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For More Than 30 Years Former Football All-American John Croyle and The Big Oak Ranches Have Changed Lives



Croyle, father of former Crimson Tide Quarterback Brodie Croyle, focuses on issues much more important than football
By Donald F. Staffo

Driving north from Tuscaloosa, Ala. to Birmingham, you take a right off I-59 onto Route 11. You go about four miles past a cemetery and a small church and on the left is a Western style coral type entrance made from six oak trees. The redwood cedar sign hanging from the top informs visitors that they are entering The Big Oak Girls Ranch, a Christian Home for Children Needing a Chance. Turn in and go about a half a mile down the road and on the right you see horses grazing.  It’s a real ranch, sitting right in the heart of Alabama, six minutes from Springfield, a town of about 2,000 people.

It is a month before Thanksgiving, and the 34 girls living at the ranch have a lot to be thankful for.  Also the 65 boys living at the Big Oak Boys Ranch, 40 miles further north up I-59. And the 610 students who attend the Westbrook Christian School in Rainbow City, a town of 7500 about 20 minutes from each ranch.

Considering the dysfunctional backgrounds they came from including some found living in abandoned cars and empty railroad boxcars, without Big Oak, who knows where some of these children would be today. The same goes for the 1500 and counting  “alumni” of Big Oak- all of whom were either physically, emotionally, verbally or mentally abused or neglected- who were raised on the ranches and have since grown up and gone on their way.

“There are some days that we will get 10 telephone calls from parents asking us- some even begging us- to take their children, because they can’t or won’t take care of them,” states John Croyle, Big Oak founder. “Sometimes people will drive up to the ranch and literally drop their kids off and leave without saying a word.  What is really sad is when a kid calls him or herself and asks, `Would you give me a chance?’”

Croyle tells of a little boy, 11 years old at the time, whose father brought him to the ranch because the father was dying of diabetes and there were no other family members in the boy’s life. When ranch staffers took the boy back home to get clothes and other items, they found rat traps the boy had placed to try and keep the rats away from his father.

“The boy cooked, cleaned and did everything for his dad. He was the man of the house,” states Croyle. “At the ranch he now gets a chance to be a boy.” The father died two weeks after leaving the boy at the ranch.

When a visitor talks to the boy who has now lived at Big Oak for about a year, the scars from such an existence are not apparent. When asked the difference about the life he now leads David says, “We didn’t have much, but we made it, and that was good.  I was always real close to my dad, but I hardly ever saw my mom except for once or twice a year. Now I see my `Mom’ and `Pop’ (what he calls his house parents) every day.  Except for not being biologically related, with everyone who lives in the house, it’s like a family.  The ranch is like a little community. 

“I now live in an area where there is no violence. I go to a Christian school, go to a good church, and I get to do a lot of things that I didn’t do before.  I have more and better friends, better clothes and better living conditions. Everything is just a lot better.”

The future now looks a lot brighter for David, who says he wants to be an archeologist.  Obviously a smart boy,  that dream now has a realistic chance of becoming a reality.

Croyle tells of a phone call from a 15-year old boy who said, “I heard that you’re the man who gives people chances. My parents live in an apartment where the contract says only four people can live there. I’m the fifth, so my father told me to go find a place to live.  Someone told me to call you.”

Sashwa wants to become a doctor or a psychologist. A former linebacker on the varsity football team and forward on the basketball team, he lived at the ranch since he was in the seventh grade.  “While living on the ranch it’s hard to picture yourself failing.  I mean I know that I am going to succeed,” stated Sashwa, who credited Big Oak for his self-confidence. Quite a statement coming from a young man who grew up surrounded by failure, with his mother and grandmother in jail, his teenage sister pregnant and heading for jail as soon as she has her baby, and his 12-year old brother in an alternative school, all of them in trouble for selling drugs. “My parents were unmarried. If I had been at home, I would probably be in jail too,” stated Sashwa. “(Even if all his family members were home) I don’t want to go back there or be around them because everyone is so negative.   

“At the ranch you get a chance to break the cycle. It’s kind of hard for anybody to come to the ranch and not be changed unless you have a hardened heart.”

