In the pines an hour northeast of Birmingham, off a road that doesn't have a name, John Croyle has a softball diamond, swimming pool, gymnasium-children's center, general store, chicken house, pigpen, pond full of bullfrogs and seven brick homes. "When I look at this place I don't miss football," says Croyle, 36, who spent his college years ravaging Crimson Tide opponents as a star defensive end for Alabama. "I think about the things we have to do to make this the best children's home in America."
Croyle's Big Oak Boys' Ranch is home to 56 kids aged six to 18. His boys—abused, orphaned, neglected, unwanted—are the victims of what Croyle sees as a social fumble. "Our society has dropped the ball when it comes to our children," he says. "A mom and dad will bring their boy to me and say he's no-account, good for nothing, out of control—and they have no idea how he got that way. Well, he got that way because nobody had the time, the money or the desire to give him a decent upbringing."
Some of Croyle's boys had never seen a movie or slept in a bed before they came to Big Oak. One had never seen a sandwich. Another didn't know what a toothbrush was for. One was found shivering in an empty boxcar. Another was dipped in a vat of boiling grease by his mother. Many were physically or sexually abused; most had had scrapes with the law. "They're not bad kids, they just never had a chance," says Croyle. "We're here to give them a chance." Six-seven and thin at 210 pounds, he towers over his wards, who mob and climb him like a jungle gym when he makes his rounds on the ranch.
The best athlete Gadsden ( Ala.) High ever produced, a prep All-America in football and basketball, Croyle went to Tuscaloosa in 1969 to star for Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide. A storky defensive end who swooped into backfields, he was All-SEC in 1972. Against Mississippi State his junior year he had 11 tackles, sacked the quarterback for a 32-yard loss and, for good measure, blocked a field goal attempt and ran the ball back 40 yards. During his varsity years Alabama lost one regular-season game.
As a collegian Croyle had four knee operations and two conflicting dreams: to play in the NFL and to run a Christian home for wayward boys.
His last football game was on New Year's Eve, 1973, the "Game of the Century" Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame. In the fourth quarter, with unbeaten 'Bama leading the unbeaten Irish 23-21, Croyle was "scissored, really creamed" on a trap play. He lay on the field unconscious while millions watched and worried. "I had seven or eight minutes of prime time," he says now, grinning.
Bryant helped persuade him to give up one of his dreams. "You have to marry pro football to play it well," the coach said, and while Croyle was hoping to test himself against the best football players in the world, he and his coach believed he had a higher calling. Bryant told him never to compromise. "When you start talking about John you need first to consider things a lot deeper than size and talent.... He's quite a man," the coach told the Gadsden Times. Croyle passed up the NFL draft.
On John Croyle Day in Gadsden, March 6, 1974, the honoree was presented with a $5,000 check from the Alabama Alumni Association—seed money for Big Oak Ranch. Another $15,000 was pledged by a Birmingham businessman, but Croyle needed $30,000 more to put a down payment on the land he wanted. Enter John Hannah, a 'Bama teammate whose last words to Croyle in Tuscaloosa had been, "See you in the pros." Hannah believed enough in Croyle to hand over his $30,000 signing bonus from the New England Patriots.
Hannah, a nine-time All-Pro who is now a vice-president at a Boston brokerage firm, says, "John was always tough, hard-nosed, aggressive, a good teammate, and he needed my help. I was glad to do what I could. Those boys needed a place to live." Croyle bought a ranch outside Gadsden.
He was 23. He lived in a farmhouse in the middle of the ranch—where he still lives with his wife and two children—and tried to be dad, mom, teacher and coach to five troubled boys. That summer a man from the welfare department came and asked to see his license. "I didn't know you needed a license to give a home to little boys," Croyle recalls. "I said, 'Here you are, sir,' and showed him my driver's license."