- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Tide finally has turned for Brodie Croyle.

It’s impossible to root against the quarterback at the heart of Alabama’s return to national prominence. Because perhaps no player in the title fray this season has gracefully endured more career misfortune than the Tide’s senior slinger.

“The path hasn’t exactly been smooth and straight for me or anyone else on this team,” said Croyle, whose fifth-ranked Crimson Tide (6-0, 4-0 SEC) play host to No. 17 Tennessee (3-2, 2-2) today in the 88th meeting of one of the South’s definitive rivalries. “There’s a world of football left, but at least so far this season we’ve got things headed in the right direction.”

Four years ago, it was difficult to imagine Croyle’s track to success being anything but a stroll to superstardom. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder from Rainbow City, Ala., was ranked by many recruiting services as the No. 1 prep prospect in the nation after breaking every meaningful state high school passing record.

Though he was courted by every premier program, Croyle was pure crimson from the crib. His father, John, played defensive end for Bear Bryant (1971-73) during the golden age of ‘Bama ball. And the elder Croyle wasn’t just an influence on Brodie: He was both role model and hero.

Why? Because “Big John” is as close to being a saint as any man on this planet. After graduating from Alabama, John eschewed a potential career in the NFL to pursue what he calls “God’s calling.” Along with his wife, the fittingly named Teresa (Tee), Croyle spent 1974 building the Big Oak Ranch, a home for orphaned, wayward and abused boys. In the two decades since, the pair has established a similar home for girls and a centrally located high school for the two ranches (Westbrook Christian School just outside Gadsden, Ala.). To date, the couple and their staff have provided housing and an education for more than 1,600 children.

“I learned very early on what making a difference in this world is all about,” said Brodie, an uber-refreshing combination of talent and humility when he became the first recruit to sign with then-Alabama coach Dennis Franchione in 2001.

What followed for Alabama and its blue-chip quarterback, however, was a sublimely unfortunate series of circumstances.

During Croyle’s redshirt season, the NCAA handed down more stringent penalties than expected for recruiting violations that occurred during the Mike DuBose era. And after Croyle played sparingly as a freshman while Alabama won the SEC West behind senior quarterback Tyler Watts but was banned from postseason play, Franchione split for Texas A&M.;

The start of Croyle’s sophomore season (2003) was defined by the Mike Price scandal and subsequent last-minute hiring of Mike Shula. And just as Croyle was adapting to Shula’s system and beginning to fulfill his promise, he separated his left shoulder in the team’s fifth game. Limited by the injury, he missed significant chunks of the team’s last eight games and finished with 2,303 yards passing, 16 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

Following shoulder surgery, he once again began last season in fine form before tearing his right ACL near the end of the third quarter of a 52-0 rout of Western Carolina in just the third game. Shula was excoriated by the media for exposing Croyle to the season-ending injury so late in such a blowout. But without a hint of bitterness, Croyle softened the scrutiny by instantly coming to his coach’s defense.

“It’s been a roller coaster ride,” Croyle said. “But all of it — the probation, the coaching changes, the injuries, the losses and struggles — has brought us together and made us stronger as a team.”

With a healthy Croyle under center and one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, Alabama finally is riding high this season. Croyle, who is 98-for-163 passing this season for 1,345 yards, nine touchdowns and just two interceptions, already has established Alabama’s career mark for touchdown passes (36). Entering today’s game, he has thrown 127 consecutive passes without an interception and needs just 756 yards to eclipse Andrew Zow (5,983 yards) as Alabama’s career leader in passing yardage.

And while nobody would confuse Croyle with “Hollywood” Matt Leinart of USC or the sublime athletic talents operating the offenses of the nation’s other top-five teams (Vince Young of Texas, Marcus Vick of Virginia Tech or D.J. Shockley of Georgia), it was the cagey Croyle who earned Sports Illustrated coverboy honors earlier this month with his stunning performance against Florida.

In Alabama’s 31-3 coming-out pasting of the then-No. 5 Gators on Oct. 1, Croyle completed 14 of 17 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns to herald the Tide’s return among game’s elite teams. Asked about the SI cover by the Huntsville Times the following week, Croyle predictably responded: “I’d rather have a ring than a cover.”

With five games and a possible showdown with undefeated Georgia in the SEC title game left on the regular-season docket, serious work remains before Alabama can think about claiming an SEC crown. After all, the Crimson Tide have lost nine of 10 to today’s detested guest, Tennessee.

And with USC, Texas and Virginia Tech all unbeaten and perched ahead of Alabama in both the polls and the BCS standings, both a series of Tide victories and a healthy dose of good luck stands between Alabama and a trip to the Rose Bowl for a shot at the national title.

But if there’s a mystical scoreboard for such things, karma certainly owes Croyle and Co. a few colossal favors.

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