In which setting is Michael McCrary more content: blowing by an offensive tackle and dropping a quarterback or discovering an addition to his ever-evolving toy collection?
Hard to say. In McCrary's world, work and play wage a constant battle for his attention, and he throws his energy into each domain with similar abandon.
Besides addressing a glaring need for a pass rusher, the Ravens signed McCrary to a three-year, $6 million contract last spring with his dogged work habits in mind. McCrary had enjoyed a breakthrough 1996 season in Seattle by tying for the AFC lead with 13.5 sacks. He left the Seahawks via free agency, and he is preparing for his fifth NFL season with a sense of rejuvenation. For the first time, a starting job belongs to McCrary in July.
The Ravens' thinking went beyond statistics. They had McCrary, 27, ranked as their top pass-rushing priority based on game tapes. They saw an emerging star with the quickness and boundless energy to offset his light, 6-foot-4, 267-pound frame. They saw a defensive end who refused to give up on a play, a self-made performer -- he was a seventh-round draft pick out of Wake Forest in 1993 -- too driven to be spoiled by success.
Watching McCrary rush against Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden in training camp confirms the Ravens' theory. First, there is McCrary's explosive burst off the line of scrimmage. Next comes an array of spin moves and head fakes. And even after Ogden drags him to the ground, there is McCrary, crawling toward quarterback Vinny Testaverde.
"He's crazy. All-out every play. Never stops," Ogden said after a recent practice. "He's real quick, sneaky, very creative. I know he's going to make me better."
"What a motor. We're still learning to read off of each other, but I do know that [McCrary] is relentless. He's never satisfied. He's the real deal," said right defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, who was signed two weeks after McCrary.
Siragusa also is getting to know another side, a wackier side, of McCrary.
"He's sort of a little kid stuck inside a man's body," Siragusa said with a shake of his head. "He has too many toys. I got hit in the ankle with one of them the other day when I was trying to play some pinball."
That would be one of McCrary's favorites, a remote-controlled race car that has been seen buzzing around the team's training camp hotel in Westminster.
Some of his other prized possessions include a gun that fires foam darts, a telescope that enhances the stargazing from his Owings Mills townhouse and a laser light he uses, among other things, to startle unsuspecting neighbors on the street or in their living rooms. He even attaches the laser to a pair of binoculars to find more long-distance targets.
'A gadget person'
McCrary comes off like a loner. He's the guy in your high school class who kept to himself, didn't say much, but observed everything and was always ready with a comeback if invited into the conversation. He's the guy who wasn't anti-social, but the right play thing would keep him occupied just fine.
"I'm a gadget person," said McCrary, who spends hours at a time playing computer games or channel surfing with his 60-inch TV. "I have a knack for electronics. Anything that's neat enough to keep my attention, I like to have it around."
The McCrary home is sometimes a blur of activity, not all of it
electrical. When he graduated from Wake Forest, McCrary used his grandmother's monetary gift to buy a Rottweiler puppy. Four years later, "Boss" has become a 150-pound beast who lives peacefully with McCrary's Persian cat.
"And he wants a pet monkey. I'm fearing the day this man comes home with something that's going to tear up the house," said Janet Simpson, McCrary's fiancee, whom he met in Seattle as a rookie. "It's fun to be around Mike, because he always sees the positive side of things. He never passes judgment on people. He's a grown kid, always playing. But sometimes it is nice when he's sleeping."
Growing up in Vienna, Va., as an only child, McCrary left the same impression on his parents. They can't remember how many times they would find him hanging from a tree by his toes or how many times they would scold him after learning of another daredevil, dirt-bike adventure. Then there were the snakes, turtles and other critters he would take from a neighborhood creek and bring to his bedroom, which his parents dubbed "The Swamp."
"Mike is like a combination of Mr. Wizard and Peter Pan. He has an irrepressible energy level," said his mother, Sandra, an attorney. "It's been nonstop pretty much since he's been able to walk."
"I don't know all of the things he got into, and I probably don't want to know," said McCrary's father, Curtis, a former national sales director for Memorex. "He was a risk taker."
The McCrarys discovered early on that, though Michael's vigor was high, his attention span was low. Judging him to be hyperactive, they cut sugar out of his diet at the age of 3. By the time first grade rolled around, they decided to try another outlet for him: football.
