Former Alabama Football Player John Croyle Gives New Roots to Troubled Boys at Big Oak Ranch

updated 07/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Passing through the rec room or coming from the stables, John Croyle likes to exchange high fives with the boys of his Big Oak Boys' Ranch. It's a stretch for some of the younger ones because Croyle is 6'7". And in the eyes of most of the boys he stands even taller.

Since 1975, Croyle, 37, a former University of Alabama football player and a devout, born-again Christian, has taken some 650 homeless, unwanted and abused boys into his care at Big Oak, a place he started from scratch and keeps running on faith and the help of friends, including former Alabama coach Ray Perkins. Rehabilitation doesn't always work, he readily admits, but he is proud of the number of boys Big Oak has helped turn around. Says Croyle: "I've got at least 300 class-A miracles."

Don't look for a distinctive large oak on a knoll. The ranch got its name from Isaiah 61:3: "They shall be called trees of righteousness." The 136-acre spread in northeast Alabama, near Glencoe, feels more like a summer camp than a ranch, although it stocks beef cattle, hogs and laying hens. There are two small lakes filled with bream and catfish, a swimming pool, a gymnasium and seven two-story brick houses. And boys—56 at the moment, ages 6 to 18. Almost all have been abused, physically or psychologically. One was burned with grease by his mother. Another saw his father shoot his mother. A third had a mother who once tried to drown him. "Some of these boys," says Croyle, "have been through more in their lives than you or I will ever know."

For all the boys, Croyle prescribes religion, love and work. "I tell them that if they'll try, I'll go to the wall to help them," he says. "And I want them to know the value of a dollar. So the boys are paid $2 an hour for their ranch work and have to save 90 percent of what they earn." Much of what the boys eat, they grow and raise themselves. Seven married couples are houseparents, and a social worker, tutor and three secretaries make up the remainder of the community.

Croyle, who grew up in nearby Gadsden, suffered his own traumas in childhood. When he was 5, his 4-year-old sister, Lisa, was killed in a bizarre accident. She was crushed by an old tombstone at a funeral. "That loss has made me love more deeply," he says. Croyle's father worked for Sears and his mother was a secretary. Having decided in the second grade that he was going to play ball for Alabama and its legendary coach, Bear Bryant, Croyle, who would stand 6'3" in ninth grade and be a high school star, became a starting end.

He says he was a typical cocky jock until, during his freshman year at Alabama, an opponent's cleat mangled his knee. "I remember the Bear saying, 'What a waste, son, your career's over,' " Croyle says. He chose to fight. "I had never had to work for anything in my life. But I worked to rehabilitate my knee. Many, many nights I cried myself to sleep." It took eight operations, but 18 months later Croyle was back on the team. He went on to play in the Orange Bowl in 1972, in the Cotton Bowl in January 1973 and in the Sugar Bowl in December of the same year.

The desire to help young boys came to him when, as a counselor at a summer camp in Lumberton, Miss., he convinced a troubled camper to accept Christ. "I realized that I had been given a gift," he says. His plan was to play pro football and earn enough money to open a home, but Bryant intercepted, telling him, "Don't play pro ball unless you're willing to marry it." John decided to build a ranch anyway, and Bryant agreed to be on his board of directors. The coach used his influence to interest donors and gave about $70,000 himself over the years. Croyle got help with the $45,000 purchase price on the property from former Alabama teammate John Hannah, who donated the $30,000 bonus he received for signing with the New England Patriots in 1973. To keep the ranch operating, Croyle raises some $600,000 in donations each year from corporations and individuals. (His own salary is $29,000.) He's especially grateful to Coach Perkins, who, Croyle estimates, has raised more than $500,000 over the years. Says an admiring Perkins: "John's very talented and could be doing many other things, but he chooses to do this."

After Big Oak opened in 1975, "I made a lot of mistakes," says Croyle, who quickly learned about licenses, inspections and social workers. "I started with five boys, and the first day they came to inspect us, I overslept, and the social worker found all six of us asleep. I was 24 years old, single, and all I had was a burning desire to do this—and faith in the Lord."

He married his childhood sweetheart, Tee Smith, a few months later. Today John, Tee and their two kids—daughter Reagan, 9, and son Brodie, 5—live in a small farmhouse on the property. "The boys say they know I love them," says Croyle, "because I live in a smaller house than they do."

"I look forward to life here," says one boy, 16, who arrived at Big Oak in 1985. He admits he was a violent child and that his mother responded with harsh corporal punishment. "I think about my parents, and I love them more than I did before," he says now. "When I came here, I learned to communicate. Once you get here you realize you've got a chance."

"If you want to talk to John, he's there," says another 16-year-old, who had been in and out of foster homes since he was 5. "Deep down, we need him."

"I'm not the great physician, but I can teach them how to handle the scars," says Croyle. "I always try to convince them that no matter what, they can make it. This presupposes that I have mastered the same thing. But I tell them I am learning about life and growing up along with them."

—By Tim Allis, with Joyce Leviton in Glencoe

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