These days, it is highly unusual to find a college athlete who plays more than one varsity sport and never more than two.
Eddie Crawford, surely one of the most versatile and talented athletes in Ole Miss history, excelled in four. Crawford, as kind and gentlemanly as he was athletic, died Sunday in Tupelo. He was 82, and he was beloved by several generations of Ole Miss Rebels.
Crawford played football, baseball, basketball and ran the sprints for the Ole Miss track team from 1953 until 1956. At all he tried athletically, Crawford excelled.
Later, after a brief pro football career, he served his alma mater in many capacities, ranging from head basketball coach to assistant football coach to senior associate athletic director.
“Eddie Crawford has given more than he received,” Ole Miss Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat said in a university realease. “Intangible contributions are difficult to measure, but Eddie’s fingerprints are found across the life of the university and in the lives of our students. He will not be replaced, but he will be remembered and missed.”
Crawford starred as a halfback and defensive back for coach Johnny Vaught’s 1954-56 football teams that won 26 games and played in both Sugar and Cotton Bowls. Known as the “Rebel Clipper,” Crawford helped lead the Rebels to back-to-back Southeastern Conference titles in 1954 and 1955. Crawford had a three-year career rushing average of 6.4 yards per carry and also averaged 31.0 yards per kickoff return, which remains a school record. A two-way player, he also played a vital role in the Rebels leading the SEC in total defense in 1954 and 1956.
For four years, he was the Ole Miss center fielder in baseball, leading the SEC in home runs and making All-Conference as a senior. In 1954-55, he was a standout for the Ole Miss basketball team and also competed in sprint events for the Rebels track team.
He turned down bonus money from the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team to return and play his senior season of football for Vaught, a story we’ll get to later.
A typical February day for Crawford in 1955: Classes all morning, batting practice at noon, spring football practice at 2 and a basketball game or practice that night.
“It’s a shame,” Crawford once told me, when asked about today’s youth choosing one sport at an early age. “I hate to see it. If you have ability at more than one and you enjoy them, you ought to experience all you can.”
Crawford experienced plenty in his life, including a 60-year marriage to the former Shirley Wagner, who was the head cheerleader at the same time her future husband was scoring touchdowns and hitting home runs.
Theirs was a whirlwind romance. Fifty years later, Crawford told about trying without success to get a date with Shirley.
“I kept asking, and she kept saying no,” Crawford said.
Then, on a Saturday night at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, his junior season, Crawford scored four touchdowns to help Ole Miss win a huge football game against LSU.
That night, amid the wild, post-game celebration, Eddie asked Shirley still again for a date. That time, she said yes.
The two wanted to get married the following summer. Problem was, Vaught had a rule against married players. Nevertheless, Crawford summoned up the courage to go ask Vaught if he could be an exception.
“Coach said, ‘No,’” Crawford said almost a lifetime later. “When he said no, he meant no.”
Crawford could have gotten married and paid for the honeymoon with bonus money and from the Brooklyn Dodgers. He did not.
“No way I was going to cross Coach Vaught,” he would say.
So Crawford returned to Ole Miss and helped the Rebels to a 14-13 Cotton Bowl victory over TCU in his his last football game as a Rebel. Naturally, he sealed the victory with a late pass interception. He and Shirley then got married, and then he signed an NFL contract with the New York Giants.
Crawford played offensively and defensively as a rookie for the Giants in 1957. His offensive coordinator was Vince Lombardi; his defense coordinator, Tom Landry.
He separated his shoulder that first season. Shirley was pregnant, and Crawford decided to go into coaching. Vaught had a job waiting for him at Greenville High School with the understanding Crawford would one day be back at Ole Miss.
Shirley Crawford was thrilled, but less thrilled when she found a letter in the mailbox in a New York Giants envelope with Lombardi’s name in the return address.
Lombardi wanted Crawford back in 1958, said he had big plans for Eddie, and offered a raise.
Eddie Crawford found out about the letter decades later.
“I don’t know how I misplaced that letter but I did,” Shirley Crawford once told me, laughing.
So I asked Eddie about it.
“No regrets here,” said Eddie Crawford, a man with few, if any, regrets.
A visitation is set for Wednesday, July 12, from 4-7 p.m. in the Waller Funeral Home West Hall, located at 419 Highway 6 West in Oxford. Services are scheduled for Thursday, July 13, at 11 a.m at Oxford’s First Presbyterian Church (924 Van Buren Avenue), with burial in Oxford Memorial Cemetery.