gridiron. Because of his size, Crawford was “recruited” to play football by upperclassmen on the team, who routinely put his back against the lockers in the Zephyr Cove school’s junior-senior hallway.
“By the midpoint of my freshman year, I had been scared so much into going out for the football team — I would do whatever those guys said,” Crawford said. “They pressured me into playing football, and the rest is history.”
Until last year, the 1991 Warriors team that featured Crawford as a senior was the program’s last to win a postseason game. During the future pro’s tenure in red and gold, Whittell had consistent success under coach Richard Brandt.
“We were good. For being 2A, we had a really good group of guys,” Crawford said. “We were small, but everybody went both ways and we were a good group.”
Crawford wasn’t recruited out of high school, and funded his own trip to Saint Mary’s College in Northern California in an effort to continue his playing career. Ten minutes into the workout, he was pulled aside by the Gaels’ defensive coordinator and told that he would never play Division II college football — a crushing blow.
“When that coach told me that, that was a big, monumental thing for me,” Crawford said. “I remember breaking down crying when I left the field and thinking it was never going to happen.”
Stinging disappointment ultimately turned to motivation, and fueled Crawford as he aimed to play for Nevada during his second year at the school. He started at the bottom with the Wolf Pack, beginning a journey that has culminated with the school’s top athletic honor.
“I wasn’t this highly-touted athlete, I wasn’t the greatest and the most gifted, I went to a really small school — and I’m from Tahoe,” Crawford said. “No one even knew where Whittell was, so being able to represent that was important.
“You can accomplish anything you want — that’s a big thing for me.”
After three years in the NFL with the Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings, and a season in the XFL with the Las Vegas Outlaws, Crawford retired from professional football and returned to the Silver State. He is currently general manager of ITS Logistics’ freight brokerage group and lives in Reno with his wife Stacey and three daughters.
Crawford is being inducted into Nevada’s 2016 Hall of Fame class along with the 2003-04 men’s basketball team, Rich Barcelo, Harvey Dahl, Mark Fox, Jim Puzey and Salaia Salave’a. The Hall of Fame dinner and ceremony is scheduled for Sept. 16.
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