Howard Cross, star right end for the past four years, is feted with his own day in Huntsville. The New Hope native is greeted by 400 of his friends and fans, including teammate Derrick Thomas, who presents him with a special prized photo of their playing days. Recently, Cross was voted the best blocker in the SEC and received the Jacobs Trophy.
John Croyle seems to have always been a man on a mission. At Gadsden High School he was a prep All-America in football and basketball. At the University of Alabama he played on a national championship team. After college he dedicated his life to helping kids in desperate circumstances.
John Croyle played football at the University of Alabama under Paul "Bear "Bryant. When Bryant talked, people listened. Croyle listened and the words of wisdom not only paid dividends for John but for hundreds of children.
Standing six feet six inches and weighing 210 pounds Croyle looked more like a basketball star than a football standout. However, he excelled as a defensive end in the tough Southeastern Conference. During a knee injury plagued tenure at the Capstone, he garnered second team All-SEC honors in 1972 and won the "Jerry Duncan-I Like to Practice Award" in 1973. Versus Mississippi State in 1973 he recorded 11 tackles including a quarterback sack for a 32 yard loss. To cap off a stellar performance that day he blocked a field goal attempt and returned it 40 yards.
Croyle visited with Bryant to discuss the career path he had contemplating and if playing in the NFL could help fund his plan. Bryant said, "Don’t play professional ball unless you’re willing to marry it. " Right then the seed that had been planted during a summer job began to take root. At the age of 19, Croyle worked in Lumberton, Mississippi at the King’s Arrow Ranch for boys. He saw the need and realized he could be a ray of hope for boys in bad situations. He decided to forgo professional football and started work on what would become the Big Oak Ranch for Boys.
On March 6, 1974 at John Croyle Day in Gadsden he received a check from the Alabama Alumni Association for $5,000 toward his dream. A Birmingham businessman followed with a $15,000 donation but Croyle was well short of the funds needed. Then former Tide teammate and first round draft pick of the New England Patriots, John Hannah, stepped up. He pledged his $30,000 signing bonus and the ranch opened its doors to four boys. Since then several new houses designed to be homes to eight boys and house parents have been constructed with the first new structure named the John Hannah House. Among the many other homes honoring ranch supporters are the Paul Bryant House, the Gaylon McCollough House and the Ray Perkins House.
Through the years children who have suffered from every form of abuse imaginable have found shelter –and a chance at Big Oak Ranch. By his side has been his wife Teresa. They raised daughter Reagan and son Brodie at the ranch. Reagan played basketball at the University of Alabama and was crowned Homecoming Queen and married a Tide quarterback. Brodie starred as quarterback at Alabama and plays with the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL.
The Big Oak Ranch has been featured in many publications including Time and Reader’s Digest. The ministry has expanded over the years to include the Big Oak Girls Ranch and Westbrook Christian School.
John Croyle has been quoted as saying, "I tell new kids three things. First, I love you. Second, I will never lie to you. Third, I will stick with you until you are grown." To learn more about Big Oak Ranch visit www.bigoak.org.