For an NFL draft prospect, time is of the essence.
Nobody knows this better than running back Isaiah Crowell, who saw his bright future flash before his eyes when he traded the prestige of the SEC for Alabama State following a 2012 arrest.
"I pushed myself because, knowing I was at Alabama State, I was going to have to work harder than somebody playing at Georgia or one of the big schools," Crowell said. "I wanted to be ranked as high and looked at as one of the best, even though I was at Alabama State.”
Shaving a few hundredths of a second off a 40-yard dash can vault a player up draft boards league-wide. Conversely, a lone misstep on the clock-sensitive three-cone drill or shuttle run could be the difference between being drafted and hoping for a rookie contract as a free agent. But stopwatches aren't Crowell's only concern.
On the first Saturday in March, time was again at a premium for Crowell. While he was in Atlanta to celebrate and be honored as a Black College All-American, there was still a lot of work to be done. And precious little time to do it.
“Do I have time to grab a drink real fast?” Isaiah questioned as he transitioned from an autograph session to an interview in the lobby of the Loews Hotel. After receiving the desired response, he disappeared into a corridor of the hotel, presumably into an elevator and up to his room.
A few minutes later he resurfaced, bottle of water in hand. He apologized profusely for the delay, but he was right on time.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Crowell met formally with the Cleveland Browns, the Oakland Raiders and the Miami Dolphins. According to Nick Birdsong of AL.com, he's also spoken with the Baltimore Ravens. While the realization of a lifelong dream might be near, the last few years have been a far cry from the fairy tale so many expected when Crowell signed with Georgia in 2011.
“Running out on that field for the first time was like a dream come true,” Isaiah said when speaking of his first game as a Georgia Bulldog, a 35-21 loss to Boise State at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome in 2011. “I couldn’t even imagine it. I’d been wanting to go to Georgia for a long time, I’d always been a Georgia fan, so it was amazing.”
Interestingly, Crowell, who was continually portrayed as self-centered during his brief career at Georgia, spoke glowingly of the team's collective effort that year before ever mentioning his own accolades:
Really a lot of people didn’t expect us to do that well just because of the season before. The coaches were telling us to ignore the noise and stick together and play football. And we lost the first two games so that didn’t help us at all. But we stuck together and went through and we had a good season. I think it was a good year overall.
As a freshman at Georgia, Crowell surpassed his own expectations. "I just wanted to play and help the team in some way," he said. He did just that and racked up 850 yards rushing and six total touchdowns in the process.
But his freshman season was defined by turmoil, at least from an outside perspective.
Crowell caught grief from fans for nursing injuries. He contends he tried to play through a number of injuries that would have left others in street clothes. “I used to come off the field for real reasons, you know. I wasn’t taking myself out. That part was frustrating,” he admitted, “because I really was hurt and was trying to play. That was frustrating more than anything.”
Further, Crowell developed a reputation as a troubled young man instigating drama within the team. In reality, his freshman year was plagued by turmoil as he dealt with the death of two loved ones, his nephew and a close friend. He was also coming to grips with becoming a father.
Crowell said these challenges weren’t lost on the Georgia coaching staff, particularly running backs coach (and his lead recruiter, per 247Sports) Bryan McClendon. “I really couldn’t focus on football. He could always see it on my face,” Isaiah said. “He’d always talk to me after the meetings and stuff and just ask, ‘What’s wrong? What’s going on?’ And we’d go talk for 30 minutes just about what was going on with me.”
For the most part, Crowell was in the moment and spoke optimistically of the future during the interview. Despite this forward-thinking nature, he remembered that short-lived thrill of a freshman season as if it was yesterday. And as he reflected on the premature conclusion to his career in Athens, he did so with clarity and brevity that seemed to be the byproduct of equal parts understanding and pain.
“It was childish,” he said of the circumstance that led to his arrest.
Neither words nor emotions were minced.
“I never thought about giving up football, though. That was always going to be there.”
Sharing the bad news of his June 2012 weapons arrest was difficult for Isaiah, but telling his parents and his three brothers and one sister wasn't the hard part.
