Jack Crawford: Playing in Dallas was the highlight of my career
The former NFL defensive end reflects on his 10-year career for the Raiders, Cowboys, Falcons and Titans, his time at Penn State, and his draft experience.
How would you describe your NFL career in three words?
Hard, painful, fun.
What does it mean to you to have played in the NFL for 10 years?
It means the world to me. Coming into the NFL, you know that the average career is short. You may not be there next week, you just have no job security. Looking back at it, having the opportunity to play 10 years in the NFL, I'm very fortunate. It's definitely something that I'm proud of.
What was it like being a British player in the NFL?
Honestly, I think it gave me a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, because I always felt that I was behind Americans and the players that you typically see in the NFL. Even all the way up until when I got into the league, I felt like I was playing catch up.
I think that's what allowed me to progress faster than some of the players who had been playing since they were young.
You're one of the most successful British players in NFL history. What does that mean to you as a achievement?
It means a lot to me. And it means even more to me now, having the opportunity to come back to England and talk to people who have now become fans of the sport. As you see more and more people in the UK learning about the sport, that gives me an opportunity to celebrate being one of the players who's played at the highest level.
Although there's a lot of players in the league, everybody knows each other. People often say that the NFL is like a fraternity, so I have a lot of friends who are still playing the NFL and a lot of players, like me, who have now retired. Coming back here to the UK, it's a small community who are involved in the NFL, so I'm just grateful to be a part of the movement forward.
You had the chance to play at Wembley in one of the NFL London games. What was that experience like?
That was special to me. I was able to get my whole family and a lot of my friends tickets to the game. I don't think I made any money that game! I think I broke even after they took the taxes out.
That experience was special. Playing in front of my home country, my family, my friends. And that was one of my first sacks in that game, so I had a big play. At that point, it felt like that was the pinnacle of my career.
How have you found the experience of going into broadcasting and commentary?
It's a completely different world. Although I've played the sport, it's a completely different skill to take your knowledge of the sport and translate it to a crowd who, for the most part, aren't that familiar with the game.
I won't lie to you, it's tough to be somewhat involved with the game but not be in it. When you're on the field you're in a bubble, and now I'm slightly on the outside. At the same time, it beats sitting at home on the couch, and I'm able to see some of my friends up close, and still be involved with the NFL.
What was it like going to America at such a young age?
At first I hated it. I didn't want to play American football at all. I went over there to play basketball. That was my goal, to make the NBA. And then my high school football coach convinced me to try out for the football team, and it didn't take long before I realised that I had a much brighter future in football than I did in basketball.
I would have college coaches coming to school every week talking to me, trying to recruit me, so I started to see that there was a future there. It moved pretty quickly in the way in which my career focus progressed and moved from basketball to football. Before I knew it, I was playing at Penn State, a big-time college.
How did you find the American college sport experience?
That was a whole new experience for me. First of all, Penn State is in the middle of Pennsylvania, in the middle of nowhere. I immediately felt landlocked, I felt homesick.
As far as football goes, I think that's the first time you really experience a sport as a job. This is the reason why you're at the school.
I remember my first game at Penn State, I was a rookie, and we were playing against a team called Coastal Carolina. I remember lining up, I felt my heartbeat, and I started to hyperventilate, because there was about 60 or 70,000 fans in the stadium. I had to get over that hump of being too anxious and too nervous before the game and during the game, and then, as I got better and more experienced, I started to slow down and understand what I could do better and how I could progress.
What did you enjoy most about college football?
You kind of become a mini celebrity on campus, it's not necessarily like you see in the movies, but you do have a little bit of status and notoriety on campus. They put the college players up on billboards, and I remember seeing a billboard of myself as you're driving into the college, and you kind of take a step back and think to yourself, 'Wow.'
The culture around football is so big and so intense. There's nothing else like it in the world. There's no other country that takes college sports as seriously as they do in America, and there's no other sport that people take as serious as college football. It's a culture, and to be able to be a part of that culture, it's something I carry with me for the rest of my life.
What was your greatest moment at Penn State?
I've got two. This is more generally speaking, but we used to have games called a whiteout, when everybody comes to the stadium wearing white. The Penn State stadium sits 110,000 fans, and when you look into the crowd, all you see is just pure white. To be able to make a big play, get a sack in front of that many people at your home stadium, there's nothing like it.
The other is more specific, playing against Ohio State, which was one of our biggest rivals, on the road at their stadium, which also sits 100,000 fans. I had one of my best games against them there, and we ended up beating them on the road. They're a tough team to beat. Unfortunately, we missed all the partying and celebration because we were on a flight back. When we got back to the campus, there were street lights down on the ground and stuff, but nobody was celebrating anymore because it was too late.
How would you describe the moment you were drafted by the Oakland Raiders?
The first word that comes to mind is relief. I was relieved just to be drafted.
I remember trying not to pay attention to the draft, like I was trying to just play video games with my friends and not focus on it because it's such a nerve-wracking moment, you're just waiting for a phone call. Next thing you know, your friend calls you because they're not thinking that you're waiting for the draft call, telling you good luck.
I remember just being relieved. You work so hard to get to that point, it feels like hard part is over at that moment. Obviously, looking back in hindsight, little did I know that it was just the beginning. The draft is not the be all and end all. It's just a moment in time at the beginning of your career, really.
How hard was the adjustment to the professional game?
