Keeping the faith: Inside Shaun Crawford's journey back to top of the Notre Dame depth chart

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

“Don’t ever discount the wonder of your tears. They can be healing waters and a stream of joy. Sometimes they are the best words the heart can speak.”

— William P. Young, The Shack

SOUTH BEND — Hours after a phone call from a number that started with 574 made her phone quietly pulsate earlier this week, Sabrina Crawford checked to see what she had missed.

Then she held her breath.

“When I see that area code, my heart still drops,” said the mother of Notre Dame grad senior cornerback Shaun Crawford.

A little more than a year earlier, the elementary school principal in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood was driving to the grocery store when a call from that same South Bend exchange came in at about the same time — when Notre Dame’s football practices typically conclude.

Four days before the Irish were to open the 2018 season with Michigan, the words coming from the other end of the phone told her that Shaun’s senior season was over before it started. A torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee would have to be surgically repaired.

But what about his heart?

It was the third time Shaun Crawford’s body broke down before mid-September, the third time he spent way too much of his football season watching from a hospital bed or a dorm room alone, and yet the third time he got to show the college football world what an unbroken dream looks like.

On Saturday, Crawford will be playing in just his ninth game at Notre Dame Stadium in his fifth year on campus, and starting for just the third time in a home game, when the seventh-ranked Irish (1-0) host 34½-point underdog New Mexico (1-0) at 2:30 p.m. EDT (NBC-TV).

“I took the call in August of 2015, too,” Sabrina said of the right ACL tear that deprived the then-freshman of a starting role as the nickel, or fifth defensive back, in the Irish defense.

She witnessed in person the other season-ending injury, a torn left Achilles tendon five quarters into Shaun’s sophomore season (2016), in a Notre Dame Stadium rout of Nevada.

That was the only one of the three that involved even mild contact. The two ACL tears, both sustained in practice settings, were simply the product of cutting and running — two functions that cornerbacks do every day at a high level.

In the weeks that followed the first dose of heartbreak, Sabrina gave her son a novel called “The Shack.”

“That was an amazing story of wondering why and asking why,” Shaun said this week.

And yet Shaun, Sabrina and Shaun’s dad, John, all found themselves retracing the “whys” over the past year and trying to come up with different answers.

“I think we were all attempting to be very strong, but that last time I just couldn’t understand,” Sabrina said. “There was this anger that I had, because your faith is in God, and you trust that God is going to take care of you and make everything OK. I just couldn’t get past that.

“But Shaun posted something so inspirational and resilient shortly after it happened it made me realize, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get your thought process together, because if he can do it, you can do it.’”

The only question Shaun didn’t ask himself was whether attempting a third comeback was even worth it.

Not that there weren’t tears. Not that there weren’t new depths of pain, physical and emotional. Not that a lot of unknowns lingered a lot longer than the other two rehabs — into mid-June, in fact, before normalcy started to take over.

“As long as coach (Brian) Kelly was going to give me the opportunity to and the coaches were going to give me the opportunity to, I felt why not?” Shaun said of deferring life after football.

“Just being around the team last year and seeing the team have a lot of success and do well, I just wanted to be a part of that as well.

“I had nothing to lose. I had to come back in the spring to graduate, so I felt like I’m going to be here anyways, I might as well rehab my butt off and just pay it back to all those people who helped me get to this point.

“My family … growing up they made a lot of sacrifices for me and still do. If they took a day off, I wouldn’t be here today. So I just had to pay it back to them, and pay it back to coach Kelly for even giving me the opportunity to.”

What that opportunity will look like moving forward is based more on faith than fact.

The absolute is that he can fill two roles in this moment better than anyone else on the roster — field cornerback and his old nickel spot. He’s also become a dependable rotational safety when needed.

Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea didn’t feel the need to ease Shaun back into action in the Sept. 2 season opener at Louisville, a 35-17 Irish victory.

He played in 56 of a possible 75 defensive snaps against the Cardinals. Only safety Jalen Elliott (73), fellow cornerback Troy Pride Jr. (66), safety Alohi Gilman (64) and rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (62) played more.

Shaun was credited with four solo tackles.

“Physically he came out outstanding,” Kelly said of the game’s aftermath. “I think mentally is where he feels really good. He did a lot of really good things for us at corner and at safety.

“He continues to obviously get back to where he was after a year of fighting through the injuries. So (he’s) an important piece to what we’re doing in the back end of our defense.”

In the only complete season — 2017 — in which Shaun made it almost to the finish line (he didn’t play in the Citrus Bowl win over LSU), the now 5-foot-9, 180-pounder wore down significantly in the season’s second half.

Shaun said he learned from that, and that the Irish strength-and-conditioning staff has a better game plan to attack that this time.

“While we lift and do legs, I’ll try to get a couple of extra sets in,” Shaun said, “just because I know that my body needs it and it’ll help me later in the season.”

But Shaun for the most part doesn’t look that far ahead. It’s about helping the team now. Having fun now. Enjoying health now.

“Those injuries humble you, because you’ve got to take it one day at a time,” echoed John Crawford, who gave up a career as a Cleveland police officer years ago for one in education, so he could spend more time with his sons, Shaun and Jordan. “One practice at a time. That’s all you can do. You don’t have any control over what tomorrow’s going to bring. It’s one day at a time and make the best of it.”

If there’s one piece of the future Shaun is willing to predict, it’s that he won’t apply for a sixth year of eligibility, though he’d figure to be a shoo-in even by the NCAA’s sometimes-mystifying standards.

“I didn’t plan on having a fifth,” he said.

Yet, what the road looks like behind him is the reason why so many people around Shaun Crawford believe his best football is still ahead of him, not confined to practice film in August of 2015 before he started to populate his medical chart.

“I would never count him out of anything,” said ND grad senior wide receiver and close friend Chris Finke. “Shaun from the day he got there was a playmaker, and anyone could see that. And as he’s gotten older, even through the injuries, he’s been building on that.

“I don’t think he’s lost a step, and I think he’s excited to show everyone that.”

Shaun isn’t afraid to show off the scars that coaxed the confidence of the people around him or the faith journey that included the decision to get baptized shortly after the first injury, the tattoo on his bicep of his late grandma Eleanor’s favorite bible passage from Psalm 121, or the four wristbands he wears to every practice and game that remind him how strong and how lucky he is, in context.

One of the wristbands is a tribute to a high school friend’s younger brother who died from cancer at age 7.

“My life is not that hard,” Shaun said. “Other people are fighting for their lives.”

At Cardinal Stadium a couple of weeks ago, Shaun had to fight his way through the autograph seekers and selfie takers before he could hug his parents, a battle to which he happily succumbed.

“I think it’s amusing, the attention,” John said. “He was quiet, humble, and said he was a little sore, but he was happy they won. I wonder what he’s going to feel like when he’s my age. I can see the scars. But if he’s happy, what does it matter?”

Sabrina used to see the scars too, but she’s now happily distracted by the possibilities.

“When he was making his way toward us after the game, I saw hope,” she said. “I saw strength. I saw a living testimony of what God can do.”

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Notre Dame graduate senior cornerback Shaun Crawford is expected to return from an elbow injury against Michigan this Saturday.
ABOVE: It’s been a rarity that Shaun Crawford (20) has gotten to sing the Alma Mater postgame with his teammates during an injury-filled career. LEFT: Notre Dame cornerback Shaun Crawford (20) tries to tackle Louisville’s Marshon Ford (83) on Sept. 2 at Louisville in his first game since the 2017 season.