Before Jake Coker, Blake Sims, AJ McCarron and Greg McElroy, Alabama had Brodie Croyle.
The former Crimson Tide quarterback was successful during his time, leading Alabama to a 10-win season in 2005, one of only three 10-win seasons between the time Gene Stallings retired and Nick Saban was hired. The Cotton Bowl that was a high water mark that eventually would be eclipsed several times over.
The same season he appeared on Athlon Sports’ SEC preview cover in 2006, Croyle became Alabama’s all-time leading passer. He’s now third behind McCarron and John Parker Wilson.
Croyle spent five seasons in the NFL, mostly as a backup and starting 10 career games with the Kansas City Chiefs. After his retirement, he returned to Alabama for a brief career in business before feeling the call to return to his family’s life work.
Croyle’s father John, a former Alabama quarterback himself, started the Big Oak Ranch outside Gadsden, Ala., in 1974 to provide homes and families for abused, neglected or abandoned children. Brodie’s sister Reagan Croyle Phillips returned to work at the Branch several years ago. Brodie was a tougher sell.
Eventually, Brodie returned three years ago as executive director. Brodie joined Athlon to talk about how he finally found the calling that had impacted his life since he was 5 years old.
How did you get started with Big Oak Ranch?
Do you want the whole story of the Cliffs Notes? My dad played at the University of Alabama and a chance to play professional football and he went to Coach Bryant and said I want to take the money from pro football and start a home for kids. Coach Bryant said don’t play pro football unless you’re willing to marry it. Go chase that dream you’re talking about. My dad walked out of his office and never looked back, moved out to the woods on a 120 acres and that’s how the ranch got started 41 years ago. Since that time, we’ve had over 2,000 children who have called Big Oak home. We currently have about 160 kids that we take care of on a daily basis. We take care of orphaned, neglected, abused, abandoned kids. We have 10 homes at the boys’ ranch. We have 10 homes in the girls’ ranch and in each home we put a godly man and woman in there with 6-8 boys or 6-8 girls and raise them to be godly men and women. Show them every day what a family is supposed to look like. Show them every day what a husband and wife is supposed to look like. We’ve got kids that have lived in cardboard boxes and we didn’t know what their birthday was that still live with us today. They lived with us two-and-a-half years and no one has checked on them to make sure they’re alive and acknowledge that they exist. We’ve got kids that showed up with no shoes, decaying teeth, borrowed clothes. They walked up and said do we look good enough to stay. We also got horror stories of kids who were hurt by their parents at a young age and re-establishing boundaries and what love is supposed to look like. Our house parents and our staff and what we get to do every day is show them is that the past is the past and why it happened we’ll never know until we meet God Almighty, but we don’t have to let the past define where we’re going. That’s what we get to do on a daily basis. Now that we’ve been here for 40 years, we have kids that come back that have grandchildren. To see guys that I grew up have wives and children of their own, got great jobs and are successful.
After I got done playing, I did the business world for a while and we have a land and timber real estate business and I decided I chased a lot of things in my life. When I was 11 years old I told my parents that I wanted to play pro football and instead of holding me back they said shoot for the moon and worst-case scenario we end up in the stars. That was my guide. That was everything I chased. I got to do it. I was blessed to go do it. Did it turn out the way I wanted it to? Absolutely not. But I got to do it. It was a dream realized. I came back and into the business world and realized God prepared me for this. This is what he put me on earth to do. He put me on earth take care of kids, the same kids I grew up with. And now me and my sister and our families get to carry on the legacy that my mom and dad started 41 years ago.
You said these were the kids you grew up with. How involved were in you in the Ranch when you were a kid?
