4 After 4: Eric Crouch, The Heisman
Aaron Rodgers was not the only anointed successor to Brett Favre. The Packers tried at least four other times to find an heir to the Gunslinger's throne. These are their stories.
Eric Crouch should have been an All-Pro receiver. He could have been the heir to Brett Favre.
The 2001 Heisman Trophy winner at Nebraska, quarterback Eric Crouch rushed for over 3,000 yards and threw for over 4,000 yards in his career. When he graduated, he was one of three players in Division I history to accomplish this feat. Crouch hoped to add his name to the list of Heisman winners picked high in the draft. Five of the previous seven had gone in the first round.
- 1995: Rashaan Salaam, RB, Colorado (Bears), 21st overall
- 1996: Eddie George, RB, Ohio State (Oilers), 14th overall
- 1997: Danny Wuerffel, QB, Florida (Saints), 99th overall
- 1998: Charles Woodson, DB, Michigan (Raiders), 4th overall
- 1999: Ricky Williams, RB, Texas (Saints), 5th overall
- 2000: Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin (Giants), 11th overall
- 2001: Chris Weinke, QB, Florida State (Panthers), 106th overall
However, at 5-11 and 195 pounds, Crouch was three inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than the average NFL quarterback. The NFL would initially deny Crouch the opportunity to work out as a quarterback at the 2002 combine.
Scouts said he was too short. His arm wasn’t strong enough. The option offense he ran in Nebraska couldn’t work in the NFL.
Crouch’s agent Jim Steiner represented the league’s premier wide receiver, Jerry Rice. Steiner told Crouch during the pre-draft process his best path to the NFL was as a wide receiver.
But Crouch wanted to be a starting NFL quarterback. As college football’s most outstanding player, he believed he possessed the skillset to play quarterback at the next level. Eventually Crouch came around to Steiner’s position, telling teams in meetings he’d play receiver.
The NFL also changed its mind. Crouch worked out at quarterback, running back, receiver and defensive back at the Combine, which proved to be a taxing experience.
At the combine, Crouch experienced a significant leg injury, which set him back three to four months. A hamstring injury and shin splints limited his offseason training. Crouch ultimately would have 11 football-related surgeries throughout his professional career.
Even after the Rams picked Crouch 95th overall, his life didn’t get any easier. A thigh injury in the preseason lingered, setting the newly-minted receiver back even further.
Days before the 2002 regular season began, Crouch returned his signing bonus. The Rams announced he no longer intended to play football.
“I was 23, engaged to be married and trying to adjust to a new city, a new team, a new level of football and a new position,” Crouch later said of his rookie season. “I was never passionate about being a receiver.”
It wasn’t the first time Crouch had thought about stepping away from football. 19-year-old Eric Crouch briefly left camp in early fall after learning head coach Frank Solich gave the starting quarterback job to incumbent Bobby Newcombe.
Coach Solich convinced Crouch to stay with the team. Newcombe struggled, and Crouch permanently took the reins of the offense and finished his career with a school-record 7,915 yards of total offense.
Quest to start at quarterback begins
Crouch spent the 2002-2003 season away from football. ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported an unnamed CFL team had interest in starting Crouch at quarterback following his release by St. Louis. Five days after the season concluded, the Packers surprisingly claimed Crouch on waivers.
Before joining Green Bay, Crouch was optimistic about his chance at winning a starting role. "If I play again I'd definitely say it would be as a quarterback," he told ESPN. "My whole life, I've been a quarterback. My best football is when the ball's in my hands and I have some control over what happens."
The Associated Press reported the Packers planned to give him a shot at quarterback. It was a fresh start for the Omaha native, but not as far north as he wished.
Crouch joined the 2003 Packers behind established backup quarterbacks Doug Pederson and Craig Nall. Veteran Akili Smith was also in camp competing for reps. Firmly fifth on the depth chart, Crouch had limited opportunities to compete at quarterback.
It irked a desperate quarterback looking for an opportunity to prove his talents. After his release, Crouch assumed a team willing to sign him would give him reps at quarterback.
Crouch did receive reps at quarterback in OTAs and minicamp. On May 1, 2003, Lori Nickel of the Journal-Sentinel reported Sherman was “impressed” by Crouch’s arm. Not only was Crouch impressing with his athletic gifts, but also with his technique. Sherman noted Crouch’s throwing motion was further ahead than he expected.
But as minicamps and OTAs continued, the Journal-Sentinel reported Crouch appeared “small” and “invisible in the pocket” alongside the second and third units. An impressive throw across the middle on one rep preceded an overthrown, errant pass.