Croyle simply says, “We just took a young person out of a chaotic, confused situation and replaced it with a family that’s sound, solid and headed in the right direction. We broke the pattern of failure, drugs and rejection and replaced it with hope and opportunity.”

Everyone who has or is living at Big Oak has a past or a story.  Because Croyle at the age of five witnessed the accidental and tragic death of his four-year old sister, he understands the pain and empathizes with it.

The Big Oak Ranch has been giving young people second chances for the past 31 years.  The concept germinated in Croyle, who played football for the legendary Paul `Bear’ Bryant at the University of Alabama, when as a college student he worked summers at a camp in Lumberton, Ms.  “That’s where I met a boy whose momma was a prostitute in New Orleans.  He was pimping for her,” related Croyle, 18 at the time. “I asked him if he wanted to become a Christian, and shared with him how to become a Christian.  The next summer the boy came back and repeated to me, word for word, everything that I had shared with him the summer before.

“That’s when I felt I had a gift and what I was put on this earth to do,” stated Croyle, who went on to become an All-American defensive end on Crimson Tide teams that won 3 Southeastern Conference Championships and a National Championship in 1973. Upon graduation in 1974 Croyle, rather than opting for the lucrative career that awaited him in the NFL, followed his calling.  At the time Croyle had a dream, but little else.

Made aware that an old farmhouse and 143 acres of land were available near his hometown of Gadsden, all Croyle needed was the $45,000 to purchase it.  On top of that, Croyle was given 48 hours to come up with the money, a conditional deal the seller made because he was not enthusiastic about having a children’s home located in the area. William Buck, a Birmingham oral surgeon, donated $15,000.  Still $30,000 short with the deadline fast approaching, Croyle explained his vision and predicament to teammate John Hannah, who was getting ready to sign with the NFL’s New England Patriots. Hannah told Croyle that he did not know what his signing bonus would be, but whatever it was, he would give it to him. Hannah’s signing bonus was exactly  $30,000, the difference needed to purchase the property.  A few hours before the 5 o’clock deadline, Croyle bought the property.  In 1974 the Big Oak Boys Ranch, which draws its name from a Bible verse (“So they would be called oaks of righteousness;” Isa.61:3), became a reality.

Unmarried at the time, Croyle moved into the run-down five-room house and within two weeks had five boys between 15 and 18 years of age living with him.  The authorities called Croyle to ask if he had a license. “I said sure I have a license, and I showed them my driver’s license,” related Croyle. “They said, `no, we mean a license to care for children.’ So I got the license.

“I started with a dream and a lot of naivete, and went from there.”

After having the five teenagers accompany them on dates, Croyle married his high school sweetheart Teresa (Tee) Smith on March 8, 1975. Tee believed in John’s cause and became his partner running the ranch.

In 1975 Croyle was 24 years old and out of school for three years when he went to see Bryant to show him his plans and ask his former coach for three things.  “Number one, I asked him for a letter of endorsement, number two if he would serve on our Board of Directors in an honorary capacity, and number three if he would give me $70,000 to build a house for the children,” Croyle said. “Coach Bryant looked at me and said, `I’ll answer your questions in order- number one, yes; number two yes; and number three I’ll see what I can do.’”

Bryant gave Croyle the $70,000 in increments.  “Six days before he died, I went to see Coach Bryant because I wanted to thank him for teaching me never to compromise, and to ask his permission to name the house in his honor,” related Croyle, whose son Brodie led the Alabama football team to a 10-2 record as a senior in 2005. 

Shortly thereafter Croyle needed another house and Ray Perkins, who also played for Bryant before going on to play professionally for the Baltimore Colts and become head coach of the New York Giants, Alabama and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, stopped by the ranch.  Perkins, after quizzically asking how much a ranch home costs to build,  generously wrote out a check for the amount in exchange for a horse.  For many years now, eight children have lived in the Ray Perkins House, one of 11 homes on the boys’ ranch. 

The girls’ ranch, housed on 325 acres, was built in 1988 after Croyle was turned down by a judge who would not allow Croyle to take in a 12-year old girl who had been raped by her father, because it was a boys ranch. “Later I found out that the father killed the girl. I took that as the Lord calling me to start a ranch for girls,” related Croyle.  The girls ranch now has six homes.