“The worst part was telling my grandma, actually,” Isaiah said with a feigned laugh to hide still-present remorse. He continued:
I talk to her about everything. She’s always telling me, probably like everybody else’s grandmother, ‘Stay out of trouble. And don’t do this and don’t do that.’ And my arrest was actually at like three in the morning on her birthday. So I had to go that night to have dinner with her for her birthday and it was right after I got out of jail. She didn’t get on me too hard. She got on me, but she told me to move forward and keep pressing on to the next thing.
Crowell admitted that every NFL team he's met with asked about his arrest, but he also mentioned that none of them "dwelt on it."
Ken Herock suggested Crowell's ability to move on following the 2012 incident should prompt personnel executives to do the same.
Herock, who played professionally before becoming a personnel executive with the Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers, is well-versed in reading players and their accompanying situations. Currently advising upward of 80 potential draftees per year on an independent basis, Herock sees no limiting factor in Crowell’s past.
You say ‘off-the field issues,’ and I don’t know what you’re talking about. Because I’m talking about a guy who was arrested two years ago for something and had all the charges dropped and expunged from his record. He has no criminal record and has not been in any trouble over the past two years. He’s had to live with that for two years but it’s behind him and he’s better for it. A lot of guys do stuff like that when they get to the NFL. He’s already learned from his mistakes.
Coach Richt and I talked in person right after I got out of jail. I wanted stay at Georgia and wanted him to keep me on the team initially. But he didn’t just release me. He said it was going to be a mutual decision. He felt like I needed to start somewhere new and start somewhere fresh, and he wanted me to have a better career. He really didn’t want me being a distraction because the case was still going to be pending, that was the main thing. But it was actually a mutual decision that I’d be better continuing my career elsewhere. I don’t have regrets about choosing Georgia, though. Those were some of the best days of my life.
After the separation from Georgia, Crowell was in need of a new direction. He could transfer to another FBS program and redshirt, or he could pursue immediate playing time at a lower division.
Alabama State was the first program to reach out and call. Family ties prompted Crowell to answer.
“My uncle lives there in Montgomery. He actually went to Alabama State. And my mom was very comfortable with me being there, and one of my teammates from high school went there. And it’s close to home, that’s really why I went.”
Although he returned to the playing field quickly, the reduced competition offered by the FCS program presented its fair share of challenges to Crowell. Keenly aware of his seemingly squandered opportunity and his finite end goal, he committed to pushing beyond what was required by the Hornets football program.
That preparation has paid dividends as he’s reintroduced himself to some of the most elite prospects in this year’s draft.
Crowell and his management team, led by Kevin Conner, identified returning to the highly competitive atmosphere as a top priority. Conner assessed the situation thusly:
Isaiah’s talent pedigree has not changed. He’s still the same guy who was a 5-star recruit and an All-American in high school. He’s the same guy who was the best freshman in the SEC in 2011. He needed to be back surrounded by that caliber of athlete and be held accountable indirectly by the competition. And it worked. We heard from his coaches and trainers that he embraced the challenges and really emerged as a leader in addition to improving during his time there.
Although the majority of the training—80 percent by Crowell’s estimate—was geared more toward testing well at the combine and pro days and less toward actual improvement as a football player, Isaiah found a level of comfort in the EXOS environment.
“When I started training it felt different because I hadn’t been around that talent in a couple years. But I felt back at home.”
Does He Belong?
Crowell said that if he were running a draft war room, he’d select himself in the second round. Based on what’s been seen on and off the field, he thinks that’s where he belongs. Based on his brief experience against top SEC competition, it would be hard to argue with him.
In just his second collegiate game, Crowell went against Jadeveon Clowney (also a freshman in 2011) and the South Carolina Gamecocks. Georgia lost a 45-42 nail-biter at home, but Crowell accounted for 158 yards of offense and two touchdowns on just 18 touches.
He ran the ball 16 times, and was not stopped behind the line of scrimmage once.
Following the loss, Isaiah Crowell—not Jadeveon Clowney—was SEC Freshman of the Week according to The Associated Press. The AP also tabbed Crowell with the SEC Freshman of the Year honors.
