The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Local News

August 12, 2013

Croyle reaches out to county school employees

CAPSHAW — Big Oak Ranch founder and former University of Alabama football star John Croyle twice delivered a stirring speech Monday during the annual employee workshop hosted by Limestone County Schools at East Limestone High School.

More than 1,000 county school employees, ranging from teachers and central office workers to bus drivers and cafeteria workers, filled the school gym during morning and afternoon sessions, as Croyle paced the stage and implored the audience to show love and respect for students from all backgrounds.

Both of his speaking engagements drew prolonged standing ovations while moving many in the audience to tears with stories about disadvantaged and abused children at Big Oak Ranch.

Croyle, the father of former Crimson Tide and NFL quarterback Brodie Croyle, opened a children’s home for boys in 1974, and also operates a girls’ home in Gadsden and Westbrook Christian Academy in Rainbow City.

Croyle, who is known around the state as “Big John” for his passion for helping children and his 6-foot, 6-inch stature, shared that his 30-year-old son recently decided to sell his house and follow in his father’s footsteps with the goal of eventually taking over operations for Big Oak. After receiving advice from his college coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, John decided to start helping children rather than pursue a professional playing career.

“I knew God had a plan for my life,” said Croyle. “I was 23 years old, and I got chosen to build a home for kids.”

Croyle said he and his wife, Tee, have assisted nearly 2,000 children in 39 years, with 114 currently living in a Big Oak home and 32 attending college.

He told the educators and staff personnel “there’s no such thing as a bad kid,” and urged them not to allow a bad day or a child’s background affect how they treat students.

“I don’t care who you are — be kind to students. I don’t care how bad your day was because I can show you a child who really had a bad day,” said Croyle, who related heartbreaking stories about three young girls who endured rotating sexual abuse from their own grandfather and a beaten boy who received one visit from his father in 25 years.

Croyle said money or the prestige of a degree does not matter to children, and that they want “to know that you love them, and know that you believe in them.”

“(Students) don’t look at your billfold or at your walls. They’re going to look at the windows to your souls,” said Croyle, who spent some of his elementary school days relegated to a closet and labeled as “a disruption” and “a bad kid” when he struggled to deal with the aftermath of watching a tombstone crush his sister when he was 5 years old.

He credited the positive impact of a school custodian and his third-grade teacher for helping him cope with the tragedy, despite school officials being unaware of his sister’s death.

Deana Hollaway, a psychometrist for the Limestone school system, said Croyle’s keynote address during the morning session “gave her chills.”

“He gave us a reminder of some of the children and where they are coming from, and he really shared about himself and his experiences,” said Hollaway. “He reminded us that we can really impact children. When school starts Monday, we all have a mission to carry out for all students.”

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