- The Washington Times - Friday, December 27, 2002

Matt Crawford's path to the Peach Bowl has been a painful success.

The Maryland Terrapins offensive tackle underwent two knee surgeries in the past two years and injured the same left knee again this season. Crawford played through throbbing pain last season and was voted the league's most courageous player. The four-year starter will play his final game in the Peach Bowl on New Year's Eve.

But on New Year's Day, he will experience his worst hurt yet.

"It's going to be hard to leave," said Crawford, a fifth-year senior. "I love the team camaraderie. I can't let it go."

It is a testament to Crawford's toughness that he made it this far.

The latest setback for the 6-foot-6, 313-pound All-ACC tackle came at Duke on Oct. 26, when he tore a medial collateral ligament. The injury was to his left knee, the same one that already had been operated on twice in less than two years. It was initially feared that Crawford's career might be over, and it was considered good news when he was only expected to miss a month.

But only two weeks later, he was playing in a critical game against N.C. State.

"He's not the greatest athlete in the world, but he's a fierce competitor," Maryland offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said. "In the pregame, he was extremely emotional, just by the way he was encouraging teammates. I don't see him like that all the time. He was almost crying he was so determined. He knew it was getting near the end, and the impact it would have on our season."

After missing the previous week, Crawford played nearly the entire game against the Wolfpack. He helped the Terrapins erase a 21-7 second-half deficit and pull off a dramatic last-minute win to keep their ACC title hopes alive. The tackle had a strong game despite excruciating pain and limited mobility. "You could see it on his face sometimes that it hurt," center Todd Wike said. "He was pushing to get through it."

Crawford feels he caught a break when he heard a pop and only the MCL was torn after someone rolled on him against Duke. The injury, less severe than a torn anterior cruciate ligament, does not require surgery and repairs itself over time. However, several weeks of rest weren't a luxury in the stretch run of his final season.

"Luckily, it was just the MCL," said Crawford, whose only healthy season was when he started all 11 games as redshirt freshman. "I dealt with a lot of pain and swelling in the N.C. State and Clemson games. It was just hard to move around sometimes, especially when you moved the wrong way. But it's not too bad now."

It was the latest injury in a career where walking around campus and even getting out of bed have been major tasks much of the time.

The stalwart lineman on the 20th-ranked Terps missed the final two games of the 2000 season after blowing out his knee in practice. He played through agony last season with what he described as a "ball of scar tissue" left in the front of his knee as a result of the first operation. His inspired play earned him the Brian Piccolo Award, given essentially to the ACC's comeback player of the year and named for the former Wake Forest and Chicago Bears running back who died of cancer and is the subject of the movie "Brian's Song."

"A lot of times kids will take themselves out for any little [injury]," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "There are very few times I have to tell a guy not to practice. I told him, 'Just stay out.' I was throwing him out of practice. He kept coming back in."

Crawford played all 12 games last season despite constant throbbing in his knee. He had passing thoughts of leaving since he was on pace to graduate in the spring and the discomfort was making life miserable. However, a second surgery five days after the Orange Bowl gave Crawford a healthy perspective.

"I didn't know if the second surgery would help," said Crawford, who earned his degree in criminal justice in May. "It didn't matter what the glory was I was in pain and couldn't do a lot of stuff. After the second surgery, my knee felt 100 times better. I had my range of motion back. I was comfortable to live every day.

"There was no reason to throw a dream away."

The dream that will conclude in the Peach Bowl began when Crawford made a surprising choice to come to College Park. The heavily-recruited tackle out of Moravia High School in upstate New York passed on offers from highly-touted programs, including Penn State and Michigan State, because he had a "gut feeling" about the Terps and wanted a chance to play early on.

He's been able to overcome the injuries with countless hours of treatments, rehabilitation and working with strength coach Dwight Galt. He made up for limited movements by spending 45 minutes on his own watching film each day before practice. In those sessions, he learned the tendencies of the defensive lineman he matched up against to give him an advantage and possibly a way to limit extensive twisting.

Crawford at times has had trouble coping with his injuries. And he was a bit of a terror while grimacing and hobbling last season. "I feel bad for my girlfriend," he said. "She took the brunt of a lot of stuff."

Crawford's enduring efforts have not only benefited the Terps on the line, which pounds its way to 202 yards rushing a game, but also motivates teammates. New Year's Eve will mark the end of Maryland's second consecutive 10-win season with another top bowl. It also will mark the final game of Crawford's painfully successful career.

"I don't know if I could go through what he has," guard Lamar Bryant said. "He's the kind of guy that if he can walk, he will play. He has paid a very big price to get here."

If you ask Crawford, it was a bargain.

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