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How Jack Crawford’s unconventional journey set the stage for his impressive 2018 season

From watching football movies to working with top coaches, it took some time for Jack Crawford to find his niche in the sport. He discusses how he got into football growing up in London to signing with Atlanta in 2017.

NFL: NOV 04 Falcons at Redskins Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Most successful NFL players have fascinating journeys. Whether they weren’t heavily recruited in college or drafted in the first few rounds, the story of someone exceeding expectations and establishing themselves in the league is normally inspiring. When the player was born outside of the United States, his road to success becomes even more compelling. Jack Crawford has proven to be one of those players.

The versatile defensive lineman was born in London, England. He is one of the five current players in the NFL from England. Considering the popularity of world football (soccer) and other sports, you wouldn’t expect most athletes from England to pursue American football. Although the NFL has built a massive audience in England, they didn’t start hosting games there until 2007. Crawford had already moved to the United States at that point. The sport didn’t receive much attention during his time living there. It didn’t stop him from becoming aware of it, and eventually wanting to become more involved in it.

From film to football

“Everything I knew about the sport growing up came from movies,” Crawford said laughing. “Any Given Sunday and Remember The Titans come to mind as influential movies. I still didn’t have an understanding of the sport itself from watching it. Those movies were simply the most exposure I had to it. There were other things too. I used to play NFL Blitz and Madden on PlayStation. That helped me get more exposure to it. I didn’t get serious about the sport until I came to the United States.”

“I started watching college football on TV. The first actual game I watched was the Rose Bowl between Texas and USC. That was the first time I really wanted to learn the rules of the sport. I was 16 years old at the time. I had just come to the country and was fascinated watching the game. It was so epic. I needed to learn more about it. Basketball was actually my first sport. It was my first love. After watching a game like that, it drew me into watching football more often.”

Crawford moved from London to Richland, New Jersey. While attending St. Augustine Preparatory School, he decided to play football, and he quickly found success lining up as a defensive end. What surprises most people is when they find out he also played wide receiver. Crawford enjoyed taking on the challenges of playing offense and defense. As he started to assess his options for college, he ultimately realized what his main positional preference was.

“I actually played wide receiver in high school,” Crawford stated. “A couple of colleges were interested in using me as a slot receiver, but most of them wanted me to play tight end. That was going to be a difficult transition because I was never good at blocking. It was something I struggled to do.”

“When I got to college, I learned more about football in general. It made me realize I preferred playing defense. I liked the fact that you don’t have to rely on anyone else in certain situations. Of course, you rely on your fellow defensive linemen and other players. It’s not like on offense though, where you are depending on the quarterback to make plays. There is a lot more dependence as a wide receiver or tight end, compared to playing on the defensive line. You can control your fate a little bit more on the defensive side of the ball. That’s what drew my interest to the position.”

Making the leap

Despite his desire to to play defensive end, Crawford was unsure if the coaching staff would comply. He had only been playing the sport for approximately three years. For all his talent, he was still relatively new to the game. That’s why he remained open-minded going into his freshman year of college. Committing to a program like Penn State immediately makes you want to be a team player. It took some time for the coaching staff to determine where Crawford’s future would be. They eventually decided he would play where he wanted to play.

“It came right after my first training camp in college,” Crawford said. “Joe Paterno called me into his office. It was the weekend after training camp. I wanted to head back to see my host family that I was living with in New Jersey for the weekend. The coaching staff was telling everyone not to leave town. I remember being on the way out. All of a sudden, Paterno called me into his office. I thought I was in trouble for some reason. I was actually called into his office because he wanted me to play my freshman year instead of redshirting.”

“The coaching staff wanted me to play tight end. I figured it was cool, especially if I actually get to play. After the weekend ended, coach told me to go back to defensive end. The defensive line coach really wanted me to play defense. Everything worked out in the end, but it’s one of those things I look back on and definitely think about.”

After earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2009 and 2011, Crawford was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL draft. He only played two seasons for the Raiders. They decided to waive him on August 30th, 2014. It didn’t take long for Crawford to join another team, as the Cowboys signed him three days later. Signing with them proved to be the move that helped him find his niche. The persistent pass rusher got to work with Rod Marinelli, who is regarded as one of the top defensive minds in the league. Learning from him gave Crawford the boost he needed to make his mark.