When he takes children to live on his ranch, Croyle said that he tells them four things.  “I tell them I love you, that I will never lie to you, I’ll stick with you until you are grown up and on your own, and then I tell them that there are rules - don’t break them.

“That gives them emotional support, truth, security and discipline,” explained Croyle, who believes that today many children have problems because some parents have not fulfilled their roles as loving caretakers and disciplinarians of their children as well as they should have.

When a nearby school was going bankrupt, rather than sell it, for tax purposes the people offered it to Croyle.  “I said we’ll take it, so we got a school with a gymnasium and other athletic facilities on 30 acres of land,” explained Croyle.  The non-denominational Westbrook Christian School, a privately funded educational institution with licensed teachers, opened in 1990 and is fully accredited with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and is a member of the Alabama High School Athletic Association.  The school started with 167 students and now is at full capacity with 610, about a fourth of them from the ranch. The others pay tuition.

Unlike many schools today, there are no policemen, hall monitors and no metal detectors at Westbrook. The lockers do not even have locks on them. “We don’t need them,” states Croyle.  “If you steal and we catch you, you’re dealt with severely.  It’s just not tolerated.  There has to be honor.  We think honor is important.  Our worst discipline problems are gum chewing and kids with their shirt tails sticking out.”

Croyle explains the criteria to teach at the school. “You’ve got to have a love for God, a love for children, a heart for teaching, a willing spirit and loyalty to the ranch and to me. If you’ve got those five things, there is nothing that we can’t accomplish.”

Croyle said that every Tuesday morning he talks to all the boys for a half hour and all the girls for a half hour.  “It’s just me and the children,” he said. “I call it `diamond time.’ We talk about dedication to God, forgiveness, their parents, life issues, choosing a mate, preparing for adult life and things like that. When everything around them is falling apart, they can reach back (to `diamond time’) and pull out a nugget of wisdom.” The love the students have for Croyle is evident when Croyle and a visitor walk in the cafeteria and several children get excited and immediately run up to Croyle and give him a hug.  At 6-7 and 215-pounds, Croyle stands even taller in the eyes of the children he cares for and has dedicated his life to.

All the facilities at Big Oak and Westbook are first-rate, with the children’s homes all being 3600 to 5400 square feet, two or three-story brick buildings that house up to eight children plus their married house parents. “The reason the houses are brick is to establish a sense of permanency,” explained Croyle. “If they were trailers or metal buildings, then they would be no better than where the kids came from.”  Each ranch has athletic fields, a swimming pool, and man-made lakes where the children fish, ride boats, water ski and have fun. 

But life at Big Oak is not all fun and games, with the young people beginning their day at 5:30 a.m. and ending it by 9:30 p.m.  The children are put on Ranch Action Teams (RATS) where they work after school and during the summer clearing land, mowing grass, painting fences, building barns, mucking stables, maintaining vehicles, attending to the livestock, and an assortment of other jobs. “We’re trying to develop in them a work ethic. We pay them a wage and they are either going to work for the wage, or work for free because they have an attitude problem. There are no free rides at Big Oak, like there are no free rides in life,” states Croyle.

Depending upon age and maturity, with permission the ranch children can go into town and come and go as they please. “They have curfew and again the curfew time depends on the circumstances and the function they are going to,” said Croyle. “They have to earn that right, and it can be taken away. Unlike some families, however, we know where they are.” 

Big Oak Ranch is not a stop-gap, come-and-go foster facility.  It provides a long-term commitment to satisfying the spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical needs of its children so that they have a reasonable chance to become successful adults who can one day lead meaningful Christian lives and make a positive contribution to society.

“Over the last 30-some years we have learned that there are two things that will almost guarantee a child’s success- one, that he or she knows that you love them, and two that you believe in them,” states Croyle. “The flip side is there are two things that will almost guarantee failure- a lack of discipline and a lack of effort by the parents.  Children will have a hard time forgiving their parents if they feel their parents quit on them.

“I had a 10 year old boy tell me, `my dad didn’t have to give up on me. I wasn’t that bad.”  

