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Crocker looks to leap from AFL to NFL

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF JOHN LARIVIERE - Portland Thunder defensive back Eric Crocker intercepts a pass intended for Spokane Shock wide receiver Nick Truesdell at the Thunder goal line during Saturdays regular-season finale at Moda Center. Life has taken Eric Crocker to plenty of places. From one coast to the other and back again.

Now, the 27-year-old Portland Thunder defensive back may have found a home. Maybe. In his line of work, you almost never know.

One thing’s for sure, though: Crocker has been a key member of the inaugural Thunder team. He’s been an integral part of a defense that more often than not led the way for owner Terry Emmert’s expansion squad and helped put coach Matthew Sauk’s club into the Arena Football League postseason.

The Thunder (5-13 in the regular season) earned the No. 4 and final playoff seed in the AFL National Conference — and have a 3 p.m. PT Sunday postseason date at the No. 1-seeded Arizona

Rattlers (15-3).

The 6-2, 195-pound Crocker finished seventh in interceptions in the AFL. He picked off a team-high 10 passes and returned them for 92 yards and one

touchdown.

Crocker also finished fourth on the Thunder in tackles, with 45 solo and 14 assisted stops.

Bryce Peila, a Western Oregon University product and fellow Thunder defensive mainstay at cornerback, describes Crocker as “somebody you want to have on your team. Eric is extremely dedicated, and it shows on the field. Playing with him is, honestly, a lot of fun.

“At the same time, he’s not afraid to call anyone out and is always willing to sacrifice it all for the team. It makes me and others want to work that much harder for the team.”

While Crocker is having fun in Arena Football, he also would love to move up, and he hasn’t given up on his ultimate goal: to play in the NFL.

Peila says the main thing he has learned this season from playing alongside Crocker is “to never stop believing. The guy has been through a lot, and yet he never loses faith. You can see it in his eyes, that’s he’s dreaming for that chance to get back in the NFL.

“I have a lot of respect and love for him. I’ll be there for him whenever he needs me. What he has done, and everything he has taught me, cannot be measured.”

Crocker, a native of crime-

ridden Stockton, Calif., wound up attending three junior colleges because of poor grades. He eventually made it to the football team at Arkansas-Monticello, an NCAA Division II school.

Along the way, he lived for a while in Modesto,

Calif., having temporarily hung up his football cleats, largely so he could pursue a better life for him and his son (now age 7) Jayden “Juice” Crocker, born to

ex-girlfriend

Lorianna

Prado.

At Modesto Junior College, Crocker seriously turned things around and made the dean’s list, and over a three-year span in California he worked any and every job he could to provide for his young family — toiling in warehouses, at Babies R Us and Target, and as a security officer.

Pro football remained a dream, though, and he got an offer through a cousin, former Eastern Oregon University and San Diego Chargers running back Tyrone Gross, to come to San Antonio and play the 2012 AFL season with the AFL Talons. Gross was the Talons’ player personnel director at the time.

At San Antonio, Crocker stood out, making 70 1/2 tackles, grabbing three interceptions, forcing two fumbles and recovering three fumbles.

The Talons posted the best regular-season record (14-2) in the National Conference, and Crocker’s play caught the eye of some pro scouts— including coach Rex Ryan and the New York Jets.

One scout told Crocker that 10 NFL teams were interested in giving him a shot.

The Jets were one of those teams, and he felt most comfortable with them. New York gave him a look in 2013, signing him on March 1 before releasing him on Aug. 4.

Between came one of the biggest turning points in Crocker’s life.

Three months into Eric’s stint with the Jets, his phone rang at 8 a.m. ET on June 2, 2013.

It was his mom. “I’m thinking, it’s only 5 a.m. California time. I knew something was wrong,” he says.

His mother’s voice trembled. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” Elnora Rucker said. “Your dad died.”

Brian Crocker Sr. had succumbed to a heart attack, and the news blindsided Eric. The two of them talked every day on the phone. Eric’s dad was so thrilled that his son was in the Jets’ camp that he went to a local mall and bought 20 Jets hats.

“He was perfectly fine the day before,” Crocker says.

Crocker at least has a wonderful memory of that conversation.

“I was getting ready for practice, and I kind of rushed him off the phone,” he says. “Before he got off, he told me ‘I love you so much and am very proud of you.’ ”

Crocker will always cherish those words. He only wishes he could hear more of them from his father.

“Can’t dwell over things you can’t control,” he says. “I can’t bring my dad back. I just really miss my dad. I just want to speak with him. I talk to him through prayer, but I never get that phone call I’m waiting on.

“I don’t have my dad, that’s the hardest part. No one else really knew what was going on, because I am good at dealing with my emotions.”

To a certain degree.

The loss took something else from Crocker, the football player.

“I lost focus. Lost that hunger,” he says.

He didn’t know if he had it in him to play football anymore. Two months later, he was a free agent again, looking for work.

Crocker says he has no hard feelings about the Jets.

“I feel like they really believed in me and wanted me to succeed — I didn’t always feel that way in San Antonio,” he says.

While with the Jets, Crocker got to meet and learn from NFL standout DBs Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis.

“A dream come true,” he says. “To be in a meeting room with guys I’ve admired was unreal. Being around them was cool. Both guys were very down-to-earth.”

Crocker soon got another football break, though. It came when the new Thunder took him No. 1 in the AFL expansion draft. He jumped at the chance to suit up for the indoor game once more.

This year, the condo in Clackamas he has shared with fellow Thunder DB Dwight McClean from Purdue has become Crocker’s new home. That and the Mexican food carts he occasionally visits ... even if they don’t quite measure up to the ones back home in Stockton, he says.

“We don’t really have food carts (in Stockton), mainly just small taco trucks,” he says. Still, he rates them above Portland’s highly regarded food cart fare.

This season, Crocker stepped up his vocal game as a leader with the young Portland squad.

“It’s never really been my thing, but I’m a veteran and we have a lot of rookies,” he says. “It’s all about learning to prepare like winners, whether we win or lose. I try to keep that winning mentality around (the squad).”

This weekend’s playoff game at Arizona will be a huge challenge for Crocker and his teammates. The Rattlers swept three meetings with Portland during the regular season, winning by 29, 11 and 10 points, in that order.

Portland’s defense held opponents to 53.6 points per game this season, not bad at all by AFL standards. The offense, however, sputtered much of the season, especially early, and finished at 45.3 points per game.

Portland’s minus-8.3 point differential is markedly different from the Rattlers’ stats — a league-high 63.9 points per game scored and 50.3 allowed (sixth in the AFL), for a plus-13.6 differential.

But Crocker and the Thunder played better in the second half of the season than in the early going, and they’ll go into

Phoenix’s US Airways Center looking for the major upset.

Crocker, one of five siblings, says that if a higher-level opportunity in pro football doesn’t come his way, he would love to return to the Thunder in 2015. He also wants to continue to stay in touch with his girlfriend in Stockton, Styvie Angelo, and their 2-month-old daughter, Shayne.

Crocker’s play with the Thunder already has earned him an invitation to camp with the NFL Tennessee Titans, as soon as Portland’s 2014 AFL run is over. He’ll give it his best shot.

“Everything I do now is to support the family,” he says. “And some of it is out of your control. Like with any professional sports, even the AFL, it’s a numbers game. I’m coming into (training camp with the Titans) at the bottom. Hopefully, I get a fair shot. I’m going to work on every rep as if it’s my last. I don’t want to leave with any regrets.”

If he does come up short in his bid to stick in the NFL, “hopefully I’m back here in Portland. I love it here. I love my coaches and teammates.”




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