That was really tough, and it took me years to adjust. Luckily, I was able to hang in there and meet the right players and coaches to be around, to able to progress to where I was able to be a factor in the NFL. But it was a hard adjustment, because the game speeds up so much and the pool of talent starts to narrow down. You only get the best of the best.
I had to go through I would say a two-year learning curve before I felt comfortable in the NFL and felt like I really belonged.
You spent a few years with the Dallas Cowboys, America's team. What was that experience like?
Dallas is a little bit of a different experience as far as NFL team goes. They're America's team. Their fan base is unique in the sense that it doesn't matter if you're at home or away, you usually have the majority of fans in every stadium. When your plane lands, anywhere else in the country, you know you're going to have Cowboys fans waiting for your plane, cheering you on as you walk into the hotel.
I would say that was really the turning point of my career in the sense that when I was at the Raiders, I was just trying to find myself and get up to speed on how the NFL works and what it takes to be competitive. I would say when I hit Dallas was really when I grew and took the next step and was able to fall into my way of playing a little bit more and develop. That was probably the highlight and some of the best years of my career.
Have you got one most memorable play from your career?
I would say I have two most memorable plays. The first one was a third and long against the New England Patriots when I was with the Cowboys, I believe it was in 2015. I sacked Tom Brady, who I believe is the greatest quarterback to play the game. That was a huge play for me.
The second would be an interception I got when I was with the Atlanta Falcons. As a defensive lineman, you're not looking for interceptions, but it was just a one-off play. The quarterback I guess didn't see me running back, and I cut off the pass and caught it for interception. I didn't know what to do with the ball. The quarterback ended up tackling me, but that was a pretty memorable moment.
Have you got a favourite teammate from your career?
I've played with so many good guys. Even though we don't keep up with each other as much as I would like, we've developed a bond where we could speak after a year and pick up like it's been only a couple of days.
The player that comes to mind, I would say Tyrone Crawford. I played with him on the Cowboys, he became a real close friend to me. We still talk and catch up now and then.
Another one is Grady Jarrett. I played with him at the Falcons. He's still playing. We just got along really well when I was there.
But there's countless others, I still talk to a bunch of guys in the league. Now, with some younger players, I try and be a mentor to them and help them when they're not doing so well, and then celebrate them when they are.
Who was the toughest opponent you faced during your career?
There's more than one. One who I went up against a lot in practice was Zack Martin. He's made it to countless Pro Bowls, just an all-around great player, great guy. Super strong, his balance is elite.
Secondly, I would have to say Tyron Smith, who is the biggest freak of a human being I've ever met in my life. He's just the strongest person I've ever been around. I was a 275lb defensive lineman, and I've never felt like a little kid before until I met Tyron Smith and been a victim of his grip strength.
You lived in a few different places over the course of your career, was there one city that you particularly loved?
They were all unique in their own way. The Bay Area was the most beautiful place I've ever seen. Dallas was unique. It's spread out. The fan base really made that a unique experience for me. And Atlanta was a fun experience.
It's hard to say which one I like best. If I had to pick one it would be Atlanta because it's the least spread out of all the cities and I lived there for the longest.
Who do you think is the most dominant defensive end right now?
Right now, the most dominant defensive end is Myles Garrett. He's a freak athlete who doesn't have many weaknesses.
Are there any young DEs you've got your eye on?
Aidan Hutchinson. He seems like he's just born and bred to play defensive end in Michigan.
Obviously, Micah Parsons is still young, but he's already a force.
It's a tough position to predict who's going to end up being good or not. That's the thing about playing defensive end in the NFL, you have some players who may not do well in the first couple of years, and then they end up playing at All Pro level. Then you might have some guys who peak in their first couple of years, and then they end up falling off.
If you could play for one current NFL team, who would it be?
Dallas Cowboys. I can see them having fun on the defensive line at the moment. Aden Durde, the defensive line coach, is English-born and raised. He's one of those responsible for taking the game to another level over here. And the defensive coordinator is Dan Quinn, who I'm very familiar with from Atlanta.
Who's going to win the Super Bowl next season?
That's a tough question. Maybe the 49ers. It seems as though they have a fairly young team, they've got so much energy and they don't have many weaknesses.
What was your combine experience like?
The combine was absolutely terrible. It's so long. You're up at five o'clock in the morning.
The purpose of the combine is mainly for medical reasons, teams just want as much time with the players they're interested in as possible. They want to check all your previous injuries, your medical history. They want to go through interviews.
You could be at lunch and then all of a sudden a team wants to talk to you, you have to drop lunch, of course, and go and speak to the team. Your time is not really yours. You just want it to be over as soon as you get there.
My experience with the actual combine, overall I was pretty happy with my performance. I left feeling good, it was just a pretty exhausting three-day experience. I'm pretty sure that after one day, every player is ready to go home.
Was there a drill that you enjoyed the most?
I would say probably the three-cone drill, just because I just scored best in it. Anything to do with speed, change of direction, or burst, I felt pretty confident in for my size. The competition I had, I felt pretty good about it. That was probably my best.
Was there one you found particularly tough?
Oh yeah, bench press. I didn't even do bench press, because I knew I would have got such a low score, because my shoulder strength was still suffering from college injuries. I just never was a strong bench press person, but if you don't do bench press, they still make you go up on the stage and tell all the NFL scouts that you're not going to do it for whatever reason. So you can't get out of the embarrassment of having to go up there and say that.