Love can be cruel. Poets and songwriters have tried to explain this to us for centuries.

But football, a passion far more fickle, can be even crueler at times.

Take Maryland senior Andrew Crummey: a reserved, ruminative offensive lineman who sports a thick goatee and has the arms of a piano mover. A week ago, he was in the middle of the most important season of his life, one nearly five years in the making. A four-year starter at right guard for the Terps, Crummey, 22, was the quiet senior leader on a team just beginning to hit its stride, one of the few players universally respected by his teammates. He was an All-America candidate, and his once-fuzzy NFL dreams were just beginning to come into focus.


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But instead of preparing for next weekend's homecoming game against Virginia, Crummey will hobble to class on crutches, cursing a broken left fibula. He'll try to cope with the disappointment of a season snatched away by bad luck and a bad break.

It's easy to celebrate the glories of football because we crave its highs in this country like an addictive drug. We watch high school, college and NFL games to give us our weekly fix and find ourselves transfixed by the speed, the beauty, the raw athleticism and the intensity.

It is harder, though, to think too much about the downside to the game's violence and about what it does to good men such as Andrew Crummey. Injured players often become an afterthought once they fall out of the spotlight, because it is better not to think too much about the meat grinder that chews them up and spits them out as a season churns forward.

The victim of the Unlucky Break often must pick up the pieces by himself. And for the player, the agony isn't always physical.

"It's pretty devastating when you're sitting in that X-ray room, and they tell you there is a break," said Crummey, who was injured in the first half of Maryland's 28-26 win over Georgia Tech on Oct. 6. "You think, 'Well, season's done,' and then you get to sit and think about it for an hour and a half while the game goes on.

"I feel like I've lost a lot. I'm going to miss out on the rewards of being here for five years. You have a vision of how you want your senior season to go, and now that's kind of all shook up."

What's lost when a player such as Crummey goes down is difficult to quantify. In addition to his physical talents, he played an essential - yet often anonymous - role that every successful college football team needs: the quiet senior leader. He led by example and by experience. He taught others, usually in small groups, and was a calming presence in the locker room and on the field. He was candid and wise, stable and consistent.

All of which was wiped away by one tiny misstep.

"I only ever get hurt when I use bad technique, and this was bad technique," Crummey said, his eyes fixed on the carpet inside Maryland's football complex. "I knew what was going to happen [a blitz by the Yellow Jackets], and I still didn't take a good enough step. I got beat inside a little bit, and it forced me to put my left leg back. Someone landed on it. It's tough that it happened, but it's even tougher that it was a mistake of mine. I took a bad step and paid dearly for it."

Crummey underwent surgery to stabilize the fracture, and Maryland spent a better part of its bye week figuring out how to cope. Bruce Campbell, a freshman from Connecticut, got a crash course in how to play guard. Crummey believes there is a chance he could be healthy enough to play in Maryland's final regular-season game against North Carolina State. But nothing is guaranteed.

Leading from sideline
"I think our young linemen are pretty good," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said last week. "But how we survive without Andrew Crummey, I don't know."

There is a reason, though, that Friedgen got word to Crummey almost immediately that he would like him to stick around and help tutor the younger linemen and scout upcoming opponents. Over the past four years, no Maryland player has consistently performed on the field and in the classroom like the 6-foot-5, 301-pound Crummey. He feels as comfortable dominating defensive linemen as he does speaking eloquently and honestly on a panel put together by the Knight Foundation Commission to debate the state of intercollegiate athletics.

"Andrew has been a real pleasure," Friedgen said. "He's a really good football player and a very good student. He's one of the guys I like: low maintenance, high production. My life would be a lot easier if I had more guys like that. I might even start growing hair and losing weight."

But for the first time in his life, Crummey will have to figure out what to do without football dominating his days. No easy task for someone who has never suffered a significant injury before. He already feels out of the loop after missing just a week of practices.

"What's going to be hard on Andrew is he's going to have a lot of time on his hands," Friedgen said.

Fortunately for Crummey, he's never quite fit the stereotype of the jock without outside interests. He always has been, in fact, quite the opposite.

