2 NFL hopefuls trying to defy age-old concerns

The creases across Brandon Crawford’s forehead are a mark of his

experiences.

He played college football. He survived boot camp in the

Marines. He worked on an automotive parts assembly line, and he’s

not about to let some age-old question deter his lifelong

dream.

The 33-year-old defensive end has a message for scouts: He’s not

too old to play in the NFL.

“I believe I have a shot at getting drafted,” Crawford said

this week after working out in Indy. “If you turn on the film, it

doesn’t lie. My age might make some people put a blinder on, but I

think you’ve got to see the film first.”

Getting noticed, at Crawford’s age, will be his most difficult

challenge yet.

Impossible? No. NFL teams have on occasion drafted older

players.

Former Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Chris

Weinke was 28 when he was taken by the Carolina Panthers in 2001.

In 1964, the Dallas Cowboys selected Navy’s Roger Staubach knowing

the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback couldn’t play for five years

because of his military commitment. Staubach arrived at training

camp in 1969 as a 27-year-old rookie and went on to have a Hall of

Fame career.

Crawford, however, doesn’t fit the high-profile, award-winning

quarterback model. Lacking that hype, he asked the St.Vincent

Sports Performance program to help him make an impression.

Of the 16 players in this year’s workout class in Indy, just

three – Indiana safety Nick Polk, Purdue cornerback David Pender

and James Madison guard Dorian Brooks – have one of the coveted 329

invitations to next week’s NFL Combine.

Everyone else is still trying to prove themselves.

Boise State tight end Richie Brockel wants to show scouts his

injured left foot is healthy. Indiana linebacker Will Patterson

must demonstrate that he’s big enough to succeed in the NFL. Former

Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli is back, looking for a

second chance after getting cut by the Arizona Cardinals two years

ago. Morelli, who will be 25 in June, insists he’s not just

older.

“I’ve gotten bigger, faster, stronger, I’m jumping better,” he

said. “I think the chances are pretty good, I just need to get in

front of some people.”

Morelli will do that next Friday in Indy when he holds a

personal workout on the same day this year’s big-name quarterbacks,

receivers and running backs are measured and take tests during the

combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But in a numbers league, age matters, a lot.

It’s why many teams avoid signing worn-down 30-year-old running

backs. It’s the reason once-dominant cornerbacks move to safety, or

big-play receivers suddenly find themselves playing in the slot.

Teams know that younger players typically have less wear and tear

on their bodies, possess more speed and cost less than those

30-something veterans.

Such concerns about age could be enough to keep Morelli and

Crawford off teams’ draft boards.

“I don’t think you want to draft somebody in the first round if

they’re 27 years old,” said Gil Brandt, a retired NFL executive

who drafted Staubach and Chad Hennings out of the Air Force

Academy. “But if you’re signing anybody as a free agent, I don’t

think it makes any difference. All they’re looking for is someone

that can improve your football team. And there are some guys that

do that when they’re 27.”

Morelli and Crawford count themselve among that group.

Crawford, who grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., learned life’s

lessons the hard way.

As a high school senior, he was getting scholarship offers from

mid-major schools and if football didn’t work out, he still had

financial aid from the 21st Century Scholar program. All that

changed when he jumped into a friend’s car for a ride to Pizza Hut.

One problem: The car was stolen, Crawford was arrested and his

college dream disappeared.

After graduating in 1996, he went to work in a factory until

enlisting in the Marines in 1999. Crawford got through boot camp at

Camp Pendleton in California and was stationed in North Carolina

during the Sept. 11 attacks.

Soon he was deciphering messages, typing up deployment orders

for his friends and gaining a new perspective on life.

“It made me realize that people just don’t pay attention to the

military and the things they do,” Crawford said. “People in this

country don’t realize how fortunate they are to sit down and watch

TV or to go to the movies. It made me thankful for the things we

have and to be thankful to be part of this country.”

It was one reason Crawford asked Ball State to give him a second

chance.

What Crawford did with the Cardinals was nothing short of

remarkable. He finished his career with 39 consecutive starts,

including two bowl games, and then went back to work to make the

NFL.

Since football season ended in November, Crawford has added 15

to 20 pounds of lean muscle. He expects to be measured at 6-foot-3,

275 pounds, prototypical NFL size for a defensive end, at the

school’s March 4 pro day.

Those who know Crawford best say his greatest contributions do

not show up in the numbers.

“He works hard, he leads, he’s got a good framework of where

he’s been,” said Ralph Reiff, director of St.Vincent’s workout

program. “He’s added a lot to this.”

Morelli’s career path strayed from the norm, too.

Since getting cut by the Cardinals two years ago, Morelli bided

his time by working out on his own, coaching quarterbacks at

Pittsburgh’s Plum High School and helping his uncle with

construction jobs.

All the while, Morelli maintained the dream of playing football.

Morelli’s wife finally persuaded him to move back to Indy, where

he’s been getting help from former NFL quarterback Jack

Trudeau.

“I’m only 24 years old, and I’ve played against a lot of these

guys in college. So when it comes to age, I feel like I haven’t hit

my peak yet,” Morelli said. “I’m going to keep going until I

exhaust all my opportunities, and if I have to go play in a

lower-level league, I’m going to do that until everyone tells me to

give it up.”

Will that desire be enough for Morelli and Crawford to overcome

the perception that they’re too old?

They’ll know in a few months.

“I guess it’s kind of like an investment and you have to look

for the best return you can get from it,” Crawford said. “I’ll

let them (teams) know what my experiences have instilled in me. But

you can only talk so much to people. They really have to decide is

he more of a liability or more of an asset?”