To Quarterback, Human Warmth Means More Than Hot-Prospect Status


Brodie Croyle grew up with a father, a mother and a few hundred kids who had neither.

A 17-year-old quarterback who has rewritten Alabama’s high school football record books, Brodie was reared on a ranch for abused and neglected children.

“It’s pretty much made me who I am,” Brodie says. “It’s made me care for people a lot more.”

His father, former Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker John Croyle, traded a shot at National Football League glory and riches to found Big Oak Boys Ranch in a picturesque chunk of Alabama 20 minutes east of Birmingham.


Big Oak, founded in 1975, now operates a separate girls’ ranch along with the tiny, private Westbrook Christian School in nearby Gadsden, where Brodie has starred at quarterback since eighth grade.

With his senior year still to go, the teen has passed for 9,274 yards and 105 touchdowns, both state records. He’s corralled nine state records and a heap of scholarship offers from major colleges despite Westbrook Christian’s position in Class 1A, the smallest division.

Croyle talks as eagerly about his son’s kindness to a young stranger as about his football exploits. The story is this: A dozen years ago, a man drove up to the Croyle house with his three boys. His girlfriend had issued an ultimatum--her or the kids. He chose the woman.

Croyle was bathing the youngest boy, a 6-year-old who was scarred front and back with cigarette burns, when he noticed Brodie in the doorway with an armful of underwear and G.I. Joe pajamas.

“You don’t have any clothes,” Brodie said. “Take mine.”

“If I’ve raised my boy to love like that, then I’ll die a very successful man,” Croyle said.

Croyle, who played defensive end and linebacker for Bear Bryant’s 1973 national championship team, said his son isn’t a typical hotshot college prospect. “He grew up in a home for children,” he said. “His best friends are boys that don’t have mommas and daddies.”


The nonprofit Big Oak takes boys and girls ages 6 to 18 who have been abused or neglected or have had minor trouble with the law. All stay at least one year.

Croyle said he was inspired to help such children after doing Christian outreach the summer after his freshman year of college. In New Orleans he encountered the young son of a prostitute who was keeping track of her customers and fees. Croyle spoke with him about becoming a Christian. He said that when he returned the next summer, the boy “told me word for word everything I’d said to him. I realized then that I’d been given a gift.”

He bought Westbrook Christian for $1 in 1990 when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. It had 167 students then; today it has 600 in grades K through 12, about 100 of them from the Big Oak ranches.

Brodie, a lanky, 6-foot-4 205-pounder, shares his father’s athleticism as well as his compassion.

“He’s this year’s pick as the one who’s got it all,” said Allen Wallace, editor and publisher of SuperPrep, a college recruiting magazine published three times a year from Laguna Beach. “He is the one guy who really doesn’t have a chink in his armor and can achieve a true level of greatness.”

Wallace said Brodie will likely be his pick as the nation’s top quarterback prospect heading into the season. Brodie could have told him that years ago.


When he was an eighth-grader, a coach asked the boy to list his future goals. No. 1, he said, he wanted to be a good Christian. No. 2 was to be the best quarterback prospect in the land by his senior year. “Deep down, that’s what I always believed I was going to be,” Brodie said. “Not to be cocky or anything, that’s just what I thought.

“My dad always taught me if you set your goals high, then you have a better chance of reaching them.”

Making the goal improbable was the fact that Brodie didn’t begin playing organized football until seventh grade, as per his father’s orders. The next year, he was the varsity starter at little Westbrook Christian.

It was tough going at first. Six feet tall at 13 but just 150 pounds, Brodie took a beating.

“I got hit on every play, it seemed like,” Brodie said. “It was a good learning experience.”

That’s when the benefits of ranch living, of baling hay and getting tossed in briar bushes by the older kids, began to show.


“His greatest strength is mental toughness,” said Croyle, describing a particularly tough game when Brodie was in the eighth grade and a much bigger team was punishing the Warriors.

“He was standing there and tears were just pouring out of his eyes,” Croyle said. “He was hurting. And the coach said, ‘You want me to get the junior [backup] in?’ He said, ‘No, sir, call the play.’ ”

The last two years, Croyle has thrown for 3,787 and 2,838 yards, the two top single-season marks in state history. His 44 touchdown passes as a junior were also a record. Nationally, Croyle already ranks 14th in career passing yards and 10th in touchdowns.

Brodie is also a standout pitcher, with a 93 mph fastball and a batting average pushing .600 in two seasons. In basketball, he averages 18 points a game.

Baseball scouts have told the Croyles he could be a first-round pick next summer. When his father told him, Brodie responded, “I want to play football.”

One day in May, coaches from Oklahoma, Louisiana State, Arizona State and Tennessee descended on little Westbrook Christian to meet Brodie, who graduates in December.


On the ranch, Brodie makes his own goodwill visits. It’s impossible for him to meet every child who comes through Big Oak, but he does his best.

“You can’t help but love these kids,” Brodie said. “I’ve seen how they come here . . . and I’ve seen how they leave. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”