Celebrating a Father of 2,000-Plus Orphans

This weekend and always, one dad's inspiring story deserves to be read, considered — and praised

by Lee Habeeb | Updated 27 Jul 2017 at 1:14 PM

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He was a college football star in the SEC, and played for one of the greatest coaches in sports. An NFL career beckoned, but God, as John Croyle likes to tell it, had a different plan for him.

A plan to minister children at risk. Orphaned kids with no place to turn. Some who’d suffered traumas no child should ever have to endure.

Croyle grew up in Gadsden, Alabama, and suffered his own traumas. When he was five years old, his four-year-old sister Lisa was killed in a tragic accident. "That loss has made me love more deeply," he said.

Croyle's father worked for Sears and his mother was a secretary. They provided a strong foundation for him to accomplish anything we wanted with his life. And young John had plans. He decided at the age of 7 that he was going to play football at the University of Alabama, and for Coach Bear Bryant.

It's a dream many Alabama boys have. Few live it.

By the 9th grade, Croyle was 6'3" and a natural athlete. Excelling on the gridiron came easy to him in high school, where he was a standout. It wasn't until his freshman year at Alabama that he faced real adversity: His knee was badly mangled, and the injury appeared to be of the career-ending variety.

Croyle, who up until that day had been a typical cocky jock, was humbled. And terrified. "I remember Coach Bryant saying, ‘What a waste, son, your career's over,'" Croyle said.

That injury changed the course of Croyle's life and shaped his character.  "I had never had to work for anything in my life. Many, many nights I cried myself to sleep. But I worked to rehabilitate my knee."

It took eight operations and nearly 18 months — but Croyle returned to the field. During his years at Alabama, he learned how to win. Coach Bryant made sure of that. "We lost one regular season game my last year and we should have won that one," said Croyle. "Winning was understood." He played in three big bowl games, won a national championship in 1973, and was an all-SEC player.

But the desire to help young orphaned boys kept tugging at him. Croyle was 19 and working as a camp counselor in Mississippi when he met a boy in circumstances most people can't imagine. "His mom was a prostitute, and he was her banker and timekeeper," Croyle said. "I met him later, and he'd remembered what I'd told him and had become a Christian."

John Croyle refers to the ranch kids as his sons and daughters.

That's when the big idea was born: establishing a home for children like this boy. He knew what God wanted him to do with his life, but wasn't sure what road to take to get there. He figured he'd play in the NFL for a while, save up money, then open the ranch.

He bounced the idea off the man who'd been a father figure to him at Alabama, Coach Bryant. The advice he got wasn't what most people would expect from the man who ran what many believe was the NFL's best farm team.

"When I told him that I wanted to pay for the home with the money I made in the NFL, Coach told me, ‘Don't play professional ball unless you're willing to marry it,' " Croyle said. "I walked out the door and never looked back."

Bryant became an early supporter of Croyle's dream. So, too, did friend and former teammate, John Hanna. The All-American kicked in his $30,000 signing bonus from the New England Patriots to help buy the boys' ranch property in 1973, back when $30,000 was real money.

Big Oak Ranch began in 1974 in an old farmhouse near Gadsden. Since then, Croyle has been a father to over 2,000 orphaned, neglected and unwanted children. Through the years, children who've suffered from every abuse imaginable have found shelter at his ranch.

By his side from the beginning was his wife, Teresa. They raised daughter Reagan and son Brodie at the ranch: Reagan played basketball at the University of Alabama, was crowned Homecoming Queen, and modeled internationally in places like Milan, while brother Brodie starred as quarterback at Alabama and played with the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL. Both have since returned to the ranch, and are now essentially running the place.

John and Tee had a simple goal when they started the ranch: Build the finest children's home in America. And they have. There are now three separate facilities in Northeast Alabama: Big Oak Boys' Ranch in Gadsden, Big Oak Girls' Ranch in Springville, and Westbrook Christian School, Inc., in Rainbow City.

Big Oak Girls' Ranch exists today because of a girl named Shelley, Croyle explained. "I'm in the hallway of the courthouse," said Croyle. "A girl with honey-blonde hair and green eyes is there, beaten up. Her dad had raped her while her mom held her down." Croyle asked for custody; the judge refused because the ranch didn't have accommodations for girls.

"I told the judge, ‘She'll be dead in six months.'"

Croyle was wrong. "It took Shelley's dad three months to kill her," he said.

Today, a white plaster cast of a girl with a horse commemorates Shelley in the ranch's Hall of Honor.

Related: How I Helped My Son Through the Virginia Shootings

Both the boys' and girls' ranches are sprawling campuses with pools, tennis courts, ball fields, horses and gyms. Children live in homes that would fit into any ordinary suburban neighborhood. They live with kids of varying ages and with house parents chosen carefully by the Croyles.

"We're like a real family," said one girl who lives at the ranch. "There's always something to do here."

But the Big Oak Ranch founder also expects a lot from his kids, and demands that they shoulder their share of family responsibilities. Even the youngest residents help with chores. When they get older, they work at jobs on and off the ranch. Cars, donated by generous donors, are available to those old enough to drive, but the kids have to earn the money to buy them and pay for insurance.

Croyle refers to the ranch kids as his sons and daughters. The ranch helps pay college tuition, too, when needed.

"And we pay for our daughters' weddings," said Croyle. "That's what fathers do." (click on page 2 for the rest of the story)

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