Dude’s Top 10: No. 5 – The Isaiah Crowell Interview
This series focuses on my favorite posts of all time. Lest I be labeled as overly arrogant, please note: 1. This was new DYC Editor-in-Chief Chad Floyd’s idea. 2. These are my “favorite” posts not my “best” posts. I don’t have “best” posts, because that would imply that I had better posts and good posts to begin with. For the rest of the Dude’s Top 10 Countdown, click here.
In March of 2014 I interviewed exiled Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell for a feature piece on Bleacher Report. The article was the most-read thing I’ve ever written and I was appreciative of the exposure that a site like B/R could provide.
That being said, the published article didn’t necessarily say everything I wanted it to. I added some thoughts about my time with Isaiah on this site. But, I’ve never published my un-edited takes on the afternoon. The full initial draft, which was altered for length and at times content by the B/R editorial staff, is below.
The general summary: this guy was misunderstood, he has matured and he’s ready for the NFL. I’m not saying I’m a prophet but Crow did score eight touchdowns as an undrafted rookie last season. Only seven NFL running backs scored more often on the ground and five of those guys registered exactly one more touchdown than Crowell.
Here is the full text of my Isaiah Crowell profile.
For an NFL draft prospect, time is of the essence.
Shaving a few hundredths of a second off a 40-yard dash can vault a player up draft boards league wide. Conversely, a lone misstep on the clock-sensitive three cone drill or shuttle run could be the difference between being drafted and hoping for a rookie contract as a free agent.
On the first Saturday in March, time is at a premium for former Georgia and Alabama State running back Isaiah Crowell. While he’s in Atlanta to celebrate and be honored as a Black College All-American, there’s still a lot of work to be done. And there’s precious little time with which to do it.
Crowell spends the early portion of the afternoon signing autographs at Midtown’s Loews Hotel. He’s not shaking hands and posing for photos with fans. He’s signing miniature placards that will soon adorn trading cards. He’s signing hundreds of them. “That was a small batch,” he explains later, much to the surprise of anyone who’s never had a memorabilia endorsement deal.
While those surrounding him—his publicist, a witness from the memorabilia company, a few curious lingerers —laugh and carry on, Isaiah is focused as he scribbles his insignia time and time again. He’s not on the field or in the weight room, but he’s already on the clock.
“Do I have time to grab a drink real fast?” Isaiah panders as he transitions from the autograph session to an interview. After receiving the desired response he disappears into a corridor of the hotel, presumably into an elevator and up to his room.
A few minutes later he resurfaces, bottle of water in hand. He apologizes profusely for the delay, but he’s right on time.
“Actually when I was younger I played AAU basketball,” Isaiah volunteers as he begins talking about the early stage of his athletic career. “And I ran track. But football was always my favorite sport. Yes sir.”
The only thing more constant than the sirs and ma’ams is his cheery facial expression. Crowell smiles as he reminisces, but that’s not unique in and of itself. To the contrary, he barely loses his half-toothy grin during the course of the afternoon. Whether signing his name, exchanging words with others in the lobby of the Loews or fielding questions, the smile is omnipresent. And yet, one topic consistently elevates his smirk from a faint glow to an optimistic glimmer. Football.
Given his natural acumen both between tackles and out in space, his passion is understandable. But it’s nothing new.
Crowell confesses to being “a little bit” scared of the larger competition he faced when he arrived at George Washington Carver High School in Columbus, Ga. as a freshman. Nonetheless, that 2007 campaign had a lasting impact on him and his view of the sport. Playing alongside the likes of Jarmon Fortson (a Florida State commit in 2008), DeRon Furr (Auburn in 2008) and Jarvis Jones (USC in 2009, before transferring to Georgia) made football more than a game.
“I saw the colleges coming through the school all the time to talk to those guys and make offers. And I decided I wanted that to be me.”
A few short years later, it was Crowell as he committed to play football at the University of Georgia.
“Running out on that field for the first time was like a dream come true,” Isaiah says when speaking of his first game as a Bulldog, a 35-21 loss to Boise State at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome in 2011. “I couldn’t even imagine it. I’d been wanting to go to Georgia for a long time, I’d always been a Georgia fan so it was amazing.”
For the most part, Crowell presents himself in the present and he speaks of the future. Despite this forward-thinking nature, he remembers that short-lived dream of a freshman season as if it was yesterday. And as he reflects on the premature conclusion to his career in Athens, he speaks with a clarity that is the byproduct of equal parts understanding and pain.
“It was childish,” he says curtly.
Neither words nor emotions are minced.
“I never thought about giving up football, though. That was always going to be there.”