 “Some who left here have done great but others have made horrible choices after they left the ranch,” admits Croyle. “We can’t take credit for the good ones or blame for the ones who made bad decisions. We’re just seed planters. After they leave the ranch, they are responsible for their decisions and their lives.”

Croyle said that people ask him all the time about the ranch’s success ratio. “I don’t know because it depends on your definition of success,” he said. “If a person has a family, has a job and takes care of his family- to me that’s success.”  Croyle added that the very first boy who lived at the ranch is now 51 years old and has a family and a job.  “He’s a good man and a success in life.” 

Relative to the mission of Big Oak, Croyle says,  “I’m just a vision keeper. Every airplane has a pilot. The navigator dictates where the plane is going. That’s all I am.”

One of Big Oak’s “alumni” harbored hopes of one day going to the Olympic Games. Jason Wilson, worked out with the Alabama track and field team in the hopes of competing in the decathlon at the last Olympics.  Wilson, who lived at the ranch in 1992-93 when he and his parents couldn’t get along, credits Big Oak for those aspirations.  “Living there was a great experience for me,” stated Wilson, who said that his parents contacted Croyle and placed him. “There is so much structure at the ranch and so many rules.  I went to church, I worked, I learned responsibility.  I needed that when I was 15 years old.
“The experience made me grow up and see how lucky I am,” continued Wilson. “I really support the ranch because of all that it did for me.  I really believe in what John is doing because I was there, and it definitely changed my life. Without that experience, I really doubt that I would have been trying to make the Olympic Games.”

A while back Wilson called on Croyle again, requesting Croyle’s help in finding an apartment and a job in Tuscaloosa.  Croyle told Wilson what Bear Bryant once told him: “I’ll see what I can do.”  Croyle made a telephone call to one of his contacts and told a writer, “My friend is working on it.  I become aware of a problem, I find a solution and then I put them together,” he said. “I have the best job in the world.”

Croyle said the children, worried about their security, sometimes ask him, `If something happens to you, what will happen to us?’ I tell them, I have two plans.  The first is that I have two men who would operate the ranch until they could find someone to take my place; and two, I’m looking for someone now who (if something should occur) would take care of all of you.”
Asked what has changed over the years Croyle says,  “Nothing really except the age when they are becoming involved in things has lowered. Thirty years ago a 10, 11 or 12 year old might have smoked marijuana, whereas today seven and eight year olds are smoking marijuana. Something else that has gotten much worse is the pornography.

“But the pain in a child’s heart now is just the same as it was 30 years ago.”

Croyle’s biological daughter Reagan said, “Sometimes the pain is so great that when we tell their stories, we need to change the kids names because there is nobody else to protect them but us.  Throughout the years the one thing that all of the children have in common is that they all need love.” 

Which is precisely what Trinity says that the ranch for the last 13 years has given her. “Before I was in a very unstable situation where I didn’t know from one day to the next the way things would be. Now I’m in a stable situation and I always know that there is someone around to talk to me, comfort me, to pray with me or just give me a hug when I need it.  As much as I loved my family, there’s never been a time when I’ve wanted to go back home.  The Christian environment and home life has had a huge impact on everybody involved with Big Oak Ranch.”

Constantly speaking to groups and organizations about the role of his ranch, he told The Tuscaloosa Quarterback Club, which sponsors a fundraiser for the local Boys’ and Girls’ Club.  “Some of the children at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club haven’t got mommies and daddies who live with them, and some may have never met their mommies and daddies. The Boys’ and Girls’ Club does the same thing we do, except our children live with us.”

John and Tee Croyle’s beliefs were passed down to Reagan and her biological brother Brodie, at an early age.  Reagan, a psychology graduate of Alabama where she was elected homecoming queen and played on three Crimson Tide basketball teams that went to the NCAA Sweet 16, tells how when she was nine years old her father brought home two little boys, one four years old and the other 11.  “Their dad just dropped them off at the ranch because he had a girl friend and the girl friend gave the father a choice- her or the children. The father picked the girl friend,” related Reagan, now married to former Alabama quarterback John David Phillips and a mother herself . “The boys were dirty and there were signs of abuse. While my father was giving the boys baths, my little brother Brodie (then 5) went and got his G.I. Joe pajamas and gave them to the younger boy and said, `You don’t have any, you can have mine.’ I then went and got some Neosporin and bandages and put them on the cuts.” 

