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Eric Crouch keeps the ball on the option and scampers for a long gain (Courtesy: ABC Sports).
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Heisman hopeful Crouch living Huskers dream
By Todd Cooper
Special to ESPN.com
Three months before Eric Crouch zigged, zagged and zipped 95 yards for a touchdown against Missouri, the Nebraska quarterback did a modest two-step on an Omaha stage.
During a benefit for Alzheimer's research, Crouch sang, in a voice as flat as some of his passes, "I'm just an ordinary guy."
Put simply, Crouch is king in a state where the football stadium becomes the third-largest city on game days, where every Husker (with the lone exception of Lawrence Phillips) is considered a hero and where every fan measures their self-esteem by whether the Big Red beats the point spread.
On the field, Crouch has gone from hometown hero to Heisman hopeful, having claimed, or closed in on, every quarterback-rushing and total-offense record in Nebraska and Big 12 history.
Off it, his boy-band good looks and his aw-shucks media savvy make him one of the most adored figures in the state -- second only, perhaps, to former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne.
"Eric could write his own ticket in this state and do just about whatever he wanted," said Nebraska tight end Tracey Wistrom, who came into the program with Crouch in 1997. "Heck, he could probably tear up a ticket if he wanted, not that he'd ever do that.
Crouch, 22, has had a lot to handle in his short life -- from growing up in a single-parent home to enduring a potentially career-killing quarterback controversy; from a searing pain in his throwing shoulder to persistent questions about his ability to lead a team to a national championship.
Along the way, nearly everything about Nebraska's favorite son has been scrutinized -- whether it's his Heisman chances or ham sandwiches. Last year, school officials performed an almost laughable "inquiry" into whether Crouch had received illegal benefits while campaigning for a university regent. The alleged kickback? A ham sandwich.
Crouch has enjoyed it all -- or most of it, anyway.
But Crouch's life and career haven't always been the stuff of dreams.
His dad, Ron, left the family when Eric was 3. Later, when he was still in grade school, Eric helped care for his little brother while his mom, Susan, worked two jobs.
Growing up, Crouch said, he admired his mom's dedication and determination, eventually emulating those traits on the football field.
From the time he was a 9-year-old quarterback for the Pee-Wee Dolphins until he was an all-state athlete at Millard North High School, coaches and teammates say Crouch was incredibly intense -- and intent on becoming a Husker.
Yet, he was remarkably humble. In high school, he used to write thank-you notes to the trainers who taped his ankles.
That demeanor didn't change when he became a Husker, although his circumstances did.
In the fall of 1997, Crouch arrived in Lincoln, along with another fast, playmaking quarterback. Like Crouch, Bobby Newcombe had dreamed of becoming Nebraska's quarterback. He even had studied the Husker playbook during the spring of his senior year of high school in Albuquerque.
During his freshman season, Newcombe dazzled with highlight-reel receptions and punt returns. Meanwhile, Crouch sulked, sitting out the season after undergoing ankle surgery. Every Friday after practice, he headed home to Omaha, spending the weekend with his mom.
It was the same in August 1999, when coach Frank Solich named Newcombe the starter.
Miffed at the slight, Crouch bolted to Omaha. Rumors -- which Crouch has denied -- had him contemplating a transfer to Ohio State. Solich and receivers coach Ron Brown chased him down and persuaded him to return to Lincoln, assuring him he would get opportunities at receiver and quarterback.
Crouch came back as a split end and backup quarterback. Against Iowa, he flattened a cornerback on a 21-yard touchdown bolt -- one of three rushing touchdowns he had in relief of Newcombe. The next week, against California, he ran, caught and threw a touchdown -- in one quarter alone.
The following Monday, Solich named Crouch the starting quarterback. Newcombe moved to wingback.
"It was a tough time," Wistrom said. "We all knew what Eric was going through but he definitely kept it to himself. I think both Bobby and Eric handled it real well in that they didn't express their disappointment. That's something that could have devastated this football team."
Since then, Crouch has gone on to set just about every record for a Nebraska quarterback. Through five games this year, he has shattered Nebraska's career total offense record -- already eclipsing Tommie Frazier's previous mark by nearly 1,000 yards.
Though he'll never be mistaken for Tim Couch, Crouch has improved as a passer. Despite a modest 49 percent career completion rate, he has connected on 61 percent of his passes this year.
On Sept. 29 against Missouri, he added a Heismanesque highlight to his reel. After nearly getting sacked in the end zone, Crouch took off on a 95 yard slash-and-dash that left Missouri defenders' knees buckling, ankles twisting and jaws dropping.
"I'm not sure where he ranks (among Husker quarterbacks)," Nebraska receivers coach Ron Brown said. "But he has that impact that all of them had, to make something happen when it's all falling apart and the team's back is against the wall. To change the outcome of a game with his skills.
"You can never count him out. The defensive coordinators out there need to know that you can't fall asleep on this guy. Because you saw what he did. It's etched in history."
In many ways, Crouch's life, on and off the field, has come full circle. He and his father have built a relationship, no ill will, no bitter pills. "I love my dad to death," Crouch says. The son of a single mom also has a 2-year-old daughter, Alexi -- whom he raises with his girlfriend.
And for a player who once ran home to sulk and to soul search, you couldn't tear him away from this team, from this moment, from the memories he's making.
Crouch says he's well aware of the one glaring omission on his list of accomplishments -- the national championship, the only thing many Nebraskans care about. Jerry Tagge had two. Tommie Frazier had two. Scott Frost had one.
Crouch said he wants one, though he doesn't agonize over it. He has noted that his position coach, Turner Gill, didn't win one even though he ran Nebraska's offense "to perfection."
"I don't go to sleep at night saying, 'I need to be playing in the national championship game,'" he said. "If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't.
"I'm not really worried about how my career is going to be measured. I just know that I came in here and gave this program every bit of effort that I could. To be able to accomplish some of the things I have has blown my mind. It's something that I'm going to treasure for the rest of my life."
Todd Cooper is a staff writer for the Omaha World-Herald.
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