The notion of former Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch playing safety in the NFL might seem far-fetched to some but not to his old high school coach. Long before the 2001 Heisman Trophy winner was filling highlight reels by running over and through the defenses of Missouri, Baylor and Colorado, he was filling gaps as one of the fiercest hitters at Omaha's Millard North High. "He was starting at strong safety for us before he ever started at quarterback," says Fred Petito, who coached Crouch from 1994 through '97 at Millard North. "He was [already] a physical kid then. All he needs now is a little exposure."
Eight years and a Nebraska-record 7,915 yards of total offense later, Crouch is back where he started. After failing auditions with the St. Louis Rams as a receiver in 2002 and the Green Bay Packers as a quarterback the following year, he is giving it one more shot--at free safety with the Hamburg Sea Devils of NFL Europe. "Ever since 2003 I've been trying to find the right fit [with an NFL team]," says Crouch, 26, who was allocated to the Sea Devils after signing a one-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs in January. "Since I played this position [before] and had a lot of fun doing it, I felt this was the best way to go."
Despite not having lined up in the secondary since high school, Crouch landed a starting job with Hamburg right out of camp and made 20 tackles in the first five games. Before being sidelined with a strained hip flexor, he had impressed his coaches with his aggressive play and his ability to recognize coverages. "Sometimes you take a quarterback and move him to defense, and you wonder if he'll go after anybody," says Sea Devils defensive coordinator Dan Daniel. "But Eric eliminated that concern very quickly in camp. He'll fly around and knock the heck out of people."
That toughness and his 4.47 speed is what made St. Louis overlook Crouch's mediocre throwing arm and take him in the third round of the 2002 draft; the Rams gave him a $1.2 million signing bonus with the understanding that he'd convert to wide receiver. However, his conditioning became an issue-- coach Mike Martz publicly blasted Crouch for showing up to training camp out of shape--when a string of injuries limited his availability in practice. The low point came in the Rams' second preseason game when, going up for a pass, Crouch was drilled in the left leg and later had to have 150 cc's of blood drained from his thigh.
Frustrated with the position change, he called a press conference a month later to announce his retirement. "I made an emotional decision," says Crouch, who repaid his entire bonus. "I'm not saying that I regret what I did, but I could have done it a little bit differently. Maybe asked to be traded, I don't know."
Crouch resurfaced the following spring in Green Bay and had high hopes of sticking with the team as a quarterback, but he left training camp when the team signed veteran Akili Smith. Rather than play in the CFL, which he felt would hamper his chances of returning to the NFL, he spent the next year and a half out of football, working out in Omaha and starting a playground equipment business. It's an operation he continues to keep close tabs on while stationed in Hamburg. When he isn't in the weight room or watching game tape, Crouch can be found working on his laptop in his hotel room, staying in e-mail contact with the home office in Omaha or designing playgrounds using an AutoCAD program. "I always wanted to own my own business," he says. "It was one of the few ways I was able to stay competitive."
Still, when the Chiefs approached him earlier this year about spending the next three months overseas, Crouch jumped at the opportunity. So far the move appears to be paying off. "When you're not sure of what you're doing, you tend to think your way through things. Now [Crouch] seems to be much more of a natural back there," says Cologne Centurions coach Peter Vaas. "When he reports to Kansas City, it will be as an experienced safety, not a converted player."