Croyle made his peace with the state and, with timely help from local businesses, church groups, Bryant and Ray Perkins—who had succeeded Bryant at Alabama before moving on to Tampa Bay—kept the bills paid and "straightened up" hundreds of unwanted boys. One of his alums is now an executive at a local manufacturing firm. Others are salesmen, construction workers and government workers. A few are in jail. "You can't save them all," Croyle says.
His boys are earnest, hardworking and unfailingly polite. They live eight to a house, under the tutelage of "house parents" who live and work at the ranch full-time. The boys wake at dawn and clean their rooms, then study, cut the grass or tend the stock. They attend nearby schools and know that if they fly right Croyle will help them get jobs, cars, apartments, even scholarships when they graduate.
"I'd rather be here than where I was going, which is jail," says Darby, 16, who has been at the ranch for 2� years. "John is a good man. He's a fair man. He gives you a chance to change."
Bryan, 18, says he has been changed in his 18 months there. "It gave me my start. It made me turn my bad habits into good habits," he says. "Things are pretty strict here, but it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done, John is still your friend. He's probably the only adult I ever met who's like that."
"Most of us couldn't be controlled by our parents or had no parents or got in trouble with the law," says Patrick, 15. "Fugitive delinquents, you know? I heard a man in town call us that. So even though John tries to make this like a real home, we know we're here because we had problems." Patrick, who is remarkably articulate for his age, goes on to say, "This place teaches you all about authority. You're always striving for something—phone privileges, dating privileges, getting more responsibility. In a real home you wouldn't be striving for something all the time. But John wants us to make something of ourselves. He doesn't want us to be outcasts." Patrick watches a crow buzz the fishing hole. "He wants us to grow up."
Croyle solicits help for his boys in every boardroom, church, Rotary club, town meeting and supermarket he enters. When folks in town ask how that ranch of his is doing, he says, "We're still out in the woods strugglin'." Now and then, almost often enough, someone Croyle has met donates a thousand pairs of socks, a horse, a van or a truckload of chickens. The boys at Big Oak ate chicken like 56 Wade Boggses after 8,300 pounds hit their doorstep last year.
"We have to hustle," Croyle says, speeding home from a church speech in which he wowed the congregation with his horror stories and happy endings. "But I love waking up in the morning knowing I've got people to feed and house and clothe—and just help."
He parks his truck on the nameless road, jumps out and whoops at his new Softball diamond. "Isn't this great?" he says, chucking a rock across the infield's new sod. "Next we need tennis courts. What if I had a young McEnroe?"
Wishful thinking. For now, John Croyle is content. "In college I had a hand-tooled saddle hung over a chair in my room," he says. "That was Big Oak Ranch then, but I could always see it the way it is now. I knew it would grow because this is what I was meant to do. I'm a finagler—I finagle my way into a boy's heart and find a way to love him."
And the NFL career that never was?