Tae Crowder felt like a running back again. A much, much slower one.
After the thunderous hit by Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes that forced a live ball, Crowder, now a senior linebacker, saw an open field of green grass. A thought of crossing the goal line for his first-career touchdown was in view.
He had a sideline full of teammates anticipating this moment, too. Safety J.R. Reed ran down the sideline with a smile. Reed hoped Crowder could beat Tennessee safety Nigel Warrior and scoot into the end zone, because running back Brian Herrien said it was “the slowest five yards I’ve ever seen” at the end of his burst.
“I don’t know if he can ever switch back over,” Herrien said, jokingly. “He can still run, but not nearly as fast.”
“He looked like a turtle (at the) finish,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said.
“I can’t even put it into words,” Crowder said. “Just awesome.”
After the 43-14 win in Neyland Stadium, Smart had a chance to reflect how that play encapsulated Crowder’s journey. He hails from Harris County, Georgia, where it’s small towns and lower-classification high school football that draws that community together. They all knew Crowder, but Division I colleges came late to the party. Smart knew Crowder since he was an eighth grader, and kept in contact with him while coaching at Alabama. He knew everything that his starting linebacker had been through.
Crowder almost landed at Georgia Southern before the chance to play for the Bulldogs in the national spotlight came along. He started as a running back, then transitioned into a role as an undersized linebacker. For the longest time, it looked like Crowder’s opportunities to play would be slim. The last two seasons have changed that narrative, but the decision to move to defense was validated with the scoop-and-score.
“I can still remember the first time we practiced. I thought this kid is a good athlete, he’s just not going to play running back here,” Smart said. “He’s come so far, and he’s such a great story in college football for perseverance and sticking it out and staying and looking to see what he’s done.”
At nearly every level of college football, patience is common and it always makes for a nice story when an athlete gets his chance. It goes a level deeper for Crowder, however.
During each yard Crowder runs or each tackle he makes, he sees a reminder of one he adored. He’ll sometimes write #LLB on his eye black, but also has it permanently tattooed on his neck. The words “Long Live Big” fuel Georgia’s linebacker each time he wears the jersey.
“He remembers everyday what’s his why,” Reed said. “He comes out to do the work, and that’s something we have talked about a lot. You have to remember what that is and how it fuels you to do things.”
Cortez Johnson, the quiet-mannered yet fun-loving kid who everyone knew as “Big Man” (but never knew the nickname’s origin), passed away in an all-terrain vehicle accident on June 4, 2017. He was 21.
Crowder called Johnson his brother without hesitation. They weren’t related, but they might as well have been. They lived together, went to school together and lived nearly every moment of their young lives in tandem.
Johnson quit football in the middle of his junior year at Harris County. He likely wasn’t going to come back to finish a four-year career. Crowder made him. He wanted one last ride with the one he called “brother,” and has moments he will never forget. Crowder played running back and wide receiver in high school, and had four touchdowns in one game.
“I remember him coming up to hug me after that game,” Crowder said. “He was so happy for me. I cherished every moment with him.”
Four years later, Crowder is in his final ride at Georgia. He played as a viable asset in his junior campaign, and now he’s ascended into a force at inside linebacker. His scoop-and-score against the Volunteers followed a career-high performance of nine tackles against Notre Dame. After each performance, Crowder has danced with his teammates in a pair of savage pads or jumped into the hedges to celebrate with students.
Crowder couldn’t hug his best friend after his latest big performance. But in the same moment, Johnson was there and it felt like a Friday night at Danny Durham Field all over again.
“He was special,” Crowder said.
Crowder is one of a handful of Georgia players who have motivation from past hardships. As Reed mentioned, that “why” leads to a desire for standout performances. Defensive backs Divaad Wilson, Mark Webb Jr. and running back D’Andre Swift play in memory of their late grandfathers. Many players come from inner-city programs and have a lone desire of providing for family members and bettering financial situations.
Smart learns these background stories when recruiting players, because that’s when he sees families most for in-home visits. He gets to follow-up on situations at various team banquets and galas. Once that connection is formed, however, the Bulldogs’ coaches and teammates are “so happy,” Smart said, for one another due to knowing what these trials entail.
“A lot of times, it has been rough for our families when we are growing up,” Herrien said. “We want to do it for them.”
Crowder can point to many tribulations as reason for his rise in football. He works endlessly to provide for his family and a community. But he also wants to make Johnson smile from above as he did during a big performance at Harris County.
So, whether Crowder sluggishly finished his way to the end zone or not, he could smile. Because he knew “Big Man” was, too.
“Everywhere I go,” Crowder said, “he’s with me.”