September 3, 2013
By Mark Janssen
Willis Crenshaw is the first to admit that he is the exception to the rule, and he wants young people to understand that.
By K-State standards, he was the Jon McGraw and the Jordy Nelson before there was a Jon McGraw and Jordy Nelson. He was the story of that under-estimated prep athlete, who ended up with a seven-year career in the National Football League.
LIFE AS A WILDCAT:
"I didn't have schools coming after me," said Crenshaw, who was part of the 1963 football reunion class this past weekend at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. "I was a pretty decent defensive end in high school, but I was dominant in the state of Missouri in the pole vault. That's where my notoriety came from. Kansas State had an Olympic-type coach (Ward Haylett), so this seemed like a good place to go to school because it could be my path to the Olympics."
The year was 1960 and the 6-foot-2, 185-pound native of St. Louis, Mo., had vaulted 13-2 with a steel pole. On the prep football field, he repeated, "I was only pretty decent. I only played football to be with my friends."
To get a full scholarship, Crenshaw first played both sports at K-State, but when he beefed up to 210 pounds, and then 220 through his first-ever weight conditioning program, his vaulting days were over.
The 1960s were trying times to be a Wildcat player as Crenshaw described football facilities as "... bottom of the barrel. Football athletes lived under Memorial Stadium and were responsible for trying to sell, or even give away, tickets for home games."
Off the field, it was a time at K-State when Crenshaw estimates that he was one of "50 or so" African American students on campus.
Of that, he says, "I cannot remember one negative racial situation that involved me."
Playing on a Wildcat team that won just four out of 29 games in his three-year varsity career from 1961-63, Crenshaw first starred as a defensive end before injuries riddled the Wildcat backfield and coach Doug Weaver made Crenshaw a two-way player, which included fullback on offense.
He led the team in rushing as a junior, but with only 331 yards, plus rushed for another 250-plus yards as a senior.
"I didn't have lightning speed. I was a five yards and a cloud of dust guy," said the 72-year-old Crenshaw from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. "There was nothing about my game that said I could be a professional running back."
Others, however, thought otherwise.
UNRECRUITED TO THE NFL:
After his final game as a Wildcat, Crenshaw was invited to Chicago to play in the College All Star Football Game after the 1963 season.
"Going in, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. These were guys who had played running back since Pop Warner age. There were guys like Gale Sayers (Kansas), who had all those God-gifted moves that you don't coach," reflected Crenshaw. "Honestly, to think I was on this team as a running back was ridiculous, but I found it almost comical how these great All-Americans that I had read about tip-toed through the hole. I remember saying, 'Are you kidding me! He's an All-American?'"
Crenshaw was impressive enough to be a ninth-round draft choice by the St. Louis Cardinals. He played in his home town from 1964 to 1969, before being traded to the Denver Broncos "to block for Floyd Little" in 1970 in his final NFL season.
He would play 96 professional games, rush for 2,428 yards and 15 touchdowns, plus catch 104 passes for another three scores. He also averaged 19 yards on kickoff returns and recovered 12 fumbles as a special teams player.
"Special teams is how I stuck around long enough to get an opportunity to be a running back," said Crenshaw. "It took time for me to learn how to be a running back. I was more of a defensive player in my mind, so when I got the ball I just tried to run over people. I remember a coach coming up to me and saying, 'Now Willis, the idea is to avoid tacklers, and not run over them.' He tried to get across the idea of taking an alternative escape route."
MESSAGE TO TODAY'S YOUNG PLAYER:
Crenshaw's makeup was anything but taking an easy alternative escape route.
Planning to go into dentistry and be a pre-med major at K-State, Crenshaw said, "I knew guys at other schools that were given an education without even going to class. In reality, these guys were given a free pass and cheated from getting an education.
"At K-State at that time being an athlete was held against you by a lot of professors," said Crenshaw. "I remember my biology teacher telling me to drop the class because I wouldn't make it with five hours of lab and five hours of class time each week. He said I was a football player, so I wouldn't make it."
Crenshaw stayed in the class and scored a 'B'.
After a pro career, Crenshaw worked in life insurance sales, with the Monsanto chemical company and later as a financial planner on Wall Street.
While he didn't become a dentist, he did earn an education at K-State, which he stresses to today's young athlete when he addresses today's youth.
"One in 14,000 players at the college level make it to the NFL. For you to say that you're going to be 'the one' is not practical," said Crenshaw. "If you are 'the one', that's fine, but it's still not a long livelihood and you're going to need that education after your playing days are over. It's great to work to be 'the one,' but the percentages just say that you're probably not going to be 'the one'. Young people need to know that."