Over the course of 60 minutes in the Loews Hotel, Isaiah Crowell was multifaceted. He was contrite when speaking of the past. He was humble when speaking of the present. He was optimistic and determined when speaking of the future. He was gracious, accommodating and light-hearted throughout.
At no point did he seem anything but composed, calculated and professional, which made his second-round self-assessment all the more telling. Some of that may be the interview coaching of his agent, publicists and other consultants. But Crowell has either mastered the art of long-form monologues to an Oscar-winning degree, or he’s genuinely self-aware. This disposition makes his draft expectation all the more tangible.
“I’ve been working with athletes like Isaiah for over 30 years,” Herock said the following Monday. “I can tell right away if a guy is leading me on or just trying to say the right things. That’s not the case with Isaiah.”
As time ticks on, however, talk is cheap. The NFL draft is driven disproportionately by two factors: potential and momentum. Right now, Crowell is trying to maximize both.
Robert Brown, Crowell’s agent at Universal Sports & Entertainment, was quick to point out that his client has already caught the eye of NFL scouts with his natural ability. “We polled just about every NFL team,“ Brown said. “And unequivocally they say that Isaiah has the talent—size, speed, strength, everything—to be a starter at the NFL level. Some say he could start on day one.”
Bleacher Report Lead NFL Draft Writer Matt Miller sees the same upside:
Crowell has all the natural talent in the world. He's powerfully built with the legs needed to drive through would-be tacklers and pick up positive yardage. With his combination of size and speed, Crowell definitely fits the model of a franchise running back. In years past, he would have been a 20-carry bell-cow featured in a pro-style offense.
As for momentum, Crowell is doing all he can to create a buzz. He performed well at the NFL Scouting Combine, where he showed off a new bulked-up physique at 224 pounds, but he believes he can do better.
“I think I can run a 4.3, but I know I’ve got 4.4 speed,” Crowell offered when asked how he felt about his measurables. “I think I did good, but I could have been better,” he says of a performance in which he ran a 4.57-second (official) 40-yard dash, jumped 38 inches on the vertical and bench-pressed 23 reps of 225 pounds.
Unfortunately, rainy and cold conditions kept Crowell from improving on his 40 time the next week at his pro day in Montgomery. Crowell told BamaStateSports.com, “If it wasn’t raining I would have run it again, but with it raining I didn’t think it would help me out to run it again.”
A Better Isaiah Crowell
“Marshawn Lynch is a guy I look up to. The first person never brings him down. He runs hard and is hard to bring down, that’s why I want to be like him.”
Crowell perked up once again as the conversation transitioned back to the game he loves. But there’s a broader, metaphorical truth to the Marshawn Lynch comparison that transcends football.
Right now, Crowell is trying to prove to everyone that an early misstep away from the field won’t unravel the NFL dream he’s been weaving since childhood. Off the field—whether in interviews, meetings or in the community—Isaiah is striving to display the same fortitude Lynch shows on the field. He’s aiming to demonstrate that he can’t be taken down the first time.
His troubles, overstated as they may have been, have not hardened him but rather refined him. And family continues to serve as motivation.
“I’m a father now so everything has changed. Everything I’m doing isn’t just for me. It’s for my son now. That motivates me, because I don’t want to let him down,” Crowell expressed with a chilling degree of contentment that does not typify the average 21-year-old father in search of a way to provide for his family.
So when Isaiah proclaimed, “I’m happy with where I am. This is where I’m supposed to be,” the significance surpassed the cliche.
It’s clear that Crowell is appreciative of the opportunity. Even his weekend at the Loews Hotel honoring gridiron legends of historically black colleges, signing autographs for unknown collectors and speaking with the media was worth relishing.
“At Georgia I was kind of childish. I feel like if I’d stayed there and got to the NFL I wouldn’t be as mature as I am now. I think the arrest and everything grounded me and made me humble.”
With a pause that is far more introspective than scripted, he concluded, “Right now I have the work ethic to play at the NFL, I’m not going to let anything block my dream. I’m not the same person I used to be.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.