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Best NFL Athlete? Nolan Contendere
Rick Telander
October 26, 1981
Rams Safety Nolan Cromwell, a star quarterback and world-class hurdler as a collegian, has become one of pro football's top defensive players
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October 26, 1981

Best Nfl Athlete? Nolan Contendere

Rams Safety Nolan Cromwell, a star quarterback and world-class hurdler as a collegian, has become one of pro football's top defensive players

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Nolan is the fifth of William (a co-op grain-elevator manager in Ransom) and Lucille Cromwell's eight children. The family traces its roots to Oliver Cromwell. Nolan Cromwell steadfastly insists that there's nothing much unusual about his own history. To emphasize the point, he wrote on his NFL personnel survey sheet just after he was drafted, "I've really had a very boring life!!!"

But that's just a way of putting off those who might not understand the life he has led, or chosen. Indeed, out on the plains Cromwell developed a modesty, a sense of humility, an equanimity, right along with his physical skills. He doesn't brag. He's polite, friendly, laughs a lot and doesn't even appear to have a killer streak hidden deep down the way most agreeable football players do. When he tackles he tries to bring the man down, not maim him. Maulers like former Oiler Jack Tatum and Bear Doug Plank puzzle him. "I'm not much of an intimidator, I guess," he says.

"Nolan has got his own values, his own integrity," says Klosterman. "He's a plateau player. He doesn't have peaks and valleys because he's so straightforward, so capable. I can't see any insecurities or doubts in him. He's the Marlboro Man. He's one of the most stable human beings I've ever met."

Of course, this is the kind of guy you want on your team, leading the flock, and Klosterman took it upon himself to sweeten Cromwell's contract considerably last year to keep him a Ram. Not that Cromwell was going anywhere. He already had a contract and, as he says, "I've always felt a contract is a legal document. Ethically, it's not right to break it, and I wouldn't do that." That's a singular statement for a Los Angeles Ram or, for that matter, most any professional athlete.

When the Rams drafted Cromwell, they felt they were taking a big risk. He was, after all, a "projection," an offensive player changing to defense, and how many quarterbacks have made that switch? Bill Bradley, Rex Kern, Jack Mildren? Not a lot. The Ram gamble paid off. But it's interesting to consider what Cromwell could have become if things had been different. Maybe a Bruce Jenner circling the track with a tiny American flag upraised. Maybe a quarterback with fame and endorsements. Maybe a loin-clothed Tarzan squiring Bo Derek through the jungle. As one Ram secretary says, "Nolan is the only man I ever knew who looks terrific in either a beard, or a mustache, or clean-shaven."

But questions like these don't torment Cromwell. "I'm really happy playing in the defensive secondary," he says. "If the ball is thrown and I've done everything right and I know I can get there in time, it's a very good feeling. I try not to worry too much. Cornerbacks have the hardest job, by far. And then comes the strong safety. Free safety is really the easiest."

For Nolan Cromwell that's probably true.

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