“I owe a lot to him (Marinelli) in terms of the direction in which my career went,” Crawford said. “I always had athleticism on my side, but I definitely needed more guidance. He did that by making the game easier for me. The way you do that is by speeding up yourself. The faster you go, the quicker you’re going to get comfortable playing at a certain speed. He taught me how not to think.”

“Playing defensive line is a position where you can’t afford to think. A lot of the problems that I find with younger players in every position, but especially across the defensive line, are that they think too much. They overthink by trying to do everything perfectly. When you’re a defensive lineman, you are never going to be perfect.”

“Younger players tend to think, and it leads to them being a step slower. You immediately recognize it on tape. It can cost you a play during a big moment. When it comes down to it, you just have to go and react. It’ll help you get better over time. He is someone that taught me how to play with this mindset. I definitely owe a lot to him.”

Days in Dallas

Crawford worked his way into becoming a key figure in Dallas’ defensive line rotation. Marinelli used him in multiple areas across the defensive line. To possess the versatility to play multiple positions is something that will always interest Dan Quinn. His defensive line rotations are known for going seven to eight players deep. That is why players such as Adrian Clayborn are so valuable in his scheme. The ability to rush outside, yet also cause havoc inside is an excellent trait to have in your repertoire. That played a major role in the Falcons wanting to sign Crawford. Between the contract offer and Quinn’s overall scheme, the incentives were there for the former fifth round pick to join the 2017 NFC champions.

“Obviously, there were financial reasons behind the decision,” Crawford said chuckling. “It was one of the best options I had. What also really stood out about joining them was from watching one particular game. I rarely watch football on TV. I rarely watch other defenses. I did watch the Super Bowl in 2017. I loved watching the Falcons’ defense get after it. It was one of the systems coming from Dallas that I can honestly see myself playing in. I love the way they play as a group. They play with a lot of effort, while generating penetration and creating disruption. That’s the style of play and mindset I like to play with.”

“Not every team has that mindset. Not every defensive scheme carries that with them. That’s why I was so intrigued by Atlanta. Their system suited me best. They play how the game should be played. It’s how football is most fun. To have that attacking mindset is the most enjoyable way to play football. Dan Quinn fully believes in that. Seeing how his defense plays really stood out to me on tape. It was a great fit for me. I was really excited when everything came together.”

The Falcons signed Crawford to a three year, $10.3 million dollar deal in 2017. Signing him and Dontari Poe, along with drafting Takkarist McKinley, helped the Falcons build a suddenly formidable defensive line. Pairing Crawford with Clayborn or Grady Jarrett inside in nickel and dime packages generated plenty of excitement about the defensive line’s capabilities. Unfortunately, the versatile defensive lineman tore his biceps against the Bills in Week 4. A season-ending injury could damage a player’s entire outlook. The devastating injury ended up refreshing Crawford’s outlook.

“It was tough, considering it was my first year with the team,” Crawford said. “I was obviously excited about the new opportunity. It was tough to see it cut short. At the same time, it was the longest I had been in my career without playing. Funny enough, that break away from football for nine months helped me greatly. Not putting pads on and doing the things you normally do as a player felt okay.”

“Having that time away helped me grow mentally. I picked up a lot from watching everything around me. Some of the differences in coaching coming from Dallas to Atlanta helped me hone in on my overall ability. Taking the physical and athletic parts of my game to help build on everything mentally was important.”

“I really believe I grew a lot during that time period. I realized that I had a lot to prove going into 2018. Coming off a good pre-season in 2017, but then for my season to get cut short gave me plenty of motivation. Not making much of an impact in the four games I played in during the season was another thing I used for motivation as well. There is nothing that can really mimic that kind of motivation. The feeling of having your back against the wall is something you can use for fuel. That was my approach going into 2018. Using my time away from the field in 2017, along with putting some things into practice helped me take my game to another level.”

Editor’s Note: That concludes part one of my interview with Jack Crawford. Part two will be published on Monday.