I lived there. Those were my brothers and sisters. … When I was five years old, I was standing with my dad three days before Christmas at the administration building. This old beat-up truck pulled out. This guy put a cigarette out and stomped it out, walked up to my dad and said, ‘you the man in charge? Well, I got a new girlfriend and she says it’s either her or my boys, so if it’s OK with you, I’m going to leave my three boys with you.’ The 11 year old got out and said ‘no more fighting, no more getting beat up, no more going hungry. This sounds like a pretty good deal for me. I’m in.’ The 10-year-old got out and said, ‘I told you he was going to leave us.’ He ran off and it took a social worker three hours for us to catch him and bring him back and let him know everything was going to be OK. My play in life and why I’m talking to you about Big Oak Ranch was the last one, he’s six years old. He realizes what’s going on. He jumped up and put his arms around his daddy’s neck and said ‘you’re my daddy and you can’t leave me the same way mama.’ My dad pulled this boy off and the dad drove away. They never saw him again until they graduated high school. That little boy grew up my best friend. He was my brother. He was in my wedding. We played baseball and rodeo’d and did everything together. You talk about the ripple effect and the success stories and what the Ranch does. Three weeks ago, I was in his wedding and he married a godly woman who has a seven-year-old girl that doesn’t have a daddy. He said, ‘Brodie, how cool is it that God new 27 years ago when my dad dropped me off at a stranger’s house and he put me in a house with two people I didn’t know that He was preparing me for that day. I get to be the same daddy that Ranch was to me.’ That’s how I grew up, and now we get to see it from an adult perspective. The kids haven’t changed. Circumstances have. Our goal 20 years from now is, is that kid a good husband, a good father, is she a good wife, is she a good wife. Have they broken the cycle from which they came. At the end of the day, that’s success for us.
How much did your parents talk to you about what these kids were dealing with? Did they try to shield you from it?
We didn’t always know the stories, the extent of what it is the child came from, but our parents never hid anything from us. People ask all the time sharing your mom or sharing your dad. We didn’t sacrifice anything. Me and my sister asked ourselves why were we so blessed that we got the mom and dad that we got that we didn’t grow up like the kids around us who didn’t have a mom or a dad or their mom and dad abused them or abandoned them. At the same time, we realized our mom and dad had a bigger role than our mom and dad. They had to bridge that gap and they had to be a whole lot to a whole lot of other people. We had to learn how to share. We had to learn how to help. Moving through sports, especially as a quarterback, I think that helped me get to the dreams and goals I had to know what made people tick.
You mentioned a conversation between your father and Bear Bryant about not playing pro football unless you planned on marrying it. Did you ever have that discussion with your father or anyone else?
My conversation happened with a business partner of mine. We had a land and timber real estate business in Tuscaloosa. We were coming back from a timber sale. Everything was doing what we wanted to do. We were growing the way we wanted to grow. We had our niche that we went after. We got to talking about the future and if everything goes the way we think it’s going to and in 10 years we’re not the ones out here chasing these deals and we get to sit back and do other things. He asked what do you see yourself doing. I said I see myself back in North Alabama. Children at Big Oak Ranch have always had a big place in my heart, but that’s my mom and dad’s deal. That’s my family’s deal, and he raised me to be my own man, so that’s why I’m out here. But the kids there have always had a special place in my heart. I got home and my wife and boys were out of town. Us Southern Baptists can sometimes throw the words out that the Lord spoke to us a little generous at times. But that was the first time in my life I felt God really saying, ‘what are you waiting on? I gave you everything you thought you wanted in life — you thought you wanted to play in the NFL and that was going to bring you happiness. You thought the business world and making money was going to bring you happiness. When are you going to do what I’ve called you to do?’ To be honest, for two months I fought it. I thought why not on my time, when it works for me in 10 years. After two months, I felt that this is what we had been put on earth to do. I sat my wife down and said I feel like God’s calling us back to the Ranch. She broke down crying, and I thought ‘this isn’t going how I thought it was going to go. My wife said ‘I’d been waiting for you to say that for five years. I knew it had to be on your time and on God’s time. Tell me when and I’ll have us packed.’ That was almost three years ago.
What was the conversation with your dad like? Was the door always open? Was he expecting you to come back?
Little did I know that my dad and my mother and my wife and my sister had all be talking about this for five years and not a one of them had mentioned a word to me.
So he was pretty happy about it, that you figured out what everyone else already knew?
He was like, ‘you big dummy, what took you so long.’
To get to football a bit, do you still have a connection with Alabama? Do you go to games, practices, events?
I don’t. I travel a lot, speaking and doing different things. I love Alabama. It was a dream come true to play there. But if I’ve got Saturday off, I live at a boys’ ranch where there are 60 boys that don’t have a mom and a dad and I’ve got two little boys of my own who want to play with daddy. I’m grateful with the opportunity that Alabama provided me and the platform it provided with what we do now. I had my time. I’m blessed for my time. But the last thing I ever want to be is a hanger-on and one of those guys who is always around. I’ve never met Jake Coker but I’m his biggest fan. I root for him from a distance and I hope they win every single game, but it’s their time. I’m going to root for them from a distance.