TAILBACK JIM CRAWFORD EPITOMIZED 'COWBOY TOUGH'
used with permission from writer Bob Hammond, Laramie Boomerang
LARAMIE, Wyo. — There are various theories on the origin of the term "Cowboy Tough."
Regardless of the source, one guy fits the mold: the University of Wyoming's former All-American tailback, Jim Crawford.
He was a rodeo cowboy, a UW Cowboy and was nicknamed "cowboy."
And the Greybull native was as tough as they come.
Just ask former teammate John Watts, who was wingback in the same backfield as Crawford in the mid-1950s.
"Jim was the toughest SOB who ever walked," said Watts, a Ruleville, Miss. native, said with a Southern drawl. "He played injured his whole senior year and never complained. He would just duck his head and run hard. He was a horse."
Watts remembers one instance in UW's 21-14 victory over Texas Tech in the 1956 Sun Bowl.
The Cowboys were on the Red Raiders' 5-yard line and needed two yards for a first down. Crawford carried two players, who weighed some 245 pounds apiece, for three yards and that first down.
"That's the only time I ever heard Jim say anything," Watts said. "He came back to the huddle and said, 'Boy, you think that wasn't hard?'"
Watts said Crawford was not only a football player and competitor, but he was also a great all-around athlete.
Early in Crawford's time at UW, a promoter brought in a police boxing team from Denver for exhibition matches with the locals. They set up a ring in the armory with the dirt floor in the back of the Half Acre.
"The Denver team didn't have a heavyweight to box Teddy Shaffer, Two-Bar Teddy from out at Tie Siding. He was a guard out there," Watts said. "So they coerced (Crawford) to get in the ring with him. Teddy was dancing around trying to hit Jim, and Jim threw one punch - whop! You could hear that all over the place, and that was the end of the fight."
When it came to football, Crawford was something special, especially at UW.
He rushed for 1,775 yards during his three-year career while helping the Cowboys to a record of 24-7, including a 10-0 mark in 1956.
During his senior year in 1956, Crawford emerged as one of the nation's best running backs. That season he was the NCAA rushing yardage leader with 1,104 yards.
Among the running backs he beat out were Jim Brown of Syracuse and Tommy McDonald of Oklahoma.
He was selected as the Skyline Conference's Back of the Year. But more importantly, he was named to the All-America team that included the likes of Brown, McDonald, Paul Hornung (Notre Dame), John David Crow (Texas A&M), Johnny Majors (Tennessee), John Brodie (Stanford), Jim Parker (Ohio State), Alex Karras (Iowa) and Ron Kramer (Michigan).
"It's hard to remember that far back," Crawford said. "But my time in Laramie, it was all a good time. I had a good coach, good teachers and good teammates. It was a good experience."
Following his time at UW, Crawford spent two years in the Army, where he played football, and then he went on to play in the old American Football League with the Boston Patriots (1960-64).
In his five-years with the Pats, he rushed for only 1,078 yards and caught passes for 501 yards. It was not a good time in his football life.
"I don't have a lot of good things to say about it," Crawford said. "The coach (Lou Saban) kind of took advantage of me. He made me put on a lot of weight and everything, and it hurt me.
"Saban was pretty knowledgeable, but it was all politics in those days. That's how he got his job."
Crawford began to rodeo at a young age in Greybull, and continued that throughout most of his football career. That probably had a lot to do with his toughness.
"I entered all the events at one time or another," he said. "I ended up riding bulls and bulldogging. That kind of came to an end when I had a horn run up my nose".
Crawford says he quit rodeoing when he went to the Patriots, but Mary, his wife of 38 years, said that wasn't quite the case.
"He was still competing in some of the old-timers' rodeos," she said. "He may have quit the riding events, but he was still bulldogging, calf roping and team roping."
It was at a rodeo in Greybull during the summer of 1962 that Jim and Mary met.
"I was sitting on the fence when he came over and asked me if I would go to a dance," she said. "So that was the beginning of it all."
With the exception of the last three years, the Crawfords spent their married life on their ranch near Greybull. It had an indoor roping arena that hosted many events.
Following his pro football career, Crawford spent 25 years as an engineer on the Burlington Northern Railroad. During his off time, he worked for several outfitters as a hunting guide. The Crawfords also operated their own hunting camp.
The Crawfords' active involvement in the rodeo scene ended for the most part on Oct. 18, 1991, when their only son, Lee James, was killed in a plane crash over the Yellowstone River.
Lee Crawford had left the family's hunting camp to perform in the Nile Rodeo in Billings, Mont. He was biding his time between performances when he and a couple of friends decided to tour the area in a plane. It hit a guide line and went down.
"You never get over that," Mary Crawford said. "We kind of lost interest in (rodeo) after we lost our son."
These days the 76-year-old Crawford leads a mundane life in Lusk after moving there to be closer to his youngest daughter, Jamie, and 6-year-old granddaughter Fallon. "She is the joy of Jim's life right now," Mary Crawford said. "She keeps him busy."
Since moving to Lusk, Crawford has slipped into a daily routine. That includes walks to the senior center to play pool with friends. He also likes to play checkers, but he can't get anybody to compete with him.
"He never lets anybody else win," Mary said with a chuckle.
Watts said Crawford has been somewhat forgotten due to the passing of time, even when it comes to UW, where he was the second bonafide All-American after end Dewey McConnell (1951).
"I don't think Jim has ever gotten his due," Watts said. "He is, and probably will be, the only Wyoming native ever to lead the nation in rushing."
Watts added that Crawford was one of the best to come out of the Phil Dickens era (1953-56), when UW went 29-11-1 - a winning percentage of 72 percent, the best in school history.
"We had a lot of Wyoming cowboys, Southern rednecks and Brooklyn (Italians) on those teams," Watts said with a laugh. "We couldn't even speak the same language when we came to Wyoming, but when we left, we were joined at the hip.
"It was the rise of the brand. We played for Wyoming and we were Wyoming Cowboys."
The Crawford File - Where are they now?
Where he now resides:
Married to Mary (1963). they have three children - Lee James (deceased), Jodie (works for the city of Worland and has a small cattle ranch) and Jamie (teaches math at Lusk Middle School and has a small horse ranch).
Retired. Played five years in the NFL before working 25 years as an engineer for the Burlington Northern Railroad. He was also a hunting guide for 25 years.
Rodeoing, hunting, playing pool and checkers.
Three-year letterman in football (tailback).
One of the nation's best running backs during his senior season. Earned All-American honors in 1956 and was the NCAA rushing leader with 1,104 yards. Selected Skyline Conference Back of the Year. Rushed for 103 yards on 18 carries and was voted most valuable payer in the 1956 Sun Bowl as UW beat Texas Tech 21-14. Rushed for 1,775 career yards.
More details on Jim Crawford's induction into the University of Wyoming Hall of Fame may be found at UW Athletics Hall of Fame