Editor’s note: This story first appeared in The Star on Aug. 24, 2008.
RIVER FALLS, Wis. | At this moment, Brodie Croyle is a star.
He’s wedged himself into a booth at a popular players hangout near the Wisconsin-River Falls campus. Sitting with him, laughing and enjoying a night off from camp, are a couple of All-Pros, Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez and former Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen. That’s a lot of star power at one table, but Croyle fits right in.
Allen plays for Minnesota now, and the Vikings are in town for a joint practice. The fans are glancing over, watching, smiling. Allen is sitting at Croyle’s right when someone squeezes in on Croyle’s side of the booth, asking a friend to take their picture. None of this is new anymore for the 25-year-old Chiefs quarterback. He lifts his chin, removing the shadow of his camouflage baseball cap off his face, and smiles big. The flash goes off.
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Croyle is good-looking and personable, with an upside that could last two decades. He’s a dream for these fans who want just a little piece of a Chiefs player. He keeps accommodating; he keeps smiling and shaking hands and signing his name on shirts and coasters.
He doesn’t show that he has one of the toughest jobs on the field this season -- becoming the first quarterback that the Chiefs have drafted and successfully developed. He hasn’t won a regular-season game yet, but his coaches say his potential is limitless. He has the arm and the toughness, a lifetime of scars and harsh memories that coaches think have toughened him for what he’ll face this year.
If it comes together, he could be as good as his confidence and body allow him to be, they say.
Montana. Aikman. Manning. Croyle?
Maybe. Coaches say that’s up to the kid in the camo.
Another fan comes over and shakes Croyle’s hand. Allen and Gonzalez look at each other and laugh.
They’ve been through this, the photographs and the wonder. This won’t be the last time on this night Croyle is bothered, and it won’t be the last time he smiles for another fan’s flash.
But what if the potential and the dreamy expectations are as good as it gets for the quarterback? What if the anticipation is better than the result?
Is this season just the beginning of Croyle’s rise, or is sitting at this table the closest he’ll ever get to stardom?
Croyle sat on a couch in his parents’ den in Rainbow City, Ala., and stared at his bandaged knee. It was 2000. Hours earlier, Croyle played the first game of his senior season in high school. He had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, ending his high school career and clouding his future with questions. Three years later, he’d tear the ACL in his other knee.
After the first injury, Croyle sat there at 3 a.m. with the television on. His father, John, noticed his son’s expression.
"You all right?" John Croyle asked.
Brodie Croyle entered his senior season at Alabama’s Westbrook Christian School as one of the nation’s best quarterbacks. He could have gone to almost any college, and the big boys wanted him. Sure, Croyle was skinny; the recruiters were in love with his right arm but had concerns about whether his body could hold up to Division I beatings.
"Yeah," Brodie told his father. "This gives me 4½ months to get bigger."
Four and a half months later, Croyle signed with Alabama. His father was a defensive end there in the early 1970s, but his college career was cut short won a national championship in 1973 but after a knee injury.
John Croyle says his only son has been through heaven and hell, winning a state championship at Westbrook Christian a year after his teammates doubted that their starting quarterback, an eighth-grader, could stand up to the job. Then the skinny kid went to Alabama and became the most decorated Crimson Tide quarterback since Joe Namath.
He’s been through the doubts and concerns before. John Croyle admits his son is reserved in public but says Brodie possesses a quiet confidence that has won over teammates at every level. He’s not exactly a wimp, either.
"Mentally," John Croyle says, "he’s the toughest man I know. And I’ve known some tough men."
Brodie Croyle got his biggest test his first year of college. His parents run a home for troubled children called Big Oak Ranch, and Croyle became friends with some of the boys. Living and working and playing together will do that. One of the boys was a quick kid named Kamarus Christian. His father wasn’t around, and Christian’s mother had moved to northeast Alabama and needed help raising her son.
Croyle liked to throw the ball, but Christian liked to run with it. They became friends at Big Oak and teammates at Westbrook Christian. The boys arrived early together to high school workouts, Westbrook Christian coach Tony Osborne remembers. Christian and Croyle were best friends, John Croyle says.
They laughed together and talked about playing football in college or, heck, maybe even the NFL.
Croyle was a freshman at Alabama when the call came. Christian had been in a car accident. He had lost control of his car, and it had skidded off the road. It didn’t look good.
Croyle hurried to the hospital and saw his friend attached to tubes and machines, his head covered in bandages. Croyle couldn’t stand to be there when the decision was made to take Christian off life support. But Croyle knew it had to be done.