While the Packers gave Crouch reps as a quarterback, Brett Favre’s presence pulled the parking brake on his prospects of starting in the NFL. As the summer continued, Green Bay gave him practice reps as a kick and punt returner. If Crouch wanted a spot on the Packers’ 53 man roster, he would have to become a football chameleon.
As 2003's training camp started, Crouch drew the attention of railbirds looking to catch a glimpse of college football’s best player. Crouch’s opportunities to shine on the field were limited, however.
Crouch voiced his displeasure, telling reporters he “wasn’t thrilled about having to spend a training camp watching four other quarterbacks take snaps.” 48 hours later, Crouch walked into Sherman’s office and informed the coach he was going home. Training camp was only two days old.
“He just said personal reasons,” Sherman told the Journal-Sentinel when asked about Crouch’s reasoning. “He didn’t want to continue. So I just left it like that.”
Offensive coordinator Tom Rossley told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel after Crouch left Green Bay, “We really liked him. We looked at him as a long-term project.”
Crouch’s last stand
The following summer, Crouch joined the Packers in camp once more. After walking away from football twice in two summers, it was his last shot to make an NFL roster.
Eric Crouch was not invited back to the Packers to play quarterback. The 2003 offseason delivered ex-Brown Tim Couch to backup Favre and potentially play successor.
Crouch was asked to play defensive back, one of the five positions he had worked out with at the 2002 NFL Combine.
Thoughts about playing quarterback lingered with Crouch as he learned how to play defense. Green Bay saw a man with tremendous athletic talent, but unsure of his place on a professional roster. Crouch and the Packers separated before training camp in 2004.
After another season away from football, he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as a safety and was sent to NFL Europe’s Hamburg Sea Devils in 2005. Crouch then joined the CFL, spending 2006 as the fourth-string quarterback and an injury-plagued 2007 campaign with the Toronto Argonauts. The All-American Football League lured Crouch to sign with the Houston franchise in 2008, but the league folded before any games were played.
30-year-old Eric Crouch had only played three full seasons of professional football since turning 23.
Eric Crouch’s football legacy is secured. Crouch joins Johnny Rodgers (1972) and Mike Rozier (1983) as the only three Cornhuskers to win the coveted Heisman Trophy. He led Nebraska to within 60 minutes of a national championship.
His time in the NFL puts him in dubious company. Eric Crouch joins Charlie Ward and Jason White as the only Heisman Trophy winners in the modern era to never play a down in the regular season:
- Ward won the Heisman Trophy at Florida State in 1993, but chose to pursue a career in the NBA. The New York Knicks selected Ward in the first round. He averaged 6.3 points per game and 4.0 rebounds per game across 11 seasons.
- Oklahoma’s White was two seasons removed from winning the Heisman Trophy when he entered the NFL Draft. At age 25 and coming off several knee surgeries, White was a risky proposition for teams and went undrafted. He signed with the Tennessee Titans but retired shortly thereafter due to recurring knee injuries.
One last opportunity to play quarterback
In spring of 2011, the upstart United Football League held a public workout in Crouch’s hometown of Omaha for potential players. A 32-year-old Eric Crouch swallowed his pride and showed up, nearly nine years removed from his selection in the third round of the NFL Draft and five years since his last organized football activity. The men he was working out alongside were solid high school and college players – maybe some had even had a cup of coffee with an NFL team – but none were drafted.
He performed well enough to receive an invitation to the Omaha Nighthawks minicamp in June, and signed with the team shortly thereafter.
Eric Crouch was ready for his moment in the spotlight. In an introductory press conference, Crouch announced he had no intentions of using the Nighthawks as a springboard back to the NFL.
“My motivation is competition on the field,” he told reporters. “I love the game of football and love to go out and compete.”
Crouch entered the 2011 UFL season competing for the starting job against Georgia’s D.J. Shockley, Ohio State quarterback and 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and former Oregon and Ole Miss starter Jeremiah Masoli. Crouch, much to the excitement of the hometown fans, won the starting job.
For the first time in his professional career, Crouch started a professional football game at quarterback against the Virginia Destroyers. Splitting time at quarterback with Masoli, Crouch watched his counterpart lead the Nighthawks to both of their touchdown drives in a disappointing 23-13 loss.
Crouch threw an interception before halftime and fumbled a handoff deep in his own territory down two scores. Four days after the game, Crouch underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee. It was his eleventh and final football-related surgery of his career.
Eric Crouch would never play professional football again. Now an analyst for Fox Sports during the football season, Crouch remains in Omaha and runs a family-owned recreational product business.