He was a college football star in the SEC, and played for one of the greatest coaches in sports. An NFL career beckoned, but God, as John Croyle likes to tell it, had a different plan for him.
A plan to minister children at risk. Orphaned kids with no place to turn. Some who’d suffered traumas no child should ever have to endure.
Croyle grew up in Gadsden, Alabama, and suffered his own traumas. When he was five years old, his 4-year-old sister Lisa was killed in a tragic accident. “That loss has made me love more deeply,” he said.
Croyle’s father worked for Sears, and his mother was a secretary. They provided a strong foundation for him to accomplish anything we wanted with his life. And young John had plans. He decided at the age of 7 that he was going to play football at the University of Alabama, and for Coach Bear Bryant.
It’s a dream many Alabama boys have. Few live it.
By the 9th grade, Croyle was 6’3″ and a natural athlete. Excelling on the gridiron came easy to him in high school, where he was a standout. It wasn’t until his freshman year at Alabama that he faced real adversity: His knee was badly mangled, and the injury appeared to be of the career-ending variety.
Croyle, who up until that day had been a typical cocky jock, was humbled. And terrified. “I remember Coach Bryant saying, ‘What a waste, son, your career’s over,’” Croyle said.
That injury changed the course of Croyle’s life and shaped his character. “I had never had to work for anything in my life. Many, many nights I cried myself to sleep. But I worked to rehabilitate my knee.”
It took eight operations and nearly 18 months — but Croyle returned to the field. During his years at Alabama, he learned how to win. Coach Bryant made sure of that. “We lost one regular season game my last year, and we should have won that one,” said Croyle. “Winning was understood.” He played in three big bowl games, won a national championship in 1973, and was an all-SEC player.
But the desire to help young orphaned boys kept tugging at him. Croyle was 19 and working as a camp counselor in Mississippi when he met a boy in circumstances most people can’t imagine. “His mom was a prostitute, and he was her banker and timekeeper,” Croyle said. “I met him later, and he’d remembered what I’d told him and had become a Christian.”
That’s when the big idea was born: establishing a home for children like this boy. He knew what God wanted him to do with his life, but wasn’t sure what road to take to get there. He figured he’d play in the NFL for a while, save up money, then open the ranch.
He bounced the idea off the man who’d been a father figure to him at Alabama, Coach Bryant. The advice he got wasn’t what most people would expect from the man who ran what many believe was the NFL’s best farm team.
“When I told him that I wanted to pay for the home with the money I made in the NFL, Coach told me, ‘Don’t play professional ball unless you’re willing to marry it,’ ” Croyle said. “I walked out the door and never looked back.”
Bryant became an early supporter of Croyle’s dream. So, too, did friend and former teammate, John Hanna. The All-American kicked in his $30,000 signing bonus from the New England Patriots to help buy the boys’ ranch property in 1973, back when $30,000 was real money.
Big Oak Ranch began in 1974 in an old farmhouse near Gadsden. Since then, Croyle has been a father to over 2,000 orphaned, neglected and unwanted children. Through the years, children who’ve suffered from every abuse imaginable have found shelter at his ranch.
By his side from the beginning was his wife, Teresa. They raised daughter Reagan and son Brodie at the ranch: Reagan played basketball at the University of Alabama, was crowned Homecoming Queen, and modeled internationally in places like Milan, while brother Brodie starred as quarterback at Alabama and played with the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL. Both have since returned to the ranch, and are now essentially running the place.
John and Tee had a simple goal when they started the ranch: Build the finest children’s home in America. And they have. There are now three separate facilities in Northeast Alabama: Big Oak Boys’ Ranch in Gadsden, Big Oak Girls’ Ranch in Springville, and Westbrook Christian School, Inc., in Rainbow City.
Big Oak Girls’ Ranch exists today because of a girl named Shelley, Croyle explained. “I’m in the hallway of the courthouse,” said Croyle. “A girl with honey-blonde hair and green eyes is there, beaten up. Her dad had raped her while her mom held her down.” Croyle asked for custody; the judge refused because the ranch didn’t have accommodations for girls.