The machines keeping Christian alive were programmed to stop, and six hours later, he was gone.
This time when John Croyle asked his son if he was all right, there wasn’t much of an answer.
"He was sitting there," John Croyle says. "I watched him, and he just stared."
So maybe that explains why Brodie Croyle’s expression didn’t change much when bad things happened last year, his first season as the Chiefs’ starter. Maybe this wasn’t the worst thing to happen to Croyle: nine games, six starts, zero victories.
Yes, Croyle has heard about that for nearly nine months: He’s winless as an NFL starting quarterback. Heard about it so many times, he’s lost count.
"It’s just one of those things; you deal with it," he says. "Until that changes, you’ll keep getting asked about it."
Croyle knows a quarterback isn’t much good unless he’s winning. He can have all the potential and tools, but as Chiefs quarterbacks coach Dick Curl says, the NFL is a bottom-line business, and the bottom line is that Croyle is still looking for that first win.
Chiefs coach Herm Edwards says Croyle might have put too much pressure on himself last year. Heck, the Chiefs might have put too much pressure on him, too. They were already losing when Croyle replaced Damon Huard as the starter. Maybe they hoped Croyle would be the team’s savior, and that didn’t happen. Each week, Croyle got more reminders he wasn’t winning and maybe wasn’t the team’s savior after all.
"We really need to get out there and win a game to see what that feels like again," he says now.
Croyle says he believed Edwards when the coach said the Chiefs wouldn’t draft or sign a quarterback. Edwards told him this was Croyle’s team. Sure enough, draft weekend and the free-agent period passed, with Croyle still penciled in as the starter.
"That kind of gives you a vote of confidence," Croyle says. "Everybody knows you play a lot better when you’re confident."
That’s what coaches say Croyle lacked last year. Of course, it’s hard to be confident when those reminders keep filing in that, hey, kid, you haven’t shown you can win anything. Croyle started training camp this year as the clear starter. Unlike last year, there was no quarterback controversy. For better or worse, this season’s fate will start with Croyle handling the football.
Edwards says Croyle’s attitude had improved by the time Croyle reported for two-a-days, and it didn’t let up by the end of camp.
"It’s night and day. It ain’t even close," Edwards says. "What he went through last year, that tells you what kind of guy he is. He dealt with all that. It’s his deal now. It’s not someone else’s offense. It’s his deal. This is your deal, man. You’re the quarterback."
Brodie Croyle is the key to the Chiefs’ rebuilding project, and coaches know they’re taking a gamble by building a team around an unproven passer.
The Chiefs began the offseason by revamping and simplifying their offense to suit Croyle. Then they drafted a first-round offensive tackle to help protect him. After all, Croyle was sacked 17 times in nine games last year, and seven years after college teams questioned his size, Chiefs coaches are still worried some defensive end will hit the 206-pound Croyle and leave a greasy spot where the quarterback used to be.
But the Chiefs are investing in Croyle, and they’re praying that investment pays off.
"We’ve got to make that attempt," Edwards says, "to bring along a quarterback."
The thing is, the Chiefs don’t need Croyle to be great. They just need him to be good -- and, most important, not bad. If he can’t stay healthy or maintain that confidence Croyle and the coaches worked so hard to cultivate, then how many of those offseason moves, the ones made with Croyle in mind, were in vain?
Croyle says his teammates believe in him, and that’s what they say, too. But Croyle knows what it’ll take to know they trust him.
"The only way to win them over is get out there, play well, win football games and just prove to them that you’re somebody you can count on," Croyle says. "Hopefully, it’s more swim than sink."
Then the pressure stacks on Croyle. He’s asked if he thinks the Chiefs made the right move gambling on a quarterback without a win to his name, a young passer that Edwards might be staking his reputation and his job on.
"He obviously believes in me," Croyle says. "I’ve just got to go out there and prove he made the right decision."
Croyle says that regardless of what happens, he has to give the impression he’s as good as any quarterback. To do anything less, he says, would be cheating his teammates. Losing their trust is the one thing he can’t afford.
So he keeps smiling, keeps making the throws, and keeps trying to prove the anticipation won’t be as good as it gets for Croyle.
"You have to feel like it’s your huddle. You have to step into a huddle feeling that way. That’s your job. That’s what everybody is looking for you to do," he says. "With every snap in practice, every snap in a game, I feel it more and more.
"But you can’t feel like it’s completely yours until you go out there and earn it."