Croyles honored with ASWA Presidents Award


Submitted photo: Brodie Croyle, left, and his father John.


By Ben Thomas, ASWA

Brodie Croyle never expected to return to the Gadsden area and take over Big Oak Ranch.

His father John said it never crossed his mind that his son wouldn’t come back.

Together, the two former University of Alabama football stars and their families have helped more than 2,000 abandoned, neglected and/or abused children since John Croyle opened the ranch in 1974.

“There has never been a doubt in my mind that God would provide for these children,” John Croyle said. “There has never been a question in my mind I made the right decision. I’ve never asked, ‘what if?’ This was all I ever wanted to do. I wish I could have done everything right. I haven’t, but God can and does use anyone. I fit that category.”

The Croyles were honored with the President’s Award at the 51st annual Alabama Sports Writers Association convention on June 11 at Jacksonville State University.

The award is presented to the individual – or in this case individuals – who displays outstanding community service and overall excellence while exemplifying the spirit of athletics in the state.

“So many people ask about purpose and what it means and why we do what we do,” Brodie Croyle said recently. “I think so many times we think the answer for what to do next is going to fall from Heaven like manna from the sky. God can do that, but I think a lot of times you have to take a self-audit. What were the moments in your life where God was trying to use you? As I started recapping my life and reviewing the film of my life, I realized in so many ways my passion for this came – not because I grew up there – but because it is what we were supposed to do.”

Both Croyles have a distinct story about their “why” as it involves Big Oak Ranch. An All-American defensive lineman under legendary Crimson Tide head football coach Bear Bryant in the early 1970s, Croyle said he met a boy at a summer camp in Mississippi while he was at Alabama. Croyle said he shared with the boy, whose mom was a prostitute, how to become a Christian.

“He came back the next summer and told me word for word what I had said,” the elder Croyle remembered. “I wish I could make it more complicated than that, but it’s really not. I went to see Coach Bryant my senior year and told him I was thinking about passing up pro ball to build a ranch for children. He told me to go build that ranch and don’t look back.

“In January of 1974, we were playing Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans,” said Croyle. “In August of that same year, I was sitting in front of a farmhouse we had purchased to open the ranch. It’s proof that God can use anyone.”

Brodie’s “why” happened when he was even younger. He remembers being at the ranch as a father dropped off his three children, stating his new girlfriend had forced him to choose between them and her. One of those children, Joey, clung to his father’s chest until John Croyle was able to take him into his arms.

“That little boy became my brother, [he] was in my wedding,” Brodie said. “Later in life, you start thinking every little Joey deserves a chance to break the cycle, a chance to change generations to come. My wife and I feel like our life’s calling is to give kids a chance to be the next Joeys and let them go write the story God has for them. They just need someone to give them the chance.
We’ve decided to give our lives to it. In the world of worthy goals, it’s pretty awesome to wake up and know Who you serve and know the ones He calls you to serve. It’s a pretty fulfilling life.”

After his career as a quarterback at Alabama and in the NFL ended, Brodie and his wife briefly returned to Tuscaloosa. But he ultimately decided that was not where he was supposed to be.

“The Ranch has been a huge part of my life,” he said. “I went straight from the hospital to the Ranch. The idea of going back wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. But I had a conversation with my wife when we moved back to Tuscaloosa, and I just told her I felt like the Lord was leading me back to Big Oak. She started crying. She had been praying for that for several years.”

That conversation took place a decade ago.

Three years after that, Brodie took over for his father as president and CEO of Big Oak, which includes the boys ranch in Gadsden, a girls ranch in Springville, Westbrook Christian School in Rainbow City, ASCEND in Birmingham and Planting Oaks in Springville.

“It never crossed my mind that he wouldn’t come back,” John said. “I didn’t have a doubt. It was Easter 10 years ago when he told his mom and me. He said, ‘Let’s go.’ I said, ‘Let’s go.’ It was short and sweet. The rest is history. He is in it. His wife is in it. His two boys are in it and they’ve done a phenomenal job.”

Brodie’s return also has let John, now age 72, step away into retirement.

“When my dad walked away, he walked away,” Brodie said. “There is so much wisdom in that. For the next generation to have the opportunity to lead, you have to give them that opportunity. He knew for us to move it forward, he had to hand it off and trust us. He’s been a sounding board, been full of wisdom and still is to this day, but he hasn’t been in a meeting in six or seven years. The name Big Oak came from the Bible verse Isaiah 61:13: “They shall be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He will be glorified.”

In the legacy of his father, Brodie and his family continue to work toward that goal every day.

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