FORMER VIKINGS QB TACKLES ILLNESS
When we think back to the great quarterbacks in Portland State history, the names Neil Lomax, June Jones, Tim Von Dulm, Jimmy Blanchard and John Charles spring to mind.
But don't sleep on Chris Crawford.
If ever there were a PSU signal-caller with the Midas touch, it was Crawford, the maestro of the greatest back-to-back seasons in the annals of Viking football.
During Crawford's junior and senior seasons under the late, great Pokey Allen, Portland State went 22-5-2 and twice made it to the NCAA Division II championship game.
"I knew who he was going to be from the first time I met him," says Barry Naone, PSU's tight end during the Crawford era. "From the moment he came into the huddle in the fourth quarter during a game our freshman year, I thought, 'Craw is going to be the guy.'"
For three seasons on the park blocks, Crawford was.
An undersize left-hander out of Sunset High — he arrived as a 5-10, 160-pound freshman — Crawford made up for any lack of physical skills with uncanny savvy, a will to win and the guts of a cat burglar.
"What a leader," Naone says. "Great personality. Didn't take himself too seriously. And one heck of a quarterback.
"He's still the same guy after all these years. It's amazing the things he's gone through, but it hasn't changed him."
Indeed. Superman had his kryptonite, and Crawford's immune system let him down.
In 2010, he was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), the precursor to leukemia. The next year, he underwent a bone marrow transplant, which required pretransplant treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation.
In 2016, due to complications from MDS, Crawford had lung surgery.
It hasn't been an easy go.
If you think Crawford wants your sympathy, think again.
"People go through things a lot worse," he says. "I'm a fortunate man."
Who recruited Crawford as an all-state quarterback out of Sunset?
"Wyoming gave me a few calls," Crawford, now 50, says with a laugh over a recent cup of coffee. "I think Washington State called once. There were no other offers. Portland State was very kind."
The Vikings offered books and tuition. By the time he was a sophomore starter at QB, that got upgraded to a full ride.
By the time he was through, Crawford — grown to 6-0 and 190 — was a first-team All-American and a two-time team captain and all-Western Football Conference selection, accounting for 7,258 yards total offense and 7,543 yards passing. He still ranks third on both PSU career lists behind Lomax and Blanchard, and in 1998 he was inducted into the school's Athletics Hall of Fame.
Crawford was recruited by Don Read and played as a backup his freshman year under the coach as the Vikings went 4-5-1.
Then Allen came aboard. Portland State went 6-5 his first season, including 4-2 in WFC action. Over the next two seasons, PSU was 12-0 in conference games and became a force on the D-II level.
"Pokey's leadership qualities, his charisma, his ability to motivate a team were tremendous," Crawford says. "And he had a great coaching staff, including (offensive coordinator Alan) Borges. They taught us a lot and got us pointed in the right direction."
The Vikings of those years ran a balanced pro-style offense, featuring Curtis Delgardo at running back, Brian Coushay and Tim Corrigan at receiver, and Naone at tight end.
"If we needed 10 yards, I'd throw it to Barry, and it was an automatic first down," Crawford says.
Allen had showmanship, too, and it helped catch the interest of sports fans in the City of Roses.
In the 1987 playoffs at Civic Stadium, the Vikings drew 19,363 for a 27-21 win over Mankato State and 17,795 for a 13-7 victory over Northern Michigan. The next year, 13,934 watched a 21-0 whitewash of Montana and 14,263 were on hand for a 52-24 rout of Southern Utah. In the playoffs, a throng of 21,079 witnessed a 35-27 triumph over Texas A&M Kingsville. Those remain among the top 20 home crowds in PSU history.
"The Ducks and Beavers were having a little trouble in those years, and we picked up a lot of interest," Crawford says. "Things were electric for games in that stadium. There was so much energy."
There was to be no pro football for Crawford, who a few years after graduation settled into a job with Nike. He is in his 26th year working for the company, currently as an executive in footwear for football, baseball and softball. Crawford works closely with the company's design, production and development for products that go to teams across the country as well as retail.
"I've been very fortunate to work in many sections of Nike, from sales to marketing to development and now product," he says.
