Notre Dame's Shaun Crawford finds a stage to help perpetuate his football dreams

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The friendly voice on the other end of the phone suddenly turned tepid when asked if the media relations director was available/existed.

“Is this a telephone solicitor?” she mustered after the caller had clearly identified himself.

Welcome to the 2021 Hula Bowl, or at least its apparently unbreached perimeter.

For the record, there are seven staff members listed on the official website for the college football all-star game to be staged Sunday night (9:30 EST; CBS Sports Network) in Honolulu, none of whom has a title that even remotely suggests a media-related function and one of whom is clearly identified as the game’s dentist.

This is the runway for former Notre Dame safety Shaun Crawford’s pro football career — in a facility — 46-year-old Aloha Stadium — so compromised by rust that Sunday’s game could end up being the very last event it ever hosts.

Yet in some ways, it really is paradise.

For Crawford anyway, and for cornerback Nick McCloud — the two Irish invitees who are scheduled to play in a game with a rich and confusing history, with starts and stops, location and format changes.

Given NFL Draft hopefuls’ shrinking alternatives to showcase their talent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hula Bowl deserves credit for getting to the finish line in an all-star season when two such games (the East-West Shrine Bowl and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl) passed on 2021 with the hopes of resurrecting next January.

The NFL Scouting Combine, typically the pre-draft centerpiece and held in Indianapolis since 1987, will be a mishmash of online opportunities and sort of DIY workouts at pro days held on individual college campuses.

Thus, the premier showcase is undeniably the Senior Bowl, held Saturday in Mobile, Ala., with five Notre Dame players taking part: quarterback Ian Book, offensive linemen Robert Hainsey and Aaron Banks, and defensive ends Ade Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes. Wide receiver Ben Skowronek was set to join them but suffered a foot injury in practice during the week and became a bystander Saturday in Mobile.

A seventh, offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg, was invited and accepted, but he later elected not to participate for undisclosed reasons.

Taking into account Notre Dame’s nine all-stars and a handful of Irish prospects who won’t play in either game — including All-America linebacker and probable first-rounder Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and three-and-out tight end Tommy Tremble — the Irish could set a school record for the most players selected in the seven-round draft this spring.

The 2021 NFL Draft is scheduled for April 29-May 1 in Cleveland.

The NFL Draft has been in a seven-round format since 1994. Prior to that, it ranged from as few as eight to as many as 30 rounds since its inception in 1936 as a nine-round affair.

Ten Irish players were drafted in 1994, the most selected from the school in rounds 1-7. The Brian Kelly Era high is eight drafted in 2014.

The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Crawford’s versatility (he played cornerback, nickel and safety in college) and 2020 production will enhance his draftability, as perhaps will what he’s done in the practices this week leading up to Sunday’s showcase.

What he’ll have to overcome is his medical history.

The 2020 season was the first of his six in which Crawford didn’t miss a game due to an injury (or COVID for that matter). Twice (2015 and 2018) his season ended before it started, in training camp. In 2016 a torn Achilles tendon truncated that campaign five quarters in.

“My life is not that hard,” Crawford told the Tribune in 2019. “Other people are fighting for their lives.”

Crawford’s own fight should count for something.

This past season it translated into 57 tackles, tied for third on the team, behind All-Americans Owusu-Koramoah and safety Kyle Hamilton. He was credited with 4.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks, an interception, five pass breakups and a fumble recovery.

The NCAA’s blanket COVID exemption would have allowed Crawford to return for a seventh season. Instead, he opted to move on, with the next step in a game that’s older (75 years) than Hawaii’s statehood.

Former Irish Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung is counted among the Hula Bowl’s past MVPs. And fellow ND All-Americans Aaron Taylor, Todd Lyght, Ross Browner, Dave Casper, Thom Gatewood, Joe Theismann and Bob Golic are among the ND stars who dotted the Hula Bowl rosters back when it was THE postseason destination.

Bob Morton, in 2007, was the last Notre Dame player to have participated in the Hula Bowl until Crawford and McCloud made this year’s roster.

Former NFL head coaches Rex Ryan and Mike Smith will serve as the game’s head coaches for the second year in a row.

Notre Dame safety Shaun Crawford (20) celebrates after the Irish upset No. 1 Clemson, 47-40 in two overtimes, Nov. 7 at Notre Dame Stadium.