If you can't beat them, join them. Or fool them.
That's precisely the way offensive lineman Brian Crawford had it figured. Turned out he was right, too.
Crawford, the Minnesota Vikings' seventh-round pick last April, was a third-year double-redshirt freshman at Western Oregon. NFL scouts came in one day a season to time all the seniors, looking for a proverbial diamond in the rough. Even though Western Oregon was a Division II school, stopwatches don't lie. Because of that, scouts refuse to overlook a college institution, regardless of the size.
No matter how complex the National Football League may seem, a simpleton theory will almost always apply: If you can run fast enough, teams will find a place for you. In Crawford's case, speed was the leading factor that put his name on scouts' lists.
After six years of college football, Crawford entered Vikings training camp at about 325 pounds. When he was a third-year freshman, he was 300 pounds. The day scouts came to time the Western Oregon players, only seniors were permitted to run. Crawford snuck in the race, anyway. (We use the term "snuck" loosely. Think about it — can any 300-pound football player sneak into a 40-yard dash without being noticed?)
No one noticed Crawford sneaking in at the starting line. NFL scouts did notice, however, the lumbering lineman cross the finish line. Save the sun-dial remarks. For his size, Crawford's time was swift, eye-opening, actually.
"After my first year of starting for Western Oregon, I drew a little bit of interest because I ran for the NFL scouts letting them think I'm a senior," Crawford said. "The scouts came by and ran all the seniors. I just jumped in there and ran with them. Then, after I ran, I told them I was a freshman. I ran a 5.1 (seconds) which was good for 6-foot-6, 300 pounds. They told me I needed to get a chest because I needed more upper-body strength and I had to show them I could dominate at the small-school level and show them I'm good enough to play (in the NFL)."
That was ample ammunition to motivate Crawford for the final three years of his collegiate career. Serving as a two-year backup for his Lakeridge (Ore.) High School football team, Crawford didn't even dare to dream about playing professionally in the NFL.
After high school graduation, he didn't even dare dream about playing college football for a big-time program. "I was just a big body, so I got tossed in with small-school recruiters," Crawford said. "I talked my way onto the Western Oregon team, red-shirted twice then started for four years."
It was that day after his first year of starting, the day NFL scouts saw him shine, that Crawford began to realize an NFL career wasn't a ludicrous goal to shoot for.
"It gave me a new focus," Crawford said of that unforgettable make-or-break day in 1997. "It showed that if you work really hard and take it to another level you might have a chance to play when you get out of college."
As a senior, Crawford was named an NCAA Div. II All-American. In track and field during spring, he became a two-time All-American in the discus. It was evident that hard work in the weight-lifting room as well as on the football practice field could quite possibly pay off.
In his complete college career with the Wolves, Crawford started all 40 games that he played. In his last 30 games, he never allowed a sack. He was recognized as the most valuable lineman at the Div. II Cactus Bowl. A decorated career, to say the least, even at the Div. II level.
But there we go again, getting hung up in that school size thing. We should have learned by now, whether you're from Notre Dame, Miami or W. Oregon, stopwatches don't lie and neither do the scouts.
This spring, after his six-year career with the Wolves had concluded, Crawford was tutored by informed sources that his name may get called on NFL draft weekend. If not then, a few days later it would be a certainty teams would come calling to sign him as a free agent.
Crawford tried to maintain an even-keel approach. Even though his humbling high school and college career took place in the vastly lumbered region of the Pacific Northwest, the nation would likely be taking notice soon of a blue-collar lineman hoping to make a name — if not a living — in the NFL.
The NFL's highly publicized draft day came. Naturally, ESPN had every angle covered. Unfortunately, it is the one weekend every year couch potatoes and TV viewers everywhere see more of Mel Kiper Jr. then they do their own spouses and children. Diehard NFL fans become so entrenched with the two-day draft, they even set a place setting for the sometimes annoying Kiper at their dinner table.
Nothing about the draft irritated Crawford. He had been told by insiders he would be picked, if at all, on the second day. After the first four or five rounds were complete, Crawford wasn't that disappointed. He knew that if his name would be called, it would be on Sunday, not Saturday.
"Draft day was a lot of fun," Crawford said. "I anticipated going in the sixth round. At first, I thought I would slide to free agency and that was fine; I wouldn't have any people over for a draft day party. Then the Vikings showed some interest in me (before the draft) and let me know they were serious about taking me, so I decided to have a few people (50) over at my parents' house.
"The sixth round came and went and I was a little nervous and a little upset, but I finally got picked up by the Vikings. When it happened I was like, ‘Wow, my name is on ESPN!'"
For a kid who spent his entire life in Oregon, that was as big as it gets.
One day removed from the draft, Crawford found himself on a plane bound for Minneapolis. He met the coaches, some players, toured the Vikings practice facility at Winter Park, spoke with media members … In a matter of 48 hours, Crawford's dream came true.
So long as no one would pinch him.
"Minicamp was a big experience for me," Crawford said. "I'm sitting there in the huddle looking around and all these famous people are around me and you're like, ‘Whoa, this is awesome.'"
By the time training camp arrived two weeks ago, Crawford no longer would let his jaw fall to the floor from being in awe of the entire experience. Reality — albeit good — had set in. He knew he had a job to do in Mankato. He knew the fun and games of the draft were distant memories. Playtime was over. Work was to be done now.
"It's been a lot of hard work and it's been a good opportunity to be with a lot of the guys who haven't been here for the last six weeks," Crawford said. "Practices are really difficult, but no matter how hard they are you know there's always things you need to work on.
"You come off the field exhausted, but then there's all the fans and that picks you up. I love signing autographs and talking to kids; that's one of the parts I really enjoy."
The enjoyment was instantaneously drained out of training camp the moment Pro Bowl tackle Korey Stringer died from complications with heat stroke Aug. 1. The day before Stringer died, before anyone knew anything serious was even wrong with Stringer, Crawford couldn't stop complimenting his mentor.
At the time, Stringer was the Vikings' starting right tackle. Just days into camp, Crawford was Stringer's understudy.
"Korey is awesome," Crawford said the day before Stringer died. "He is really, really talented with great feet, great strength and he knows how to play football really well. That's the most positive thing about this process. I've heard stories where you go to a team and veterans don't talk to you. You sit there and have to learn it yourself by watching.
"Korey Stringer is much more hands -on. When he's not in, he's watching me play and as soon as I finish a play or series, he talks to me and says I need to do this or that differently. I learn an incredible amount just being around him."
Chris Liwienski has moved into Stringer's spot. Crawford's responsibility hasn't changed.
"My role is learn my position the best I can," Crawford said. "When my name is called, when the second team goes in and someone goes down or whatever, I need to just do my job as best I can. Everyone else is going to do their job the best they can and I have to do that, too. It's a team sport, but if everyone does their own thing, good results will come."
Because of his agility and versatility, the Vikings may use Crawford all along the line.
"We like Brian Crawford a lot," coach Dennis Green said. "He's a big guy from a small school, but can do a lot of good things. We think he can play tackle and guard. He's a 325-pound player with very good movement."
Even if — as a Western Oregon freshman in '97 — he wasn't supposed to be in the race.