- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 1, 2014

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - John Croyle, an All-American football player who played defensive end for the University of Alabama and Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, founded the Big Oak Ranch for neglected boys in 1974, a year after playing for the 1973 national championship team. “Coach Bryant said, ‘Go build that ranch you’ve been talking about.’”

He started the boys’ home just outside Gadsden. The girls’ ranch opened in 1988 in Springville. In 1990, Big Oak Ranch took over the Westbrook Christian School, also near Gadsden.

Croyle, still executive director at 63, isn’t ready to retire yet from overseeing the ministry. But when he does, he knows the ranch will be in good hands. “I was chosen by God to get this started,” Croyle said. Now he believes God has called his children to carry on the work. “They’re better at this than I am,” Croyle said.

This past weekend, Croyle and his wife, Tee, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Big Oak Ranch. Their children are gradually taking over leadership of the Christian home for neglected boys and girls.

Their son, Brodie Croyle, former Alabama and NFL quarterback, now serves as associate executive director. Their daughter, Reagan Croyle Phillips, who played basketball at Alabama and was homecoming queen, joined the staff several years ago as childcare team director. “God worked in their hearts,” John said.

“The children at Big Oak Ranch have always been close to my heart,” Brodie said. “He raised us to be our own men, our own women. That’s what we were doing. I really feel God’s calling us back to the ranch.”

The Croyles have helped raise more than 1,800 kids dropped off at the Big Oak Ranch, many of whom had parents who gave up on them. Neal Blackerby, 27, came to live at Big Oak Ranch when he was 8. “I learned how to be part of a real family,” he said. “That’s what this is.”

Reagan said her brother is the right man to continue their father’s vision. “He is a tremendous leader,” she said. “God almighty put it in him where we’re going.”

Brodie said he appreciates his sister’s support. “I throw interceptions; I get sacked,” he said. “She builds my confidence up.”

Brodie said his father can stay in charge as long as he wants. “He’s not going anywhere. Nor should he. His role’s just changing.”

With Brodie and Reagan taking care of administrative chores, John can spend more time out on the road, spreading the word about the need to raise children right.

“We’ll continue to be faithful to what God has called us to do,” Brodie said. “All three of us will continue to do that.”

If one day John decides to retire, he can fully pass the baton.

“We’re making a gradual change,” John said. “Every day, we’re handing off more to Reagan, more to Brodie.”

___

Information from: The Birmingham News, https://www.al.com/birminghamnews


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