An example for the younger set

The Baltimore Sun

In many ways, Brandon Crawford stands out as a college football player.

There's his age. At 32, Crawford is not only the oldest player on the Ball State team, but he also is believed to be the oldest player on any Football Bowl Subdivision roster.

"I think I'm more relaxed with it now," Crawford said this week as Ball State prepared for tonight's nationally televised home game against Navy. "I'm playing my role, trying to help my team out. I'm more in my comfort zone.

"But I'm not satisfied."

There's also the fact that Crawford, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end, is not on scholarship despite starting all 13 games for the Cardinals last season. He recently was selected by his teammates as a captain.

Crawford, who enrolled at Ball State in 2004 after serving four years in the Marines and working in a factory out of high school in nearby Fort Wayne, figures he's about $20,000 in debt despite having his tuition paid though the GI Bill.

Navy center Ricky Moore knew of Crawford's military background but was unaware Crawford was not on scholarship.

"That's really inspiring," Moore said. "That shows the determination of people in the United States' armed forces. I'd like to meet him personally. Stopping at no cost to achieve your dreams."

Fred Stephenson, who coached Crawford on a middle-school basketball team, helped raise him in the role of a surrogate father and assists with living expenses, said yesterday that he is surprised how far Crawford has come.

"When he told me he was going to college, that kind of shocked me. I didn't think he was that type," said Stephenson, a retired auto factory worker. "I could tell he was serious about it."

Navy fans might remember Crawford: He's the guy who got a hand on Matt Harmon's 31-yard field goal attempt that would have won last year's game with two seconds left in regulation in Annapolis.

Ball State won in overtime, 34-31.

"I just remember saying, 'I've got to make a play,' because earlier in the game I misread a couple of my assignments and they got a couple of nice runs," said Crawford, a junior with another year of eligibility. "I was carrying it on my shoulder, but the coaches told me to let it go and make up for it later. It kind of worked out. I was at the right place at the right time."

There is some irony to that, considering that his college career was put on hold and nearly derailed after Crawford found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It happened when Crawford was a senior at Fort Wayne South High School and a friend came by his house to give him a ride after a game. Crawford didn't know the car his friend was driving had been stolen until they were stopped by police after a wild chase.

Though Crawford was not arrested, an academic scholarship was rescinded and he lost his chance to attend college. He worked in a local factory making parts for Hummers and later joined the military so he could eventually get a free education.

After being discharged in 2003, Crawford went home and applied to a few schools. Among those that accepted him was Ball State, where he met a member of the coaching staff and started to attend class in fall 2004. He then returned to work in Fort Wayne and help his mother, Marva, a single parent.

Two years later, he enrolled again with the idea of playing football.

"I was at a basketball game," Crawford said. "One of the football coaches said, 'We were wondering what happened to you.' "

After being invited to join the team for the 2006 season, Crawford worked his way up the depth chart by learning all three positions on the defensive line and playing in 10 games. He eventually became a starter last season, when he led the Cardinals in sacks and finished sixth in tackles.

"I didn't know what to expect, being 10 years removed from the game. I wanted to learn as much as I could," Crawford said. "If there was a place where I could help, I would work hard at that. I tried to learn from the guys ahead of me."

Crawford's role has expanded beyond being the team's most versatile down lineman.

"I think his maturity and his story and what he's been through is such a great example for us," Ball State head coach Brady Hoke said. "His demeanor and how he prepares, he's like a big brother to a lot of those young kids who come in here."

Crawford said his teammates are used to having him around by now.

"They joke around, call me names, 'Crawdaddy' or 'Old Man' or 'Senior Citizen's Discount,' " Crawford said with a laugh. "But I think the age factor is more for everyone else. I don't know how you're supposed to feel at that age, but I feel great."

TONIGHT'S GAME

Matchup: Navy (1-0) @ Ball State (1-0), 7 p.m.

Where: Schuemann Stadium, Lafayette, Ind.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Ball State by 7

Series: Ball State leads 2-0

Last meeting: Ball State won, 34-31, in overtime Sept. 15 at Navy.

Navy offense vs. Ball State defense: The Midshipmen racked up 585 yards against the Cardinals last year, all but 64 on the ground, despite losing quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada late in the first half. With Kaheaku-Enhada in uniform tonight after missing the opener against Towson, it will be interesting to see whether coach Ken Niumatalolo goes with him if Jarod Bryant struggles. The Cardinals will be keying on slotback Shun White, who set a school record with 348 rushing yards against Towson.

Navy defense vs. Ball State offense: Before tightening their pass defense in the second half, the Mids were burned for 225 yards and two touchdowns by Towson's Sean Schaefer. Ball State quarterback Nate Davis is even better, and the junior completed 21 of 24 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns last week against Northeastern. Wide receiver Dante Love had nine catches for 171 yards and a touchdown.

Don Markus

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