The game captivated McCrary, and nothing gave him as much pleasure as knocking an offensive lineman backward, then tackling the quarterback. While attending Marshall High, he was a Fairfax County star, collecting 21 sacks as a junior, drawing the recruiting interest of a host of Top 25 colleges. But a broken wrist ruined his senior season and scared off the biggest schools.
He took a scholarship offer to attend Wake Forest, expecting to gain a communications degree but little in the way of a football future. For one thing, people kept telling McCrary he was too small to play at the higher levels.
"It always seemed to work the same way," McCrary said. "My high school coaches used to tell me I couldn't play college ball because I was too small. In college, they called me a tweener. People get too caught up looking at the physical, without looking enough at a person's mental makeup."
That pattern continued. During his final two years at Wake, McCrary was the best pass rusher in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He led the conference in sacks as a senior and ended up as the school's career leader (31). But, at 235 pounds, he was deemed too light by most NFL scouts. He almost went undrafted.
McCrary spent his first three years with the Seahawks as a part-time player who hung on to a special teams job. He also spent too much time hanging out at night and not enough time on his craft. Watching game tape and studying his playbook did not rate highly on his things-to-do list.
"I didn't take football seriously in those days. I loved playing it, but the preparation didn't interest me," he said. "It was just something I did between 8 and 2, before I'd think about which club I was hitting that night. I'd go out, have fun, get drunk, whatever. I didn't actually become a professional player, a complete player, until last year."
Misfortune to fortune
Forced to take a pay cut of about one-third to remain on Seattle's roster, McCrary earned a $225,000 salary in 1996. What a stunning turn his career took after right end Antonio Edwards suffered a knee injury a month into the season.
During the next three months, McCrary took command of the position, eventually finishing with seven sacks over his last two games, including a three-sack introduction to Jacksonville Jaguars Pro Bowl left tackle Tony Boselli. Four months later, McCrary spurned "an insulting offer" from Seattle by signing his first big contract, which included a $1.9 million bonus.
"It's fun to be around Mike. He's a grown kid, always playing. But sometimes it is nice when he's sleeping."
Janet Simpson,McCrary's fiancee
Although he treated himself to a silver Mercedes S 600, McCrary is not one to flaunt his money. With the full-time help of his parents, he recently started a human resources company in Phoenix, Ariz. Running his business will be McCrary's focus after football.
"I can't understand players who spend their money like it's always going to be there. They take football for granted. You can get injured at any moment, and it can all be over," McCrary said.
"What are you going to do if you haven't prepared yourself for the real world? The real world is just as bad as football in terms of the competition. Dirty. Cutthroat. Not nice at all."
Clash of cultures
McCrary learned that lesson at a deep level long before football became his passion. The McCrarys are a multiracial family. Curtis is black. Sandra is of mixed heritage, although she has a complexion that is nearly white. Michael is fair-skinned.
McCrary grew up in a mostly white, suburban community, attending white schools. He also formed some friendships with blacks living near Washington, D.C. And the bigoted arrows he endured flew from both sides.
"Depending on where I was, people would call me a nigger or a honky," he said. "Sometimes, it seemed like everybody was against me."
"How do you explain that kind of random hatred to a boy of 5 or 6? It defies explanation," Sandra said. "We tried to keep it from him. Unfortunately, he found out about it on his own. We have given Mike the opportunity to learn about two cultures [black and white]. One isn't right or wrong."
Said McCrary: "I got to see that both sides were equally wrong for discriminating against me. It made me tougher. I learned to deal with ignorance, and there is a lot of ignorance out there."
The tenacity of his parents, who fought for the right of Michael, and ultimately all minorities (see article above) to attend the private schools of their choice, clearly has rubbed off on their son.
McCrary said his carefree approach to football is behind him, and when he isn't fiddling with a new gadget or enjoying a more settled, off-the-field life with Simpson, he is obsessing about how to improve his game.
Missing an off-season workout drives him crazy. He incorporates visualization and the martial arts into his game preparation. He plans to hire a nutritionist to perfect his diet. He wants to average a sack a game this season.
"I'm trying to build a weapon, the ultimate weapon," McCrary said. "All I've been thinking about is running and hitting some quarterbacks. To me, football is still a kid's game. It's like hot potato. Somebody gets the ball, and you try to be the first guy to hit the guy with the ball. It's about doing your job and having some fun.
"Nobody has higher expectations of me than I have of myself. The pressure on me is to reach the goals I set for myself every year. And one of my goals is to get better every year."
Pub Date: 8/05/97