Through the years, Crawford has stayed in touch with the PSU program, attending a few home games a year with his former teammates while developing at least a casual relationship with each of the head coaches.
Crawford remained physically active, keeping in shape through a variety of sports activities. Then came the routine annual physical in 2010 that changed his life.
Crawford had no symptoms or warning signs that anything was wrong when he went in for the physical exam.
"I prided myself on being healthy, on rarely being sick," he says.
The blood test showed abnormalities in his system. Crawford was sent to a specialist for a bone marrow biopsy, after which he learned he had MDS.
A donor — and a perfect match — was found in a 23-year-old man living in Europe. "A miracle," Crawford says.
To prep his body for the bone marrow transplant, Crawford underwent about 20 rounds of chemotherapy and one of radiation.
"Fortunately, it wasn't bad for me — and I'm not trying to be a hero," he says. "I would get treatment after work, go home, lay down for a little bit and then go greet my kids at the bus stop."
Over the next few years, Crawford dealt with various health issues in relation to the MDS. Complications with his lungs required surgery last year.
"Your body is sometimes rejecting the new cells," he says. "I'm constantly affected by that. It can rear its head in the digestive system, eyes — the soft tissue within my body. I'm not flexible. Can't move my arms very well."
Through battling the illness, Crawford has lost weight. He is down to about 145 pounds, though he believes he has hit bottom.
"My strength is coming back," he says. "I play golf now, though it's not pretty. I'm going to start going back to the gym. It definitely plays with your mind as far as what you feel you can do. It's been a good challenge."
Crawford has accepted the challenge with help from his family and a strong circle of friends.
Family includes his wife of 26 years, Kristen, children Payton, 21, and Carson, 18, older brothers Dennis and Mark, and his mother, 93-year-old Betty.
Payton, a student at Oregon, works as an intern in digital media with the Ducks' football program. In the summers, she volunteers as a counselor at Camp Kesem, which supports children affected by their parents' cancer.
Carson, who quarterbacked at Beaverton High and was honored as the Metro League Offensive Player of the Year last season, is redshirting as a freshman receiver at UC Davis.
"I can't tell you how much their support has meant for me as I go through this," the senior Crawford says.
Crawford's philosophy in dealing with his health issues is simple.
"Remain positive," he says. "When I was in the hospital (in 2011), I never asked, 'Why me?' I would give myself 30 minutes of what I called it my 'F.U.' time.
"I could cry, I could yell, I could scream for 30 minutes. I could go negative, I could go dark for 30. Then I had to pull out of it and go. That's been my practice for the last six years. I'm going to remain positive and trust that all things will work out."
Much to the admiration of family and friends, such as Naone.
"Going through what he's gone through, dealing with your mortality, it would be extremely difficult," says Naone, who also works at Nike. "He's had his ups and downs. He just grinds through it. His kids are a great motivation in his life. He is actively engaged in their lives, and they in his.
"I've worked with some people on his current team at Nike. They all say the same things about him — that he's a great leader, a great person. I think the work has helped him get through this, too. He's working in a category — football and baseball — that is true to his heart. He feeds off the energy he gets from work."
Crawford doesn't know what his future holds, but he knows his medical team will do its best. He praises Dr. Gabrielle Meyers at Oregon Health & Science University.
"I have the best doctor," he says. "She's an angel."
Crawford is treated with a variety of medications. Within the last year, he has had to have fluid drained from around his heart and lungs.
"It affects my body's flexibility," he says. "My kids and friends make fun of me. That's good."
Crawford has always been a competitor, and he's not backing down now.
"In a weird way, sports and football have helped prepare me to battle this disease and deal with my health issues," he says.
There's a reality to the situation, and also plenty of reasons to remain upbeat.
"This is something I'll deal with for the rest of my life," he says. "It's not something that's going to go away. It's just stuff you have to deal with. There are a lot of people who have to deal with much worse than me. I get along just fine.
"I work every day. I play golf on the weekends. I feel better than I did a year ago. You take it one day at a time. You get up every morning and go."
It's always been that way with Chris Crawford. That won't change.
"I'm blessed," he says.