Asked about that, Brodie, now a celebrated football star and record-setting quarterback for the Crimson Tide who this past year graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, led Alabama to a dramatic 13-10 victory over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl and is now with the Kansas City Chiefs, simply said: “That’s just how we were raised. That it’s better to give than to receive.”

“There is story upon story about things that nobody but my brother and I saw with the way that my dad and my mom give to the children. They truly have a love and a gift for the children, and that gift has never wavered.  My parents live what they preach. They walk the talk,” stated Reagan, who returned to the ranch as director of counseling for the ranch and school while her husband served as director of development.

“I want to help these children. God put us into this family for a reason, and I think he put that love for Big Oak into us as well.”

Croyle’s wife puts it this way: “I don’t think I ever foresaw the magnitude of all it was going to be. If I looked at the whole picture, I would have been overwhelmed.  But I just knew that this is what John believed in and what God had called him to do.

“It was a big risk but I don’t think that I ever was anxious about it. It’s a faith ministry and if we didn’t have faith, it’s not much of a ministry. God has provided every step of the way.”

Asked the reason for the success of his life’s work, Croyle says, “It comes from God blessing us, of course, and consistently evaluating three questions:  What has God called us to do?  Are we doing it?  And what is the fruit of questions one and two?
The Big Oak Ranch and Westbrook have always been private, non-profit organizations that have operated without state or federal funding, with all support coming from concerned individuals, corporations and organizations who believe in the mission of the ranch and the school.  The ranch has always been debt-free. “We pay as we go,” said Croyle. “All of the money goes to the care of the children, where it was intended, and not to pay off a loan.”

The ranch has gardens and livestock (cows, hogs, chickens, horses) to reduce expenses, but money is still needed for food, clothing, doctors and dentists bills and other expenses. “We are just like any other family, except that we have more children,” states Croyle. 

“For the first year and a half, John received no salary at all, so we lived off my salary,” said wife Tee, a public school teacher at the time who has taught algebra and calculus at Westbrook since the school opened in 1990.  “Over the years there were a lot of times when we were low on money that was needed to support the ranch, and we did not know where it would come from. Then sometimes checks or money would just appear in our mailbox, most of it anonymous.  It was always enough to pay the bills and get us through the month.  There are so many stories about how we had a need and someone would call and say, `I’ve been thinking about you, and then make a donation.  It would always be what we needed at the time.”

“Being a Christian, I don’t believe in coincidences,” stated John Croyle, who believes it is unquestionably God’s hand at work making sure the Ranch continues its ministry.

There is a time to hit and a time to hug, and a time to be mean and a time to be kind, and the 6-foot-6-inch John Croyle learned when to do each a long time ago.  As a ferocious, hard-hitting All-American defensive end who played in the Sugar, Orange and Cotton Bowls, he decked his share of quarterbacks.  Hanging up his helmet and pads, he passed on an NFL career chasing quarterbacks to clear the obstacles out of life’s path for hundreds of down and out children who experienced nothing but roadblocks until they came under his caring wing.  And he’s never looked back at the possibilities of a lucrative professional football career, choosing instead to be a child crusader on a mission day in and day out that is a lot more challenging and meaningful than tackling running backs from Auburn, Tennessee or even the New York Giants. 

“If you want to hear a football talk, I’m the wrong person,” he told The Tuscaloosa Quarterback Club.  “I did that a long time ago. There are a lot more important things than football.” A plaque at his ranch sums up his philosophy: “One hundred years from now it won’t matter what size home we owned, the kind of car we drove or the amount of money we had in the bank. But the world will be different because you and I made a difference in the life of a child.” 

Croyle’s goal is to put himself out of business, stating  “I hope someday there will not be a need for a ranch like ours.”

Croyle’s mission validates Bear Bryant’s statement that, because of  “his contribution to mankind,” 100 years from now Croyle would be the best remembered of all the players that he had coached.