Crikey! Meet Crocky-J, the pet alligator that makes UCLA’s Carson Steele a rare breed

UCLA running back Carson Steele next to his pet alligator, Crocky-J.
UCLA running back Carson Steele has a pet alligator named Crocky-J. Steele wishes Crocky-J could live with him in the UCLA dorms.
(Sam Lazarus / UCLA Athletics; Joseph Steele)

The slippery beast didn’t come with an instruction manual, only trial and terror. Its kid owner quickly developed a routine for getting a hold of the thing.

Carson Steele would start by grabbing the tail and tucking it under his arm. Next, he’d put a hand on the belly to get a firm grip and prevent it from snapping one way or the other.

The worst thing that could happen is to have any piece of flesh you wanted to preserve on either side of its head. That’s just inviting it to spin around and chomp you in an awful instant.


Filtration systems, portable heaters and cellphones have all met that fate. Holding out his hands to reveal some redness around the knuckles, Steele tells a reptilian war story that long preceded his arrival at UCLA as a transfer from Ball State. As a boy, he lost one early battle with the pet alligator that’s now grown to about 5½ feet long back at his Indiana home.

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“I don’t even know if my mom and dad know this one,” Steele said with a laugh, “but when I was younger, I was trying to show him to my friends and something happened, one of my friends moved or something and I turned and looked the other way and he got me a little bit. That was the one time.”

Did the alligator draw blood?

“Just a little bit,” Steele said.

What’s a little blood to the ripped running back who might be, pound for pound, UCLA’s strongest player? Don’t be fooled by the long blond locks and easy smile that have earned him the nicknames “Thor” and “Fabio,” among others. This guy might just bite back. He’s as tough as they come, forged by a childhood spent pushing cars and running hills wearing a weighted vest.

“Man, the guy can lift a whole weight room,” fellow running back T.J. Harden said.

It’s a Bunyanesque tale, except for the fact that it’s true. Even down to the nonsensical name that Steele gave his alligator, Crocky-J.

“He kind of represents me, especially a kid from the Midwest coming to L.A. with blond hair, doesn’t look like he should be from Indiana, you know?” Steele said. “Might as well throw in an alligator.”

VIDEO | 05:59
Carson Steele’s alligator, Crocky-J

Meet Crocky-J, UCLA running back Carson Steele’s pet alligator.


One recent morning, Crocky-J was in no mood to be picked up.

His caretaker tried grabbing the alligator’s tail, only for it to swish around in a temporary tub where it’s been residing until a bigger habitat can be constructed.

“He’s not wanting to be real cooperative this morning,” Joseph Steele, Carson’s father, told a visitor watching via Zoom.

Joseph dangled a rope over its head, inviting it to snap away. Weighing an estimated 80 to 90 pounds, Crocky-J barely resembles the miniature creature that arrived more than a decade ago in a thick cardboard box punctured with holes and stamped all over with “Danger, live animal.”

Carson had wanted a fun animal for Christmas, the elementary school kid thinking he’d get a lizard or maybe a bearded dragon. His father decided to surprise him with a dwarf alligator, ordering it off the internet from a gator farm in Florida.

The UPS driver figured he was delivering something exotic given the packaging. He lingered to watch the opening of the drawstring burlap sack resting inside the box. Already a feisty six inches, Crocky-J scurried across the floor, sending the family into a frenzy.

“Everybody was kind of freaking out,” Joseph remembered “It was a pretty interesting morning.”

Carson Steele holds a tiny Crocky-J after first receiving the alligator "from Santa Claus" about 10 years ago.
(Courtesy of the Steele family)

The Steele homestead just south of Indianapolis had long been an animal farm. Over the years, the family has housed ferrets, horses, chickens, a Bernese Mountain Dog, a cat, fish and rabbits in addition to the bearded dragon that Carson eventually added to the collection. Luckily, none has crossed — or crossed paths with — Crocky-J and his tank.

“Thank God the cat hasn’t jumped in,” Joseph said. “That wouldn’t be too good.”

Crocky-J would sometimes startle the family by knocking the top off its tank and creating a loud thud in the middle of the night, when it tends to be most active. But it’s never gotten loose.

Its longest trips involve a visit to the bathtub, where it likes to luxuriate in the warm running water.

“We’ll flip on the shower and kind of spray him down and scrape him off and stuff, his back,” Carson said, “because sometimes he’ll get algae on his back, so he loves it, he’ll just sit there.”

