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Small-town Ohio upbringing helps Wyoming's Crall succeed

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LARAMIE – Small-town America isn’t necessarily for everyone. But for University of Wyoming junior defensive end Garrett Crall, it’s served as the building block for an unlikely ascension to college football notoriety.

Crall hails from rural Hicksville, Ohio, a farming town of about 3,500 people. On average, Hicksville, a K-12 school, has about 30 players on its football team; there are only about 35 boys per grade in the entire school.

Most high school football players have the luxury of only playing on one side of the ball. Some might play a position on both sides. Crall, on the other hand, played right tackle as a sophomore due to need, then moved to quarterback as a junior and senior while also playing linebacker, defensive end and safety.

Whatever it took to get the job done, Crall was willing to do it.

“He is going to be a good husband and a good father, because he is willing to do the dirty work,” his high school coach, Lucas Smith, said. “I think it’s hard to find this day and age, kids that are that unselfish.”

That same never-give-up mindset has taken Crall from being a walk-on at UW (5-2 overall, 2-1 Mountain West) to the team’s leader in sacks. The young man who had to send highlight tapes and emails to schools to get noticed has come a long way.

“We really do provide a lot of opportunities for guys that are non-scholarship. … (If they achieve it), we reward them with a scholarship, and he was that way,” Cowboys coach Craig Bohl said. “He is really a bona fide player.”

Growing up in Ohio taught Crall important lessons he may not have gotten in a metropolis: the importance of family, of seeing a bigger purpose and the value of remembering where you come from. He has brought those same values to UW.

Crall has two families: the one that raised him in Ohio, and the one he has found in Laramie. He doesn’t plan on forgetting either. It’s not by accident that he has his apartment’s address, shared with senior defensive end Josiah Hall, tattooed on his stomach.

There is also a reason the word “Perseverance” is tattooed on his bicep.

Crall’s football journey has been unconventional, but the people around him through it all have molded him for his moment in the spotlight.

“Family is really important growing up in a small town. I wouldn’t have it any other way, to be honest with you. That was part of the reason I came here; I didn’t want to go to a big city,” Crall said. “You go back home, and, I mean, it just feels like a reunion whenever you’re out at some place, you know, seeing all your friends. I love that place.”

Close ties

Smith didn’t find out until after Crall graduated from Hicksville High, but at some point, Smith’s name was changed in his quarterback/right tackle/safety/linebacker/defensive end’s phone to “Girlfriend.”

The two texted so frequently about game-planning (Crall will tell you his coach was the guiltier of the two parties) that they became “an item.”

Smith and the Crall family have been friends for years; they can still often be seen at church together. Maintaining close relationships is at the root of what it means to grow up in a small town.

“Family is somebody you can go to with your problems … they have your back. And that’s what you see in football,” Crall’s father, Eric, said. “He has his football family, he has his family back home. We all support him.”

After his brief stint at tackle, Crall grew into a legitimate high school quarterback (“I’ve never had a kid that moved from lineman to quarterback and had the success running the ball and throwing,” Smith says), even if the majority of the country didn’t realize it. He was named second team all-state under center, in addition to being first team all-conference at defensive end.

Beyond accolades and skills was a leadership Smith has rarely seen in his 12 years leading Hicksville.

People gravitated toward Crall. Teammates trusted him. They listened. If Crall was in the right place, everything else on the field and locker room figured itself out. After a loss, Crall went so far as to take over the team’s weightlifting program.

“I wouldn’t really worry about coaching the other players around him, I just worried about him,” Smith said. “He’d make sure everyone else would be on the same page.”

Even at his lowest, Crall found a way to bring people together. After his final high school game in November 2015 – a 42-35 playoff loss in double overtime where Crall threw four interceptions – Smith remembers Crall momentarily falling to his knees when the clock hit zero. His quarterback had just thrown a game-sealing interception, and playing at the next level was far from a certainty.

Crall rose to his feet, called both teams together and led them in prayer.

“I remember being proud of him and proud that he could gather himself to do that, do that in front of the kids in the crowd there, against the opponents that just beat us,” his mother, Jill, said. “I was proud of him and proud that he had that type of leadership.”