“I told the judge, ‘She’ll be dead in six months.’”
Croyle was wrong. “It took Shelley’s dad three months to kill her,” he said.
Today, a white plaster cast of a girl with a horse commemorates Shelley in the ranch’s Hall of Honor.
Both the boys’ and girls’ ranches are sprawling campuses with pools, tennis courts, ball fields, horses and gyms. Children live in homes that would fit into any ordinary suburban neighborhood. They live with kids of varying ages and with house parents chosen carefully by the Croyles.
“We’re like a real family,” said one girl who lives at the ranch. “There’s always something to do here.”
But the Big Oak Ranch founder also expects a lot from his kids, and demands that they shoulder their share of family responsibilities. Even the youngest residents help with chores. When they get older, they work at jobs on and off the ranch. Cars, donated by generous donors, are available to those old enough to drive, but the kids have to earn the money to buy them and pay for insurance.
Croyle refers to the ranch kids as his sons and daughters. The ranch helps pay college tuition, too, when needed.
“And we pay for our daughters’ weddings,” said Croyle. “That’s what fathers do.”
Though they’re a half hour drive apart, the nearly 150 acres that make up the boys’ ranch and the 325 acres of the girls’ ranch share similar characteristics. Both have pristine rural landscapes, lots of rolling hills, clear lakes and meadows. Deer roam in the woods, horses graze in the pasture, geese glide about everywhere, and fish even occasionally jump out of the carefully stocked lakes.
Indeed, the ranch has the feel of a rural retreat, and that’s as Croyle intended it.
“These kids deserve the best we can provide,” he loves to tell anyone who’ll listen. It’s hard to disagree.
When children come to the ranch, they move into a 6-bedroom, 4-bath brick home with siblings and a set of house parents who’ve made a long-term commitment to provide love, structure, discipline, and faith to the children entrusted to them. The kids soon learn that someone cares about them and loves them. They also soon learn a work ethic, and financial lessons, too. They learn to be part of a family and what that means. And they learn that God is an ever-present part of their lives.
John gives every child who comes to the ranch this assurance: “I love you. I’ll never lie to you. I’ll stick with you until you’re grown. There are boundaries — don’t cross them.” He believes these four promises cover the bedrocks to parenting a child. “My job is to give them the emotional support, security and discipline they need because their parents didn’t want the job,” John Croyle explained.
He also talks a lot about setting goals and having plans, and most important, setting the right example for his kids. “You’ve got to do what’s right, and example outlives advice,” Croyle explains. “Children listen with their eyes. They don’t listen with their ears.”
Croyle also teaches his kids to stand up for themselves. He recalled a story about his daughter coming home from school when she was in the 7th grade, and telling him she punched a boy in the chest. He was 6’7” tall, and his nickname was Big’un.
“She said he was making fun of the ranch girls,” Croyle said. “I’m not condoning hitting or fighting. But I told my kids you will never get in trouble for defending someone. That’s missing today. When someone is being bullied, someone has to step in and say, ‘Stop.'”
Croyle learned a lot of his life lessons from Coach Bryant. And a lot about teaching young people.
“Coach was demanding of his players in the same way parents should be demanding of their children,” Croyle explained.
Practices were always harder than games, he said. “Coach would say, ‘If you’ll quit on Tuesday, you’re definitely going to quit on Saturday.’ We practiced so hard all week, that game day was the easiest day of the week. It’s not whether you were going to win, it’s how much you’re going to win by. In three years, we lost one regular season game a year. We were 34-4.”
“We feared Coach Bryant,” Croyle continued. “Not physical fear, and not from abuse or anything else. We were afraid to disappoint him.”
And Bryant rarely complimented his players. “I’ve copied him in this,” Croyle said. “He wasn’t one to throw out compliments. But when he did, you knew he meant it.”