Soon it became a family joke. Where’s Crocky-J? Oh, he’s taking a shower.

Owning a pet alligator might be the second-craziest thing the Steeles have done.

When Carson was 8, his father had him push a car around the neighborhood to simulate the motion of a running back driving his body and keeping his feet moving. Joseph had heard about the exercise from an uncle who relayed a story about Indianapolis Colts players doing it years earlier.

“I mean, it’s a little ludicrous, off the wall maybe,” Joseph said, “but once it starts rolling, it’s not actually as hard as people think it is.”


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It certainly could be confusing to neighbors watching through their windows as the boy strained against a car in the dark with its emergency lights blinking. Sometimes they would come outside to see what was going on.

“Y’all need some help?” the neighbors would ask

“Nope, we’re just training,” Joseph would explain.

A few years later, a local high school football coach looked on in similar disbelief as Carson chugged his way up a hill wearing a weighted vest.

“How old is that kid?” the coach asked Joseph. “I don’t even have my high schoolers doing that.”

All that training on top of school and football practices could make Carson push back against his father as much as the steel and aluminum exterior of the family car.

Carson Steele holds Crocky-J in an undated photo.
(Courtesy of the Steele family)

“We used to scream at each other, yell at each other because you’ve got this kid that’s trying to work out and he’s just pushing me, pushing me,” Carson said, “but once I got a little older, I started to realize that I was doing everything so much faster than everybody and I was like, oh, wow, this stuff’s really helping me.”

Initially, Carson wanted to play college football in the powerful Southeastern Conference, eyeing Louisiana State and Kentucky. But a series of setbacks in high school derailed those hopes. He tore one hamstring, then the other. Just as he was about to complete his recovery, playing catch indoors with his father, he landed awkwardly on an outlet cover embedded in the floor and broke his foot.

His senior season was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic that limited recruiting opportunities, even for someone who won Indiana’s Mr. Football award while playing on a state championship team.

Carson picked nearby Ball State in part because the coaches had remained loyal, continually checking in with him and expressing interest through every ordeal. But after eclipsing 1,000 all-purpose yards as a freshman and establishing himself as one of the hardest players to bring down in the game over his first two college seasons, he was ready for a bigger challenge.

Like Crocky-J, he had outgrown his habitat.

UCLA running back Carson Steele carries the ball during practice on Aug. 15.
(Sam Lazarus / UCLA Athletics)

The legend of Carson’s pet alligator has accompanied him to Westwood.

His roommate, quarterback Collin Schlee, suggested that reporters ask to see Carson’s thumb after Crocky-J had taken a hunk out of it.


A few days later, informed of those remarks, Carson smiled and showed his intact hands.

“You know people, they take it a little too far and say I got my hand bitten off or something,” Carson said. “Had a few incidents, but nothing crazy.”

Among the more amusing questions he’s fielded, Carson has been asked if he sleeps with his pet. (No, you can’t sleep with an alligator.) Carson briefly contemplated making Crocky-J his roommate at UCLA before realizing that animal control regulations might be a little stiffer here than they are in Johnson County, Indiana.

“Man, I wanted to so badly,” he said, “but with the rules and stuff, I don’t think you can have those kinds of animals here. Indiana? It’s a little different.”

Maybe it’s for the best. Distractions aren’t needed, Carson acknowledging he must take his own big bite out of the playbook — “It’s a little difficult, I’m not gonna lie,” he said of learning a new offense — even though he’s impressed coaches and teammates with his attitude and that otherworldly strength that landed him on the Athletic’s “College football freaks” list.

UCLA running back Carson Steele carries the ball during spring practice.
(Sam Lazarus / UCLA Athletics)

He can bench press 450 pounds, power clean 350 and squat 675 — nearly a quarter the weight of a Honda Civic. That strength is among the reasons coach Chip Kelly has compared Carson’s running style to hard-charging predecessors Zach Charbonnet and Joshua Kelley.


“He’s seeking out contact and running through contact,” Kelly said, “so that’s always beneficial to you because you’re not going to design every run play where a guy’s going to run clean for 10 yards, it’s going to be dirty in there and you’ve got to have a physical guy that can run through it.”

One place Carson might start becoming leery of contact is Crocky-J’s new habitat. The alligator has grown to the point where its diet soon will transition from dog food-like pellets to raw chicken. Getting a hold of it is now usually a two-person job necessitating a rope slung over its neck.

Grab at your own risk.

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