Eric Crouch has no doubt he could have been an All-Pro receiver in the National Football League. But he never gave himself that opportunity.
Following a record-setting career as quarterback at the University of Nebraska that included the 2001 Heisman Trophy, Crouch was drafted by the Rams in the third round (95th overall) of the 2002 NFL draft.
Convinced that Crouch, who stood 5 feet 11¾ and 195 pounds, was too short and lacked the arm strength to play quarterback in the NFL, Rams coach Mike Martz drafted the talented triple-option quarterback as a receiver.
But the Crouch experiment never got off the ground.
A hamstring injury and shin splints limited Crouch’s offseason training. He entered training camp at less than 100 percent physically and, after catching two passes for 30 yards in the preseason opener against Jeff Fisher’s Tennessee Titans, Crouch suffered a late-game thigh injury that lingered through the preseason.
Then, just two days before the Rams were to open the season, a frustrated Crouch announced that he no longer intended to play football. On Sept. 11, 2002, he made it official.
“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, now 34, said last week via phone from the NFL’s Sports Journalism and Communication Boot Camp at Bowling Green State University. “And then there were the injuries that kept me from performing at the level I was used to. Everything seemed to be stacked against me.’’
Crouch continued: “Looking back now, I should’ve used my rookie year as a learning experience. I was in an ideal situation for a young receiver, working with Mike Martz alongside guys like Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Ricky Proehl.
“But I was never passionate about being a receiver.’’
‘I misled’ Mike Martz
Crouch made his name as an option quarterback at Nebraska.
After starting one game as a redshirt freshman, he took over three games into the next season and went on to a brilliant career that included 3,434 yards and 59 touchdowns on the ground and 4,481 yards and 29 touchdowns through the air.
“I guess I was born too early,’’ Crouch kidded. “With all the talk about the read-option these days, I’d be the perfect fit for a lot of NFL teams.’’
But that was not the case in 2002. In fact, even Jim Steiner, Crouch’s agent, tried to convince him that shifting to receiver was his ticket to the NFL.
“I remember him telling me to get my foot in the door (by playing receiver) and to see how things went from there.’’ Crouch said.
So Crouch went along, saying all the right things in his pre-draft meetings with NFL teams. But he never gave up on his dream of playing quarterback.
“There’s no other position in sports like it,’’ he said. “I like calling the plays, I like having my teammates look to me in the huddle to find out what we’re going to do next and I love the pressure that goes along with that.
“I tried to convince myself that I could become a receiver, but playing quarterback has always been my passion. I misled Mike Martz and the rest of the NFL, and that’s something I regret.’’
A couple of years ago, when Martz was with the 49ers, Crouch tried to reach out to his former coach to apologize.
“I left a voicemail and never heard back,’’ Crouch said. “I don’t even know if the message got to him and I don’t blame him if he decided not to respond. Coach Martz believed in me and I let him down. I made him and the Rams look bad and that was not my intention at all.’’
Post-Dispatch football writer Jim Thomas recently compiled a list of the best and worst 50 draft picks in Rams history. Crouch ended up No. 4 on the worst list behind running back Lawrence Phillips and offensive linemen Jason Smith and Jesse James.
Other top-50 notables from the Rams’ 2002 draft class were offensive lineman Travis Scott at No. 6, linebacker Robert Thomas at No. 14, quarterback-turned-safety Steve Bellisari at No. 22 and running back Lamar Gordon at No. 28.
Crouch, who never played a down in the NFL, tried to make it as a quarterback and safety with the Green Bay Packers in 2004 and was signed in 2005 by Kansas City. He played in five games as a defensive back in NFL Europe before the Chiefs released him.
Crouch spent 2006 and 2007 with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and was set to play with Team Texas of the All-American Football League when that league folded before its debut season in 2007.
As recently as 2011, Crouch was still pursuing his dream. Playing indoors with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League, he hurt his knee in the fourth quarter of the season opener and decided to call it quits.
“As a pro, I could never stay healthy,’’ said Crouch, who had 11 football-related operations.
Life’s next chapter
Crouch lives in suburban Omaha with wife Nicole and a daughter, Lexie, 13, and a son, Carsen, 9. He helps run Crouch Recreation, a company that sells playground equipment, and is working toward a career in broadcasting.
That is what led him to the NFL Boot Camp in Ohio, where he and 22 other participants spent four days studying and working on their craft. The program included covering a Toledo Mud Hens baseball game.
“I’ve learned a lot, from the instructors and from the other guys in the program,’’ Crouch said. “It’s a chance to work on my writing skills and to also help me do a better job in forming opinions. I did about 12 games last year for Fox Sports and I’m hoping to expand on that. Like football, it’s a very competitive field and that’s why I’m thankful to the NFL for this chance to learn and hopefully improve. I’d like to try everything, from studio work to commentary to play-by-play.
“I love football, always have and always will, and I’m excited about the chance to stay connected with the game. I really feel like my life experience gives me a perspective that’s unique and hopefully that’s something I can work to my advantage in broadcasting.’’