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The Rams, too, had never seen anything like Cromwell when they drafted him in the second round in 1976. Part of the reason they didn't start him right away was that they didn't know where to play him. "All we knew was that he was too good to be on the bench," says Carson. Even as a sub Cromwell scored two touchdowns in his second year, one on a blocked punt and one on a 16-yard run after a fake field goal.
In 1979 L.A. traded veteran Free Safety Bill Simpson and put Cromwell at the position to utilize his interception skills, as well as to preserve him. The free safety—formerly called weak safety because he lines up on the weak side, away from the opponent's tight end—is often a team's best athlete, but not always the one you'll find in the thick of the action; the position is notorious for being the hiding place of crafty players who hate to tackle. Cromwell startled the Rams by making more tackles in two seasons than anybody else on the team except Middle Linebacker Jack Reynolds, who is now with San Francisco.
Then the Rams added a unique nickel defense—one in which a reserve cornerback took the free-safety spot while Cromwell went up to the line and covered the opponent's toughest receiver man-to-man. Because Johnson and Cromwell practice at corner every day, the alignment gives the Rams essentially a five-cornerback secondary, a terrible sight to opposing quarterbacks. There are teams that change their offenses just to keep L.A. out of the nickel; that's quite a tribute to Cromwell.
After a recent workout at the Rams' practice facility in Anaheim, Defensive End Jack Youngblood, jerseyless, cigarette hanging from his lip, casts a lure far out onto the asphalt patio outside the locker room with a new test-model reel a salesman has given him to try out. He and Cromwell watch the plug sink into imaginary bass waters. Time passes. "The big one!" screams Youngblood. With a tremendous jerk he whips the lure back toward the locker-room roof, the line sailing up and over Cromwell while Youngblood cranks frantically on the reel.
Cromwell heads for the parking lot. He fires up his pickup truck, the one with the shotgun rack and the 83-gallon propane tank in the bed, and drives to his apartment, which overlooks one of Anaheim's few strawberry patches. His wife, Ellen, greets him at the door.
"Honey," Cromwell says. "I think I might be buying a new fishing reel."
Ellen, a pretty young woman who overwhelmed Cromwell at a boat show in Kansas four years ago, smiles. They'll probably discuss this later.
The Cromwells are farm people, in Los Angeles only for the football season. After the last game they'll pack up the truck and drive back to Lawrence, where they have a home and 160 acres of bottomland on the Kansas River. Cromwell will work this acreage actively; he's not sure whether he'll put in corn or soybeans next year.
Because the Cromwells know that football isn't forever, they have put themselves on a budget they think they can live with after Nolan retires and goes into farming full-time, or coaching or business. They shun the bright lights and Tinseltown parties, the publicity that they know can tear up an all-American couple. Nolan's pickup runs on propane because it's cheap and, as he says, "that's what everybody back in Kansas is doing."
He adds, "Ellen and I are both from small towns. When you grow up in a place that doesn't even have a picture show, you learn to do things that don't cost money." Hunting, fishing and camping are his favorite pastimes.