Crall credits that resilience to his family on the field. One of his Hicksville teammates, Noah Karacson, battled a bone cancer called Ewing Sarcoma for three years, Eric Crall said. Karacson was sitting in a golf cart on the sideline during that playoff game. Garrett Crall wore Karacson’s No. 10 in tribute and distinctly remembers looking over at that cart at various moments during the game.

Karacson died in December 2015 at just 17. Losing a football game was a lesson in perspective.

“I looked over, and I see him sitting on a golf cart, wishing he could play. And, I mean, I’m not going to sit there and cry,” Crall said, fighting back tears. “He would love to be in my shoes wearing his jersey, and he couldn’t.”

Unheralded

Crall’s size – he was 6-foot-5 and around 200 pounds at the time – would normally be tantalizing to scouts at a number of positions. But he found himself creating a highlight tape with Smith to get a sniff.

Crall had a mission: it was Division I football or nothing. If football hadn’t panned out, there was a very realistic chance he would join the military. Crall actually visited with an Army recruiter between his junior and senior year of high school, his father said.

“Had he not gotten the opportunity to do the whole Division I football route … he was that determined to try to serve his country,” Eric Crall said.

Smith and Crall sent the tape out to schools in the Mid-American Conference to little or no fanfare. Eastern Michigan appeared ready to offer Crall a spot on the team, but things fell through, according to his dad. Crall inched closer to that military career.

Former UW assistant coach Mike Bath, an Ohio native himself, eventually caught wind of Crall. Defensive line coach A.J. Cooper remembers seeing a player who seemed a man among boys. That type of athleticism – even if raw – is always tantalizing, Cooper said.

What really stood out, however, was Crall’s passion. He was not afraid to work.

“Are they playing the game because they’re a big fish in a small pond? Or do they have a passion?,” Cooper said. “I’ve seen that before, small town kids, when you’re the big fish, everything comes easy. You get hit in the face, and there’s 117 other Division I football players, that’s a little bit of an awakening.”

Crall walked on at Wyoming and redshirted in 2016. He hasn’t looked back.

“He did what was needed … sometimes in life you don’t like something, you don’t always get what you want,” Eric Crall said. “You do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

“Home”

For better or worse, Cooper vividly remembers Crall’s first career game: a road matchup at Iowa’s historic Kinnick Stadium. Wyoming lost 24-3; Crall, used to being the best player on the field, was humbled. But his background as a high school quarterback came in handy.

“He got dumped around his first college football game,” Cooper said with a laugh. “He thought he was ready for the moment. And, in some ways, he wasn’t, in some ways he was. … He is a very conscious kid when it comes to (learning), and I think a lot of it is because he was a quarterback. You can’t be a quarterback and make the same mistakes over and over again and expect to still be a quarterback.”

Just as beneficial to football as his wide-ranging positional background, however, is the family he was brought up in. It takes a village to raise a person; Crall knows that better than anyone.

“I just see a very team-oriented guy,” Cooper said. “He doesn’t care about the stats or anything like that … it’s about the program, about the team. He’has been like that from day one … Just like when you come from a big family, it’s about the family, not necessarily yourself.”

The Crall family remains as close as ever – there are several group text threads between him, his parents and his sisters, Aubrie and Molly. There are Facetime calls, too. After a 26-22 loss at San Diego State, Eric Crall texted his son to see how he was doing. The response wasn’t immediate, but it came nonetheless.

“Those are special texts, letting him understand that we’re supporting him, win or lose,” he said.

Smith, who still texts Crall regularly, admits he lives somewhat vicariously through his former player, the first Division I football player from Hicksville in recent memory. Crall’s successes are Hicksville’s successes.

“It’s very rewarding to know that you’ve maybe had a small part in that kid’s development,” Smith said. “I can point to Garrett and say, ‘I know you don’t want to be a right tackle, be this or that. If you’re willing to sacrifice, you’re going to get noticed.’”

The actions of one person in a small town can impact the entire lot. That’s something Crall has always held near and dear. Those same lessons ring true in football.

“I think that’s what makes him such a good teammate,” Smith said. “How much family means to him.”

Michael Katz is a writer for WyoSports. He can be reached by email at mkatz@wyosports.net. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelLKatz.

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