What's it like being Eric Crouch in Lincoln, Neb.? "Let me put it this way," says Crouch, the Cornhuskers' senior quarterback. "The fans know what doors I come out of and what days I come out of them."
Three evenings a week, after dining at the training table, Crouch heads to class. As he left the football complex on just such a walk last Thursday, he was approached by a dozen or so autograph seekers. During the five-minute trip he made small talk and signed his name. "It's pretty intense, and that's O.K.," says Crouch. "I understand my role here. I find the joy in it."
Leading the Cornhuskers to an 11-0 record and a No. 1 ranking in the BCS ratings, as Crouch has done, is but one facet of that role. Between discharging his football duties and carrying 11 credit hours (including working as a lab instructor overseeing 30 students in an exercise and health-behavior class), Crouch, an exercise-science major, is winning games but losing sleep. "I'm putting in, on average, 16-hour days," he says.
It doesn't help that he finds himself unable to turn down miscellaneous requests, such as one made recently by one of his students, whose young nephews had been misbehaving in elementary school. Could Crouch speak to them? Of course he could. "It worked out pretty well," says Crouch, "but I don't think people realize how much time I don't have."
Last month he stopped by a Lincoln hospital to cheer up one patient but ended up visiting everyone on the floor. He's gregarious to a fault—until the conversation turns to his child. Crouch lives with his longtime girlfriend, Nicole Kousgaard, and their two-year-old daughter, Alexi. Raise the subject of Alexi, and the usually chatty Crouch chooses his words carefully. "I'm very proud of Lexi. I love both my girls," says Eric, who has dated Kousgaard since they were students at Omaha's Millard North High. "The only downside about what I do is that I have almost no privacy. I have to feel there's something in my life that everyone else doesn't have."
It's a source of pride to his mother, Susan Sanchez, that as a popular grade school kid, Eric often befriended students whom others teased. "I talk to them, become friends with them," he would tell his mother, "and they don't get picked on anymore." Who would have thought that such a good guy would be such a badass on the field? Who could have predicted that this pretty-boy would play the game with such a mean streak?
Not the Creighton Prep fullback whom Crouch knocked out of the game as a high school sophomore in 1994. While filling in for an injured safety, Crouch "came in low and kind of splattered the kid," recalls Millard North coach Fred Petito. And not the Iowa safety who met Crouch at the goal line two years ago. "It was at the end of a 40-yard run," says Nebraska left tackle David Volk, "and Eric dropped his shoulder, laid the guy out and went in standing up."
As it turns out, the 6'1", 192-pound Crouch, who until this season had spent most of his Nebraska career playing hurt and who prides himself on his stoicism, shed some of the most storied tears in Cornhuskers history. It happened in August 1999, when coach Frank Solich gave junior Bobby Newcombe the starting quarterback job. Crouch, then a sophomore, felt he'd outperformed Newcombe in preseason camp, and got in his car and headed home. Rumors that he'd quit the team were soon flying. "He just wanted to come home and be with someone who cared about him," says Sanchez. "Anybody who knows Eric knows he's not a quitter. Everyone's entitled to cry once in a while."
Solich got on 1-80 East and drove the 47 miles to Omaha to find Crouch. They met in Petito's office at Millard North, where Solich assured the distraught Crouch that he would be an integral part of the Cornhuskers. Later, when it was only the two coaches in the room, Petito recalls, Solich slumped in his chair and said, "No one told me there'd be days like this."
Certainly not his predecessor. Having won his third national championship in four years, legendary coach Tom Osborne had retired following the 1997 season, taking a 255-49-3 record with him and leaving the pantry half-stocked for his longtime assistant and former player, who knew he could ill afford to lose Crouch. So Solich never gave up on him. Sure enough, in the second game of the season, against Cal, Crouch spelled Newcombe, who was struggling. In one remarkable quarter Crouch ran for a one-yard touchdown, threw a 70-yard scoring pass and, with Newcombe back under center, caught a 60-yard touchdown pass. Solich replaced Newcombe with Crouch the following week, and a career was launched.