The Loving Family
“My mom and my dad, they are married,” Crowell insists with an air that borders on defiant. He takes this stance, arguably his firmest of the entire conversation, with conviction as if to preemptively diminish any attacks on his kin. Further, he speaks glowingly of his family members as if to distance them from his transgressions—both real and perceived.
“Both my parents were real hard working. My dad owned a truck and does lawn work. My mom is the manager of an assisted living facility.”
Crowell describes his family as loving and goes so far as to say that he speaks with his siblings regularly. “I’m the youngest. I’ve always been the baby. They say I was spoiled,” he jokes. “But we’re still real close. I talk to my brothers and sister everyday.”
Sharing the bad news of his June 2012 weapons arrest was difficult for Isaiah, but telling his parents and his three brothers and one sister wasn’t the hard part.
“The worst part was telling my grandma, actually,” Isaiah offers with a feigned laugh to hide still-present remorse. He continues:
I talk to her about everything. She’s always telling me, probably like everybody else’s grandmother, ‘Stay out of trouble. And don’t do this and don’t do that.’ And my arrest was actually at like three in the morning on her birthday. So I had to go that night to have dinner with her for her birthday and it was right after I got out of jail. She didn’t get on me too hard. She got on me, but she told me to move forward and keep pressing on to the next thing.
Family, as it turns out, was also a deciding factor in his next move.
The Challenge of Reduced Competition
Coach Richt and I talked in person right after I got out of jail. I wanted stay at Georgia and wanted him to keep me on the team initially. But he didn’t just release me. He said it was going to be a mutual decision. He felt like I needed to start somewhere new and start somewhere fresh, and he wanted me to have a better career. He really didn’t want me being a distraction because the case was still going to be pending, that was the main thing. But it was actually a mutual decision that I’d be better continuing my career elsewhere. I don’t have regrets about choosing Georgia, though. Those were some of the best days of my life.
After the separation from Georgia, Crowell was in need of a new direction. He could transfer to another FBS program and redshirt, or he could pursue immediate playing time at a lower division.
Alabama State was the first program to call. Family ties prompted Crowell to answer.
“My uncle lives there in Montgomery. He actually went to Alabama State. And my mom was very comfortable with me being there, and one of my teammates from high school went there. And it’s close to home, that’s really why I went.”
Although he returned to the playing field quickly, the reduced competition offered by the FCS program presented its fair share of challenges to Crowell. Keenly aware of both his seemingly squandered opportunity and his finite end goal, he committed to pushing himself individually beyond what was required by the Hornets football program.
“Really I pushed myself because knowing I was at Alabama State I was going to have to work harder than somebody playing at Georgia or one of the big schools. I wanted to be ranked as high and looked at as one of the best even though I was at Alabama State.”
That preparation has paid dividends as he’s reintroduced himself to some of the most elite prospects in this year’s draft.
Leading up to the NFL Scouting Combine, Crowell spent his days training at EXOS outside of Pensacola, Fla. alongside such notables as Jadeveon Clowney, Jarvis Landry and Aaron Murray, Crowell’s former teammate at Georgia.
Kevin Conner, the CEO and President of Universal Sports & Entertainment Management, decided returning Crowell to the highly competitive atmosphere afforded by EXOS was a top priority after landing him as a client.
Isaiah’s talent pedigree has not changed. He’s still the same guy who was a 5-star recruit and an All-American in high school. He’s the same guy who was the best freshman in the SEC in 2011. He needed to be back surrounded by that caliber of athlete and be held accountable indirectly by the competition. And it worked. We heard from his coaches and trainers that he embraced the challenges and really emerged as a leader in addition to improving during his time there.
Although the majority of the drills—80% by Crowell’s estimate—are geared more toward testing well at the combine and pro days and less toward actual improvement as a football player, Isaiah found a level of comfort in the EXOS environment.
“When I started training it felt different because I hadn’t been around that talent in a couple years. But I felt back at home.”
Does He Belong?
His improvements during the training—most notably added size and strength without a loss of speed—should serve him well at the next level, and Isaiah is hoping scouts take notice of the gains he’s already seen.
Crowell says that if he were running a draft war room, he’d select himself in the second round. Based on what’s been seen on and off the field, he thinks that’s where he belongs.
If isolated, his stance on this topic makes for one hell of a soundbite. After all, no major mock draft has him being selected so highly.
Within the broader context of the conversation, however, the assessment is surprisingly accurate—even if somewhat forgiving.
Over the course of 60 minutes in the Loews Hotel, Isaiah Crowell is multifaceted. He’s contrite when speaking of the past. He’s humble when speaking of the present. He’s optimistic and determined when speaking of the future. He’s gracious, accommodating and light-hearted throughout.
