By MASON CLARK
This past week was the birthday of a former Cougar great. Though he was and probably is best known as a Cougar football player, his story goes far beyond, and far deeper, than the football field. It’s been a while now, but that player still has a big impact on so many people, myself included.
There was never any doubt that Kevin Crouse would be a great football player for the Cougars. From his earliest days, he was a man among boys on the gridiron. It all began in little league football, where Crouse played for the Riverlawn Rams. You’d be hard pressed to find a coach of his that said anything other than he was the best player they’d ever seen at that level.
After that, he moved on to middle school, where he attended Dublin Middle School. Richard Lewis was a coach of mine at PCHS, and he says that Kevin was the best player he coached at DMS. He led them to a great season in both 2001 and 2002. His eighth grade season was Joel Hicks’ last season as the head coach of the Cougars. With that, Kevin entered PCHS the same year that Jack Turner came in as the third head coach in Cougar history.
2003 was his freshman season. He did not waste any time establishing himself as an elite football player not just at PCHS, but in the area. He started as a linebacker in the first game, at Northside. He was a huge part of shutting down the Viking run game and harassing the quarterback, helping the Cougars get a 35-0 win in Turner’s debut. He was plenty capable of starting both ways as a freshman, but with future NFL player Brandon Anderson and star Derrick Burks in the backfield, it wasn’t necessary. But nevertheless, he still had an amazing freshman season, possibly the best freshman season in Pulaski County history. He racked up 55 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks. He is one of very few freshmen to ever start at linebacker at PCHS. I’m not sure I could name another one to do it. Many people remember thinking that he was “a grown man” to be a freshman. And he was.
That made him a standout player at PCHS and in the area, by far the best freshman season in the Timesland. But 2004, his sophomore season, would see him really take off into the stratosphere.
He got his season off to a good start with 111 rush yards on just 12 carries and a touchdown in an easy 35-0 win over Northside (again). Our next game was a showdown with defending 5A state runner-up William Fleming visiting. Kevin ran the ball 11 times for 89 yards and a touchdown on the ground, but we were still losing 19-14 with seconds remaining. When he needed it most, Turner turned to Crouse. And Crouse, just a 15-year old-sophomore, delivered. He caught the game-winning 28-yard touchdown pass with four seconds remaining from Ryan Dean, to give us a heart-stopping 20-19 win over the Colonels. The next week, he ran all over Patrick Henry, for 144 yards and 3 touchdowns. Then in week four, he gutted Franklin County running 21 times for 236 yards and 5 touchdowns. Then against EC Glass, he ran for 161 yards and 2 more touchdowns. Midway through the season, the Cougars were 5-0. And Crouse was Timesland’s leading rusher, with 100 carries for 741 yards and 12 touchdowns as well as a touchdown reception. All as a sophomore.
Things were taking off quickly. By now, he was the frontrunner for the Roanoke Times Sizzlin’ Sophomore of the Year, given annually to the Timesland’s top sophomore. He was leading Timesland in rushing. And he was doing this against elite competition. Hidden Valley was able to slow Crouse down, holding him to a season-low 45 yards and kept him out of the end zone for the first time. But he responded big the next week at Blacksburg. The Bruins were helpless to stop him, and he slashed through David Crist’s team for 243 yards and 2 touchdowns in what almost felt like an average game for him at this point. He dominated their neighbors in Christiansburg the next week, rushing for 261 yards on just 20 carries for an insane 13 yards per carry average and 4 more touchdowns. Against Cave Spring in week 9, he ran for 132 yards and 2 touchdowns and caught a pass which he took to the house for 37 yards, giving him 3 touchdowns. The Cougars were 8-1, Kevin had over 1,400 yards and 24 touchdowns, and that set up a showdown at home with 8-1 Salem with the district crown on the line, the way it should be.
Kevin still did well, running for 116 yards against what turned out to be a state champion defense. But the Cougars were soundly defeated, losing 30-3 to the Spartans. With that, the 2004 team – a great team who Jack Turner doesn’t hesitate one bit to say was just as good as the 2008 state semi-finalist team – saw their season come to a halting and stunning end. At 8-2, they missed the playoffs. As great of a season as Kevin had just completed, everybody who knew him knew he was disappointed that his team wasn’t still playing.
As upset as he may have been, he couldn’t have been upset for long. After the season, the top-selling magazine Sports Illustrated – which was at its peak at that time – called. Kevin Crouse had his name etched in the most popular sports magazine in the country as one of the best high school football players in the country, along with just 49 other high school sophomores. Virginia Preps, a popular website that deals with recruiting and high school football in Virginia, released an article after the season talking about the current best class of 2007 prospects. Kevin Crouse was the first one listed, ahead of the likes of Tyrod Taylor, a superstar Hampton quarterback at the time. Crouse was among the nation’s elite recruits. His ESPN recruiting website is still visible. Virginia, Virginia Tech and Georgia were among schools pursuing him. West Virginia was also looking closely at him. Eventually the offers were rescinded, but still, to have been recruited by Tech at the top of their game, an elite program like Georgia, and another great program at the time in West Virginia, is amazing and just doesn’t happen around here very often at all. Several teammates of his tell me about seeing handwritten letters from football coaches all across the country, including legend Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, coaches at USC, Ohio State, and more. That still blows my mind.
But this is what separates Kevin from many superstar athletes. We all know about the stereotypical high school jocks – they’re good and they know it. They think they’re better than everybody, think they’re above the rules, and so on. But for Kevin, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. He didn’t act any different then than he did when he was still in middle school. He still treated everybody with the same love and respect he had before. He was a true exemplary young man.
