When Eric Crouch walked away from the St. Louis Rams in September, the 2001 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Nebraska heard the whispers that trailed him all the way back to his hometown of Omaha.
"Some people said I was a quitter," he said. "They don't know me very well."
His retirement lasted about six months. Two weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers called to tell him they were going to claim him off waivers and wanted to give him a chance to play quarterback. That is the position he focused on last week in a five-day minicamp, and the Packers are expected to take a longer look at him in training camp this summer as a candidate for the number three spot, or the practice squad.
"I'm thrilled to have the opportunity," Crouch said in a telephone interview three days into the Packers' first mini-camp last week. "This past January, I decided I wanted to get back in and give it a shot at quarterback. I learned the tough way last year that I wasn't a receiver. I really wanted to be a quarterback, and now I'm getting that opportunity. It's all I could have asked for."
A year ago, Crouch was taken in the third round of the college draft but not as a quarterback, the position he played so brilliantly in college in an option offense that allowed him to use his skills as a runner, passer and play-maker for Nebraska. He was drafted because Rams coach Mike Martz thought he would fit his system perfectly as a possession wide receiver, perhaps the heir apparent to Ricky Proehl, and handle occasional duty as a running back and return man.
At Nebraska, Crouch started 38 of 42 games, passed for 4,481 yards and rushed for 3,434 yards, including 59 running touchdowns. But there were questions about his size (6-foot, 205 pounds) and arm strength. At the scouting combine two months before the draft, he worked out at wide receiver, running back and briefly at quarterback and talked bravely in his media sessions about being willing to do anything he could to help his new team win, even if that meant giving up quarterback.
He says now he thought he meant it at the time. But after the minicamps, training camp and four preseason games with the Rams, he realized he'd been fooling himself. He had played quarterback since he was 8 years old and by September of his rookie season, he said, "I knew in my heart I'd made a mistake. I'm a quarterback, and that's what I wanted to play."
So he announced that he was "retiring" from football. He had suffered a deep thigh bruise during preseason and had been putting off ankle surgery. So he went back to Omaha with his fiance, Nicole, had the surgery and spent most of last fall rehabilitating. As it turned out, his retirement didn't last long.
He re-connected with former Cal-Berkeley coach Roger Theder, who had Crouch prepare for the combine. Crouch spent several weeks with Theder focusing strictly on his quarterback skills, and had every intention of shopping himself to the Canadian Football League.
But the Packers called April 23, two days before he was scheduled to visit Toronto to talk to the Argonauts. But when the Packers gained his rights, he signed a minimum-salary contract.
"It's a no-brainer," Crouch said. "It's close to home, and they're going to give me the chance to play where I want to play. I was kind of surprised ... I didn't know anyone would even bother to claim me. In hindsight, I probably should have stuck with quarterback in the first place. I'd have been a sixth- or seventh-round pick. I could have been doing this a year ago."