At no point does he seem anything but composed, calculated and professional. Some of that may be the interview coaching of his agent, publicists and other consultants. But Crowell has either mastered the art of long-form monologues to an Oscar-winning degree, or he’s genuinely self-aware.
“I’ve been working with athletes like Isaiah for over 30 years,” Ken Herock offers over the phone on a drizzly Atlanta Monday. “I can tell right away if a guy is leading me on or just trying to say the right things. That’s not the case with Isaiah.”
Crowell’s generally stable demeanor makes his second-round self-assessment all the more intriguing. Again, no major draft expert has him slated so high. But the NFL draft is driven disproportionately by two factors: potential and momentum.
SEC football fans have seen prolonged glimpses of Crowell’s potential. In his second collegiate game, Crowell went against Clowney (also a freshman in 2011) and the South Carolina Gamecocks. Georgia lost a 45-42 nail-biter at home, but Crowell accounted for 158 yards of offense and two touchdowns on just 18 touches. He ran the ball sixteen times, and was not stopped behind the line of scrimmage once.
Following the loss, Isaiah Crowell—not Jadeveon Clowney—was SEC Freshman of the Week according to the Associated Press. The AP also tabbed Crowell with the SEC Freshman of the Year honors.
While few (if any) would make an argument for drafting Crowell over Clowney, a physical freak with a better track record in the nation’s toughest college football conference, it’s hard to dispute that Crowell has second (or even first) round potential. He’s already shown it.
Robert Brown, Crowell’s agent at Universal, is quick to point out that his client has already caught the eye of NFL scouts with his natural ability. “We polled just about every NFL team, “ Brown insists. “And unequivocally they say that Isaiah has the talent—size, speed, strength, everything—to be a starter at the NFL level. Some say he could start on day one.”
Bleacher Report’s Lead NFL Draft Writer, Matt Miller sees the same potential:
Crowell has all the natural talent in the world. He’s powerfully built with the legs needed to drive through would-be tacklers and pick up positive yardage. With his combination of size and speed, Crowell definitely fits the model of a franchise running back. In years-past, he would have been a 20-carry bell-cow featured in a pro-style offense.
As for momentum, Crowell is doing all he can to create a buzz. He performed well at the NFL Scouting Combine where he showed off a new, bulked-up physique at 224 pounds, but he believes he can do better.
“I think I can run a 4.3, but I know I’ve got 4.4 speed,” Crowell offers when asked how he felt about his measurables. “I think I did good, but I could have been better,” he says of a performance in which he ran a 4.57 (official) 40-yard dash, jumped 38 inches on the vertical and bench pressed 23 reps of 225 pounds.
Unfortunately, rainy and cold conditions kept Crowell from improving on his 40 time on Tuesday. Crowell told BamaStateSports.com, “If it wasn’t raining I would have run it again, but with it raining I didn’t think it would help me out to run it again.”
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Crowell met formally with three teams, the Cleveland Browns, the Miami Dolphins and the Oakland Raiders. He chatted more casually with several others.
“They didn’t ask me anything too crazy,” he says with a laugh. “They asked questions about my arrest and just wanted to know what happened. But I told them what went on and the situation. They didn’t dwell on it.”
Crowell is hopeful for further conversations with more teams as such dialogues offer an opportunity to get past his biggest remaining hurdle: separating perception from reality. And though that may seem like an uphill battle, his newly broadened shoulders and diligently crafted responses seem up for the task.
Paradoxically, he’s aided by the fact that the public’s presuppositions about his character are so thoroughly flawed that they can be exposed as false even after a superficial scan.
As a freshman at Georgia, Crowell caught grief from fans for nursing injuries. He contends he tried to play through a number of injuries that would have left others in street clothes. He bruised his ribs in the first quarter against South Carolina in week two, but stayed in the game and fought valiantly. Against Ole Miss he fractured his wrist in the middle of another SEC Freshman of the Week performance. He tore ligaments in his ankle against Kentucky but was dressed out two weeks later for the SEC Championship.
While he’s completely healthy now and has no lingering concerns whatsoever, it’s evident that fans’ chiding takes on his efforts bothered him. “I used to come off the field for real reasons, you know. I wasn’t taking myself out. That part was frustrating,” he admits. “Because I really was hurt and was trying to play. That was frustrating more than anything.”
Outside the lines, Crowell developed a reputation as a troubled young man instigating drama within the team. In reality, his freshman year was plagued by inner turmoil as he dealt with the death of two loved ones, his nephew and a close friend. Simultaneously he came to grips with news that he was going to be a father.