His junior season, he began to see some adversity. He injured his ankle in the preseason, and that caused him to miss the first game of the season against Patrick Henry, a surprising loss. Then the next week against William Fleming, he was able to see limited action, running for 51 yards on 11 carries in a 31-0 loss. We were two games into the 2005 season. Crouse had just 51 rushing yards, gotten to play sparingly because of his injury, and we were 0-2. We would face the AAA Franklin County Eagles next. If we lost, we would be 0-3 for the first time since 1975, 14 years before Kevin was born. And it would take a big night from Kevin to prevent that from happening.
Crouse delivered one of if not the single greatest performance in program history that night in Rocky Mount. Working himself to near exhaustion, Crouse ran the ball 38 times, for a whopping 276 yards, and a school-record 5 touchdowns. He had a sack and several tackles on defense. And we needed every bit of it, as we won a thriller in overtime, 44-41. Many teammates recall his jersey soaking wet, and him having to be helped off the field. It was a heroic performance.
And with that, it seemed things got back to normal, the way they should be. Against Jefferson Forest, he ran for 167 yards and 4 touchdowns. Then against EC Glass, he rushed for 180 yards and 3 more touchdowns. He got his revenge against Hidden Valley, running for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns. Against Blacksburg, he ran for 197 yards and 2 more scores. Then the Cougars’ season began to falter; he still ran for 195 yards and a touchdown, but we lost to Christiansburg for the first time in a shocking blowout loss. Then against Cave Spring, he ran for 106 yards and 1 touchdown, which is still a good game by all means, but it was well below what he usually did, and we lost to the Knights. At 5-4, we had to travel to take on the unbeaten-and defending Division 4 state champions Salem Spartans.
Kevin did all he could, running for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns. But we came up just short in a 21-17 loss. The next week, we travelled to Salem again, this time in the playoffs. We lost again, but Crouse was again the best player on the field, running for 154 yards and a touchdown.
That was the final time he would play in a game for Pulaski County.
For his junior year, in basically 8 and a half games, he ran for 1,520 yards and 19 touchdowns, 1,674 yards and 20 touchdowns if you include the playoff game. He was a do-it-all player, racking up 37 more tackles and intercepting 3 passes as well. Had Kevin played all ten games, he probably runs for 1,700-1,900 yards.
The next year, 2006, was bad for Kevin. Lots of things happened to him, almost none of it good. But it still looked like he would get to play his senior season. He did good in camp, and he performed well in a scrimmage against Richlands, and helped us win. That same Richlands team went on to win the AA Division 3 state championship that season. We dominated them, as well as Bluefield, a West Virginia powerhouse.
But soon after, he was no longer with the team. And when he was no longer with the team, we lost our best offensive player, our best defensive player, our leader, and the heart of our team. What was expected to be an outstanding Cougar team, turned out to be our least successful season in over three decades. A very young team struggled, going just 2-8. It’d been 31 years since we’d won so few games. Most of the games were close, heartbreaking losses.
And Kevin Crouse was far from where he wanted to be. He wasn’t out there doing what he loved most and doing what made him who he is. As someone close to him said, when he didn’t have football, it was like he lost himself.
At just eighteen years old, Kevin passed away on December 29th, 2006. As fate would have it, he passed away on a Friday night, when he usually was doing what he loved. It was, in my opinion, the lowest point in Cougar football history.
So many people who knew Kevin tell me they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. At just six years old at the time, all I really remember was people being really sad about it. And like very many kids and adults, I remember seeing the #2 jersey hanging up in Wendy’s in Dublin throughout the years, just down the road from Dobson Stadium.
I strongly believe that Kevin would have become the first Cougar to rush for 2,000 yards in a single regular season in 2006, and that he’d have set the all-time rushing record for PCHS. He needed just 1,356 yards to break it, which he’d easily done as a sophomore and junior. As it was, Kevin finished his career, just 20 games as a running back, with 3,058 rushing yards and 42 touchdowns, 44 total touchdowns. On defense, in 30 games, he totaled 162 tackles, over 20 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and 3 interceptions. Over 3,500 all-purpose yards. And according to most long time Cougar fans, he was the best player they have ever seen wear the gold helmet.
Kevin had such a profound impact on everybody he ever met. He was a superstar football player, yes, but just as many people talk about him for being the best person they knew too, or just being a great guy. His smile lit up a room like few can. The light that he left behind still shines bright to this day. He will never be forgotten. RIP to Bryant Kevin Crouse, Jr. We all love you.
I can tell you all the stats and everything like that; but I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Kevin. To end, I wanted to share what some who did know Kevin well had to say about him:
Richard Lewis was his coach at Dublin Middle school. I asked him about Kevin once and he said that Kevin was the best player he coached at DMS, though he was quick to add that he had many great players there. Also the basketball coach, Lewis told me about how Kevin would always take his jersey off and give it to another player so that he could play in the extra time after games, sometimes called “the fifth quarter.” He loved Kevin and cherishes the memories he has with Crouse.
“He was one of the best i ever coached. One time when he was 8 years old someone was trying to tackle him and tripped him up. He caught himself on one hand popped up and kept his balance then kept going. I could tell at a young age that he had the skill to be really good. He had great balance and good vision even early.” – Leon Dalton, Kevin’s coach for the Riverlawn Rams
“Kevin Crouse was a great, great football player for Pulaski County. Maybe the best. He loved the game and was the perfect player for the fullback position he played. But more importantly Kevin was a beautiful person, his smile and kindness was infectious to everyone. I gave him the name “Little Man” at a young age and he was a man amongst boys. I can’t explain how broken-hearted I still am today about everything. I still have his jersey and game tapes. In my sport coat I carry a picture of Kevin. I wish everyone could have enjoyed the young man I knew and loved not only as a great football player, but as the person I knew. Words can’t really explain and do Kevin justice.” – Jack Turner, Kevin’s high school coach.