Southern Miss football coaches raved over defensive lineman Rod Crayton’s improvement over the past year, loving that he lost almost 40 pounds and got himself in great physical condition.
While proud of him, they didn’t seem totally surprised.
That’s because Crayton has overcome odds before, in a way that is almost unbelievable.
Crayton was in the third grade when “I got stuck up under a lawnmower.”
Much of his right foot was amputated.
“Everybody was standing around me crying,” he said.
Crayton was the tough one.
“Wipe your face off,” he told his relatives.
But they were realists. Or thought they were.
“After the first surgery, my grandmomma said I wasn’t going to be able to play again,” Crayton said.
Nine years later, he was named the Alabama Class 4A Lineman of the Year.
Five years after that, as a senior, he is one of the leaders on the Southern Miss defensive unit.
“His strength is definitely his biggest asset,” USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. “On the line of scrimmage, at the point of attack, he does a great job of that. He does a great job of taking two a lot of times. Any time you take two, it frees up a linebacker. That’s something he does a really great job of. He’ll shed blocks as strong as he is and make the play in the backfield.”
In the three seasons prior to 2017, Crayton — in 24 games played — had made 8 solo tackles and 16 assists for a total of 24 tackles. He had made one tackle for loss.
This season, Crayton — in eight games — has made nine solo tackles and 11 assists for a total of 20 tackles. He has made 4.5 tackles for loss.
“He’s been huge for us,” Pecoraro said. “He’s somebody that, on a weekly basis, we heavily depend on. Last year, I don’t know if we really depended on him.
“Now, he’s made a lot of big-time plays. He does a great job on the front for us. He’s come a long way. The light bulb finally came on for good and he knows that this is his time and he’s taken advantage of that fully.”
Crayton said he knew this season would be his last go around in college. So in the past year, the 6-foot-1 native of Dadeville, Ala., lost from 325 pounds to 287, runs extra wind sprints, hits the weight room as much as possible and even posted one of the highest grade point averages on the entire team.
He said he feels both faster and stronger. It was a lot to overcome. That hasn’t stopped Crayton in the past.
“Let it motivate me,” he said. “Beat the odds. That’s the approach I always took.
“You don’t always feel 100 percent. You hurt. Ain’t no sense to cry about it. Just like in life, some might be hurting, you can’t just sit there and want somebody to feel sorry for you. You’ve got to move on. You got to take your pain as a man. That’s how I look at it. I try to never let my pain stop me.
“Believe in yourself. Go about your business and work. Anybody else ain’t gonna see your dream. But as long as you see it and believe in yourself, you can do anything you want to do. So what if you hurt? So what if you have people doubting you? Do what you want to do.”
Crayton does get a little help, from his prosthetic foot. But it’s something that is pretty unique to the USM senior, and it’s a work in progress.
“You ain’t got just nobody playing football, especially in the middle, playing defensive line with a prosthetic in,” he said. “You know how big offensive linemen are. My body weight, their body weight, it ain’t good news to the prosthetic. They’re looking at it and trying to find better ways to do it.
“They make them a lot lighter now. They’re starting to make them where they actually bend, actually flex when I run. So that’s been helping me a lot. It’s the last thing on my mind when I’m on the field.”
Crayton’s story is quite a lesson about life.
And he hopes that lesson carries over Saturday night, when the Golden Eagles play at Southeastern Conference team Tennessee.
“I don’t care who we play,” Crayton said. “I don’t care what conference you’re in. I want our team to dominate. I want our team to execute on all phases of the game. To prove a lot of people wrong.”
It has happened before.
“I want to leave out of here with the best season I’ve had,” Crayton said. “If we keep going to work every week, anything is up for grabs. Anything can happen.”
Seeing Crayton, that’s totally believable.
Who: Southern Miss vs. Tennessee
When: 6:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Knoxville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WBUV 104.9 FM