Crowell notes that these challenges weren’t lost on the Georgia coaching staff, particularly running backs coach (and his lead recruiter per 247Sports) Bryan McClendon. “I really couldn’t focus on football. He could always see it on my face,” Isaiah recalls. “He’d always talk to me after the meetings and stuff and just ask, ‘What’s wrong? What’s going on?’ And we’d go talk for 30 minutes just about what was going on with me.”
“I would never want people to label me as a hot-head or trouble maker,” Crowell states seriously as his smile abruptly but briefly disappears. “That’s not me. My fuse was shorter then because of other things. I didn’t want it to be like that, but that’s how I was because of what I was going through.”
Crowell was continually portrayed as self-centered during his brief career at Georgia. Now, when asked about his 2011 season, he immediately deflects away from himself and toward the collective effort of the team.
Really a lot of people didn’t expect us to do that well just because of the season before. The coaches were telling us to ignore the noise and stick together and play football. And we lost the first two games so that didn’t help us at all. But we stuck together and went through and we had a good season. I think it was a good year overall.
It’s only after more pointed questions and further prodding that the alleged egomaniac begins to talk about his personal accomplishments.
Even social media created a false version of Isaiah Crowell that must be corrected. The popular “Fake Isaiah Crowell” Twitter account peaked in popularity among Georgia fans two years ago but remains at the forefront for Dawg fans when speaking of Crowell. Prior to the interview, Ashley Kerns of Kerns Marketing & Management, who works closely with Isiaiah and other draft prospects, acknowledged the parody account preemptively, saying, “He’s nothing like that Twitter account. He’s very genuine and mild mannered. That thing couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Then there’s the incident of June 2012, when Isiah Crowell was arrested and brought up on felony charges for possessing a weapon in a school zone and possessing a weapon with an altered ID mark as well as a misdemeanor for possession of a concealed weapon.
Even that, Ken Herock suggests, should be a non-factor when evaluating Crowell’s draft stock.
Herock, who played professionally before becoming a personnel exec with the Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers, is well-versed in reading players and their accompanying situations. Currently advising upwards of 80 potential draftees per year on an independent basis, Herock sees no limiting factor in Crowell’s past.
You say ‘off-the field issues,’ and I don’t know what you’re talking about. Because I’m talking about a guy who was arrested two years ago for something and had all the charges dropped and expunged from his record. He has no criminal record and has not been in any trouble over the past two years. He’s had to live with that for two years but it’s behind him and he’s better for it. A lot of guys do stuff like that when they get to the NFL. He’s already learned from his mistakes.
A Better Isaiah Crowell
“Marshawn Lynch is a guy I look up to. The first person never brings him down. He runs hard and is hard to bring down, that’s why I want to be like him.”
Crowell perks up once again as the conversation transitions back to the game he loves. Yet there’s a broader, metaphorical truth to the Marshawn Lynch comparison which transcends football.
Right now, Crowell is trying to prove to everyone that an early misstep away from the field won’t unravel the NFL dream he’s been weaving since childhood. Off the field—whether in interviews, meetings or in the community— Isaiah is striving to display the same fortitude Lynch shows on the field. He’s aiming to demonstrate that can’t be taken down the first time.
Isaiah, who exudes an aura of maturity—or at the very least hunger, seems every bit on the right path. A time-tested formula of personal growth and relational support is leading him ever closer to an NFL career.
His troubles, overstated as they may have been, have not hardened him, but rather refined him. And family continues to serve as motivation.
“I’m a father now so everything has changed. Everything I’m doing isn’t just for me. It’s for my son now. That motivates me, because I don’t want to let him down,” Crowell expresses with a chilling degree of contentment that does not typify the average 21-year old father in search of a way to provide for his family.
So when Isaiah says, “I’m happy with where I am. This is where I’m supposed to be,” the significance surpasses the cliché.
On one hand, it’s clear that Crowell is appreciative of the opportunity. Even his weekend at the Loews Hotel honoring gridiron legends of historically black colleges, signing autographs for unknown collectors and speaking with the media is worth relishing.
On the other, an overriding appreciation for his path—unorthodox as it may have been—is not lost on him.
“At Georgia I was kind of childish. I feel like if I’d stayed there and got to the NFL I wouldn’t be as mature as I am now. I think the arrest and everything grounded me and made me humble.”
All the ups and downs, his time at Georgia and his trek to Alabama State have created a better Isaiah Crowell.
With a pause that is far more introspective than scripted, he concludes, “Right now I have the work ethic to play at the NFL, I’m not going to let anything block my dream. I’m not the same person I used to be.”
At this time, that’s all Isaiah Crowell wants to prove.
That’s all I got/
For the rest of the Dude’s Top 10 Countdown, click here.