The 4 1/2 years he has spent in College Park have been a steady but enlightening path for Crummey, who was raised in the small town of Van Wert, Ohio (population 10,000). Physically, he molded himself into a gifted and powerful lineman, quick off the ball and capable of playing multiple positions. A year from now, assuming he fully recovers, he'll very likely be suiting up somewhere in the NFL. But the more interesting transformation has been that of Andrew Crummey, the intellectual.

He came to Maryland eyeing a career in politics, admittedly naive but book smart and eager to debate anyone who would engage him. Though quiet and reserved within the structured environment of football, Crummey was, and still is, a voracious reader and a student of history. In former Maryland cornerback Domonique Foxworth, he found a worthy verbal sparring partner when he first arrived.

Their debates - with Crummey often taking the conservative viewpoint and Foxworth the liberal one - became inspiring locker room theater for the Terrapins. And they also began to change the way Crummey, a government and politics and geography major, viewed his future.

He didn't want to be defined by one particular political ideology. He would absorb everything - including books such as the recent Are we Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America by Cullen Murphy - and continue to engage anyone willing to share his opinion. Foxworth graduated, but the debates, dubbed "Crummey Rants" by his teammates, have continued.

"I had to accept the fact that I don't know some things," Crummey said. "When [Foxworth] and I had our original discussion, I had just come off reading a book [What's So Great about America by Dinesh D'Souza] that made an argument I really liked. The arguments don't make as much sense to me now as they did then. But that's the same with college football. You get ideas, you bounce them off people and you see the reality of how things really are."

Change of ideas
That education has been a continuous process, and Crummey's views often defy categorization, which is just the way he likes it.

"My freshman year, we had a big debate in my English class about Bill Clinton," junior tackle Jaimie Thomas said. "I'm a Clinton fan, and Crummey kind of wasn't. We had some heated debates about why he was a good president or why he [stunk] as president."

But ask Crummey whom he most admires in politics and he furrows his brow for a moment, then comes up with a somewhat surprising answer: Ralph Nader.

"I watched that documentary about him recently, An Unreasonable Man," Crummey said. "They showed a list of all his accomplishments, the things he's successfully lobbied for, and it rivals that of any politician in the history of our country. The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safety in Cars Act, FDA warnings on prescription drugs, surgeon general warnings - all those things are him. You would never really want to be him, because the documentary portrays him as absolutely obsessed with what he does, to the point where he has no life. But his dedication really impressed me."

Though Crummey now considers himself a moderate who leans slightly to the left, he found himself feeling mildly frustrated two years ago during his internship with Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Democrat who represents the state's 5th District. The other interns in the office were so wrapped up in partisanship, Crummey says, they were unwilling to listen to any views that conflicted with their own.

"One day I was working, and someone came in the office and says, 'I didn't know what to do, I was just on the elevator with three Republican interns!'" Crummey said. "I was like, 'So what? They're still people! It's not like they're your enemies. Relax.'"

In some ways, football, as much as anything in the classroom, has helped shape the leader and politician Crummey hopes to become.

"I think that there is no more integrated place in the country than a college football locker room," Crummey said. "You literally come in, and you see dumb people, smart people, reliable people and unreliable people. And it transcends race lines. It transcends class lines. It really does.

"You'll see guys come in, and your preconceived idea is 'That guy will never play.' Turns out, he goes on the football field, and he produces. He's focused, he's confident, he's ready. Then you'll see someone who looks good, he's always going on about how great he is, and he can't do a thing on the field. What you find out is, it doesn't matter what race or color or class you are. It matters what kind of character you have."

For now, though, Crummey's leadership education will focus more on books than clashes with defensive tackles. When he arrived at Maryland's football complex last week for a brief interview, his unfamiliarity with his crutches didn't stop him from carrying a book under his arm: Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda by military historian John Keegan. It is a book that explains how nations often learn more from their setbacks than they do from their successes in battle.

"I figure now is as good a time as any to read it," Crummey said.

He teeters for a moment on unsteady crutches. But with book in hand, he grins as he moves in the direction of the door.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com