Inspiring journey: Crockett finds a home with the Herd
Fargo - What helped John Crockett the most in his high school years was AAU basketball. That’s when the team would travel during the summer and spend many weekends in hotels.
It was a chance for him to take the clothes out of his bag – who knows, maybe they were all the clothes he had to his name at that point – and put them in the hotel room drawer. It was a time in his life when he didn’t have a drawer to put stuff in very often.
“Just to see what it would be like to be in a home for a bit,” he said.
It’s no wonder a few weeks ago in front of a room full of media following North Dakota State’s 38-14 victory over Youngstown State on “Senior Day” that Crockett had trouble finding the words when asked to reflect on his Bison career. He talked about the journey, all that he went through to just be able to put on a Bison uniform. One of the most charismatic, happy and outgoing personalities you’ll ever see, his eyes started to well up. For perhaps the first time in his five years in college, he was speechless.
You couldn’t blame him.
“I could not be prouder. I’ve told people it’s a miracle,” said Jeff Ferguson, his high school coach at Totino-Grace in the Twin Cities. “He had ambition and hunger. He just didn’t have a road map.”
As a high school kid, the road map went all over the Twin Cities, at times finding a place to sleep wherever he could find it. Some people call it couch surfing, staying at different friends’ house for a little bit at a time. It’s a definition of being homeless, although not in the sensationalized sleeping-on-a-park-bench view of it since there were always people willing to help. Crockett said this week he got very good at going into somebody’s kitchen in the morning and saying thanks and we’ll see you later.
He said he can’t thank “the village” enough for helping him out when his mother, Jackie Martin, went through some tough times.
And they were tough.
She was hospitalized for about two months after she said she suffered a mental breakdown that came out of nowhere. Her son thinks it was brought on by stress.
“It had me not being myself for about a year,” Martin said.
They were always together growing up, mother and son. A woman of faith in a middle class neighborhood, her son was never exposed to alcohol or drugs in the home. She worked hard to get him in good schools, and she always surrounded herself with successful people.
He’s always had that personality, she said, ever since he was a baby. He was given the nickname “Taz” in high school, in reference to the Looney Tunes cartoon character “Tasmanian Devil.”
Crockett said that Taz attitude was essential while his mom was struggling. She said she’s been doing well for three of four years now and rarely misses a game.
“I have an amazing mother and she gave me everything possible I ever wanted and needed,” he said. “Just at that time it was something she couldn’t control. She being able to fight through that – that’s what keeps you fighting.
“Everybody has a story. I tell kids all the time. These (Bison) rookies – they want to complain, they want to whine about missing home. I tell them it’s all about how you create your own story. It’s either you fail at the end or you prevail.”
As if getting through high school was one thing, getting through college has been equally full of road blocks. He spent two years out of football getting academically ineligible, the result of several factors that added up at Totino-Grace.
Everybody, especially Ferguson, did the best they could. Crockett says he didn’t take care of business, but business was hard.
There were times, Ferguson said, when Crockett’s clothes would be at one house and his homework at another. Combined with an ADHD condition that was diagnosed in junior high and the situation got complicated.
“‘Where’s my homework’ takes on a whole new meaning when you’re sleeping in multiple homes during the week,” Ferguson said. “He was really, really frustrating and really, really uplifting at the same time. He touched my heart in a special way and I was committed to helping him.”
It was a hot-cold relationship, Ferguson said. He remembers a conversation, fondly now, when Crockett told his coach in figurative terms, “I want to kill you and you want to kill me, and I think you’re winning.”
“We were the odd couple,” Ferguson said. “I’m a white guy with two parents who never had it tough. And here’s him, where it was hard enough to get his homework done when you don’t know where your stuff was last night.”
An all-state running back who helped Totino-Grace to a state championship, Crockett was recruited by most Big Ten Conference schools – until they saw his transcript, anyway.
So Crockett took a different path, heading to Fargo.
“When I think of him getting a college degree, it’s a miracle,” Ferguson said. “Here’s this kid from inner-city Minneapolis who has to go to Fargo flipping North Dakota and can’t play for two years. I literally was crossing my fingers hoping this would work. It was life changing for him and he knows that.”
So life changing that Crockett says Fargo is home now. He’ll probably end up somewhere else, but NDSU is home. He’s been invited to play in the East-West Shrine Game in January, but that’s on the backburner considering the Bison are in another FCS playoff run.
Crockett spent his first year at NDSU at a North Dakota State School of Science program at the campus’ building just north of the Fargodome. It was tough, he said, but he got through it.
He got admitted to the university his second year, but once again could not be part of the team until he met NCAA academic standards. The Bison coaches were tough on him, Crockett said, sometimes getting him up at 5:30 a.m. to study.
“No matter how long it takes me, I’m going to get my degree,” he said. “Football is easy. That’s the easy part.”
Easy enough, anyway, to become the third all-time leading rusher in school history despite playing just three seasons. He has 3,842 yards and needs 111 to pass Kyle Steffes to move into second place. Moreover, Crockett shared carries his first two years with Sam Ojuri before taking over as the go-to guy this year.
He has the school single-season record for rushing attempts with 294 and counting. He needs 197 yards to pass Lamar Gordon’s single-season rushing record of 1,723 yards.
It’s all been part of the journey.
“The journey is big,” Crockett said. “It goes through sitting out two years and really wanting to be part of something badly. Then to finally get that opportunity and it feels like those two years took a century and the time played went by in a week, so it kind of hits you hard.”
Crockett, in an interview this week, was asked if it was even possible to thank the village who helped him when he needed it.
“I’m saying thanks right now,” he said.
That is true, but not the whole story. All of those thousands of Bison fans would probably also like to say thanks for surviving, and now thriving.