12 Going for 13

Every athlete in every sport is asked to fill out a sports information questionnaire to return with all the other paperwork that's involved with signing a scholarship. Brodie Croyle's is worth framing. Bama's number 12 has been focused on UA's 13th national championship since he signed with the Tide.

Among a stack of papers the signees had to fill out, read through and sign, the sports information questionnaire doesn't normally lend itself to much deliberation by the future Tide players.

Media relations' staff members use the questionnaires to get the athletes preferred name, parents and siblings names, their school and other basic biographical information, et cetera. There is a line for honors and awards received, if you were an All-County or All-State selection, for example.

And at the end there was a question asking the student athlete why he or she chose to attend Alabama. There were five or six blank lines for this question, but most student athletes were able to answer the question in a couple of words. The mostly thoughtlessly scrawled words usually read: "The coaches" and some noted "the tradition" or something very similar.

Working in Alabama's media relations department, I handled this type of information for the men's tennis team among my other duties. I once received a rare questionnaire to which a tennis player named Rishi Behl (pronounced "bell") had attached four hand-written pages to answer the question about why he chose Alabama.

The four neatly written pages explained his decision process and the angst he went through in choosing to attend the University of Alabama. In the essay he replayed the debate in his mind on whether to leave his native India or to attend university there. Then he discussed the same process when choosing American universities. It was a novella.

Ultimately, he felt he wanted to win "laurels" for the University of Alabama. He must have used the word "laurels" six times. As things turned out, he wasn't allowed to leave India for Alabama because whatever ruling government agency in India, for reasons which still aren't so clear to me, said no.

The story of Behl's questionnaire leads, in a round-about way, to the questionnaire of Brodie Croyle-the second most memorable questionnaire I have seen.

I first saw Croyle's sports information questionnaire in the summer of 2003 when preparing a story for one of the early season Alabama football game programs. It was similar to others I had seen, perhaps a bit more thorough since Brodie's dad, sister and brother-in-law had all been athletes at Alabama. There were questions for that, too.

On the back page, Croyle's response to the question about why he chose to attend Alabama was eye-widening.

The last sentence read, "Many people thought that coming to Alabama would be a mistake because of all the turmoil, but I know beyond they shadow of a doubt that this is where I will succeed and this is where I will be able to fulfill my dream to win a national championship."

How ironic, I thought, that two years of Croyle's eligibility will be spent where his team was banned from competing for the honor. And who knew how far Alabama will be able to get back towards a level playing field. Competing for a national championship? Brodie could dream, I supposed.

How sad, I thought, the next two years of his career would be spent on a team still hamstrung by the loss of (let's all say it together) 21 scholarships over three years, a head coach he was all but forbidden to meet with to that point, a playbook that might as well have been written in Chinese, assistant coaches who were lining up on the football field as players would to learn the offense themselves and so on.

Croyle would be competing for the national championship about like Phil Fulmer would be competing for Miss America, it seemed. After his junior season ended with the torn ACL in the third game, we saw his third opportunity in three years go down the drain.

Flash-forward to 2005. Alabama is 9-0 with two regular season games to play. A long way from the national championship, yes, but closer to it than 114 Division I football teams. Croyle's words are four wins away from being prophetic.

Someone asked Mike Shula earlier this week about paralleling the Virginia Tech-Miami game to the upcoming LSU-Alabama game, perhaps presuming that Shula would concede the coming game since a one-loss Miami beat undefeated Virginia Tech last week. Shula brushed aside the comparison to talk about his team's focus on LSU, not comparisons and analogies.

Don't believe it's destiny for Alabama, or that the national championship will fall into Croyle's and Shula's lap. The reality is, at 9-0, Alabama is perhaps at its most vulnerable without three-year starting center JB Closner and with a lagging offense since Tyrone Prothro went down.

After drives of 9, 11, 12 and 13 to start last week's game the offense sputtered and Croyle had one of his worst games. LSU is a favorite by some oddsmakers this week, and the following game against Auburn, especially if Alabama is undefeated and Auburn still has a shot at the SEC championship game, will be as emotionally charged as any since the first one at Jordan-Hare stadium in 1989.

As a reward for the winner of the West, the SEC Championship game awaits two weeks later. There are no downhill finishes in college football. Winning three more will be exponentially more difficult than winning the first nine was.

If Alabama is somehow able to do that, and then make its way around, or through, Texas or USC for a national championship, then Croyle's words should be etched in stone somewhere near Bryant-Denny Stadium. I wouldn't be so bold as to say that Alabama will pull it off, but Croyle has convinced me, and apparently everyone in the Tide locker room, never to bet against him.

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