And Bryant often motivated players by challenging them to do better. “One time we played LSU,” Croyle recalled. “I hit the quarterback three times just as after he threw the ball. Coach Bryant walked over to me and said, ‘When are you gonna get him?’ That’s all I had to hear. He was good at taking already motivated people and steering them the way he wanted them to go.”
Parents are not demanding enough of their children, Croyle said. “We’re raising people who give up,” he said. “It’s too easy to quit. Don’t ever, ever, ever give up.”
One of the young girls Croyle didn’t quit on, and who didn’t quit on herself, wrote a note explaining why the ranch should adopt her. Here are excerpts from what she wrote to the Big Oak Ranch:
“Please except [sic] me to the Girls Ranch … Please give me a chance. Everywhere I’ve been they din’t want me, or they were mean to me, so I understand if you don’t want me because nobody else does … My dad did bad stuff to me and my brother that I’m not proud about — drugs … through us up against the wall … I need a permanent home because I’ve been bounced back and forth 10X from house to house … you gave my brother a chance … I think I would love the BIG Oak Ranch…”
John Croyle loves to pull out that original sheet of paper from his pocket and share it with people. But the note serves another purpose: It’s a reminder of why he does what he does. That there is always another child out there who needs help.
John Croyle also loves to carry one other piece of paper around with him, with these three questions that keep him on track:
- What has God called you to do?
- Are you doing it?
- What is the fruit of questions 1 and 2?
That fruit is evident everywhere you turn at the Big Oak Ranch, in the pictures that adorn the hallways and homes. Passing through the school with Croyle late in the spring, it was a joy for this author to watch kids in the hall attempt to high-five Croyle, who towers over them — and me — at 6’7.
The love in the room is apparent, as is the joy. These children, all of them, owe their lives to John, Tee, Reagan and Brodie. But don’t ever say that to any of the Croyle clan, because they’ll tell you quickly you have things backwards: They owe their lives and their happiness to these children.
One thing is certain: Stories like John Croyle’s need to be told and imitated. Because the hope and change that so many social engineers and social justice warriors talk about is present at every turn at the Big Oak Ranch. And without a single penny from the government or the taxpayers. God’s love is everywhere. Cycles of despair, violence and lovelessness have been altered forever in this part of the world in Northeastern Alabama.
As for how he stays spiritually connected to God, Croyle says he tries to keep things simple, and live by 2 Corinthians 5:9: “Let this be our one ambition, whether at home or absent — to be pleasing unto him.”
Croyle is hoping he’ll inspire more men to be pleasing to God. Worldly success, he likes to remind men in particular, is fleeting.
Croyle success is anything but fleeting. He loves to tell the story of a man he bumped into in a store who was once a child of his at his ranch. “I’m in Blockbuster to get a video,” said Croyle. “A big guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, Mr. John, remember me?’ He introduces his wife. Then he says, ‘This is my baby girl.’ He said, ‘I’m a manager and my house is paid for.’ “He said, ‘Mr. John, I made it.’ ”
Croyle has learned a lot about raising kids in the 40-plus years he’s been doing it. And a whole lot about orphans. He’s got his own way of thinking about the word.
“I’ve learned there are four kinds of orphans,” John explained. “If you were raised by someone other than your biological mother or father, you are a physical orphan. If your dad has told you your whole life, ‘You’re not going to amount to anything. Can’t you do anything right?’ That’s a mental orphan. If you never had your dad hug you and say, ‘I am so proud of you,’ that’s an emotional orphan. And spiritually, we’re all orphans. And Jesus says, ‘Come and join my family.’”
John Croyle has been a father to over 2,000 orphans. He’s watched them grow into confident young people, living their lives with a hope and a purpose founded in faith. That’s some pretty remarkable fruit, and a remarkable answer to those big life questions John carries in his pocket.
“A hundred years from now it will not matter what kind of house we lived in, the kind of car we drove or how much money we had in the bank, but the world may be different because you and I were important in the life of a child.”
What a great message this Father’s Day from a man who knows more than most men about being one.
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.
This story was originally published on LifeZette.com.