MONTGOMERY, Ala. – About 225 miles from Athens, in the opposite direction from where most people will be looking when the college football season opens, you can find Isaiah Crowell here.
Take the last exit of I-85 south, make a left under the overpass and drive straight down Decatur and into the projects. There you will see a weathered sign reading, “Hornets Stadium,” and a football practice field bordered on one side by a small college campus and on the other by less-than-idyllic surroundings.
“The culture is a little different here,” Alabama State coach Reggie Barlow said with understatement.
Alabama State is in the midst of a makeover. A 30-year, $600 million wish list of constructions projects includes several new athletic facilities, including a $62 million football stadium scheduled to open on Thanksgiving. In that sense, this is an appropriate place for Crowell to land. He hopes to be in the midst of his own makeover. Twice suspended and ultimately kicked out of Georgia for weapons charges (still pending) — a gun with a filed off serial number was found in his car at a campus checkpoint — Crowell is thankful to be anywhere.
Barlow, the seventh year coach, said that when he met Crowell, he found him “regretful for what had happened. I remember when he was here for his visit, I heard him whisper to his mom, ‘Thank God for a fresh start.’ I didn’t say anything. But I saw Isaiah walking around and looking. He seemed relieved that somebody was ready to embrace him again and give him a second chance.”
Crowell was pleasant when a reporter approached him after practice Friday. “Yes, I’m happy,” he said, responding to a question. But then he was asked by a school official to keep walking to the locker room and stop talking. He has been advised by his attorney not to speak to the media, perhaps until after legal matters have been resolved.
A previously scheduled interview two weeks ago also was canceled suddenly
by his mother. Debbie Crowell said late Friday night that she was pleased for her son and that, “He’s happy at Alabama State.” But she otherwise declined comment.
We’ve seen no shortage of skilled but misguided youth in college athletics. Those “stars” on national signing day don’t account for deficiencies in maturity and intelligence. Crowell was the center jewel of Georgia’s prematurely celebrated 2011 recruiting class that already has lost seven of 26 players.
On the field, Crowell was as great as advertised last season. Despite injuries and suspensions,
questions about his work ethic and toughness, he still rushed for 850 yards and five touchdowns and was the SEC’s freshman of the year.
Vince Dooley played the “bad apple” card when discussing Crowell recently. Maybe. But Crowell never has seemed like a bad kid, just an overly coddled and enabled one. If he left Columbus-Carver High School with a sense of entitlement, his enablers at the school and all surrounding him should share some blame.
When Crowell arrived at Georgia and suddenly had to deal with rules, it didn’t go well.
“Am I surprised? No. It’s what we created,” said Fred Kaiss, an Alabama State assistant coach.
“I don’t know if Isaiah was lost. But he’s not a guy who can have a lot of freedom. He can’t. And he ain’t there yet. Oh, he’ll tell you, ‘I’ve got it.’ But inside, I think he knows he doesn’t have it yet because if he did he’d be meeting with guys like you.”
Kaiss, a 20-year coach at HBCU programs, has seen several athletes function better at the 1-AA level than major (FBS) programs. A number of former SEC players have transferred to Alabama State, including NFL quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.
“Is it more glamorous [in FBS]? Sure,” Kaiss said. “But it’s also easier to fall prey to other things for some kids. Some guys can’t pitch for the Yankees because they fall apart in the limelight, but they can pitch for the Milwaukee Brewers and be a star.”
So there you go: Crowell hasn’t gone from Bulldog to Hornet as much as he has Yankee to Brewer.
There have been some early hiccups. Crowell has been disciplined twice for being late – once to a meeting, once to a weight session. “His habits were not formed yesterday,” Kaiss said. “This is a process.”
But he’s trying to blend. Barlow, a former Alabama State and NFL wide receiver, was pleased the other night when an assistant coach asked for volunteers to run on kickoff scout team and Crowell ran onto the field. “That showed me he was starting to turn a corner,” he said.
Alabama State was a surprising option. Top players generally will transfer to a junior college for a year and then back to an FBS school without having to sit out a year. (Cam Newton and Zach Mettenberger are two examples.) Even Barlow placed his recruiting chances at only “30 percent.” But he sold Crowell and his parents on the program’s growth, proximity to Columbus and his past work with problem transfers (Nigel Carr was kicked out of Florida State, came to ASU and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens).
Barlow said Crowell is “comfortable here. We talked about junior college, but he said he just wanted to be someplace where he would fit in.”
During their first conversation, Barlow described Debbie Crowell as “really down” about matters. “She said he looked immature with the way he was dealing with some stuff [at UGA] and he felt bad because he had let his teammates down, and people who believed in him. He wanted an opportunity to restore his name, and she wanted to make sure we were demanding of him and would hold him accountable.”
He told Crowell he didn’t care about his history and barely even looked into it: “I told him, ‘Here’s where our trust starts.”
Barlow doesn’t deny this was a football decision, but he maintains it’s more than that. “I believe in second chances,” he said, and then he referenced his brother, Clemmon, a standout athlete who “went astray,” and eventually to prison.
“The parole board cut him a break and gave a second chance. Now he’s a great father and provider. So, yes, this was a chance for us to get an elite athlete. But I’m hoping we can give Isaiah something rewarding: experiencing accountability, team, an education.”
Crowell isn’t quite off the map. Alabama State’s opener against Bethune-Cookman next Sunday in Orlando is being carried by ESPN. But when major conferences begin play, he will slip under the radar for the first time in his life. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.
By Jeff Schultz
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