When Rob Crisp thinks about where he is now and where he could be, he realizes the toughest decision he ever had to make was the correct one.
Crisp is a sophomore on N.C. State's football team, part of a new breed of offensive linemen: big and agile, and teeming with pro potential. Seven years ago, by his own admission, he was a "chubby kid" living in a trailer in Burlington who hated school and who was counting the days down to when he could drop out.
"I would have done so many different things that would have led me to failure," Crisp said.
Enter the Singer family from Chapel Hill and Crisp's opportunity to become the person and football player he is today: a regular at right tackle for the Wolfpack, which will play Louisville in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte on Tuesday.
"The whole story, really, it's like God sent me there," Crisp said.
A similar story
There already has been a movie made about a similar life story to Rob Crisp's, and Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award for it. Michael Lewis' book, "The Blind Side," written in part about the development of NFL offensive lineman Michael Oher, covers a familiar story arc for Crisp and the Singer family, with one major exception.
Oher's biological mother is portrayed in the movie as an absentee parent with a drug problem. Cassandra Platto, Crisp's mom, was anything but a neglectful parent. She often worked two jobs and hustled to take care of her sons, Crisp, now 20, and his older brother, Cedrick Miles, 23.
By the age of 12, and already taller than 6 feet, Crisp had taken a shine to basketball. While Platto, a single parent, could provide the basics for her boys, the cost of camps, new sneakers and trips with the traveling team coached by Peter Singer were luxury items beyond her means.
So when Crisp was in eighth grade, Singer went to Platto with an offer. He wanted Crisp to move in with him and his wife Debra and their three children. The Singers' son, Pete, was on Crisp's basketball team.
"Coach Singer saw something in me that I didn't see in myself," Crisp said. "He saw a talent. Something told him that I could have a future. I didn't know what he was talking about."
Singer, who owns a successful architectural millwork company in Hillsborough, said he saw a kid who needed an opportunity.
"He's such a great kid," Singer said. "It was a chance to help. Instead of just talking about helping, I wanted to do something real to make a difference."
Platto agreed, but she let Crisp, who was 14 at the time, make the final decision.
"I just wanted to help my mom," Crisp said. "She worked her butt of for us, but she was struggling. You hate to see someone go through that, especially your mom."
Crisp moved in with the Singers, and he promptly ended up in the hospital. He was always fatigued, but he couldn't sleep. He had to use the bathroom often. Debra Singer, a retired nurse, knew the symptoms were related to diabetes and took Crisp to the hospital.
He stayed there for a week. His blood-sugar count was in the 500s (100 is considered normal) and he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
"I was close to being in a coma," Crisp said. "That saved my life."
After Crisp recovered, the hard work began. Crisp loved sports - basketball, football and lacrosse - but he hated school.
"I was never a dumb kid, I just did not like school," Crisp said. "My plan was to drop out when I was 16."
With the Singers, that wasn't an option. Part of the living arrangement was making a commitment to his school work.
"He didn't like it at first," Debra Singer said, "He fought me on it, but he learned that it had to be a priority."
Crisp embraced Singer's tough-love approach to homework, but he bristled at the similar treatment by his new AAU basketball coaches. He started to lose interest in basketball.
As he grew to 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, Crisp saw his football career began to take off at Chapel Hill High.
By his sophomore season, he started at left tackle and made an impression at summer camps at in-state colleges.
From Chapel Hill to Raleigh
By his junior season in 2008, he committed to N.C. State, as did Pete Singer, a safety on the Chapel Hill defense.
Crisp and Singer were friends before Singer's parents became Crisp's legal guardians, but the two became "like brothers" Crisp said.
The 2008 football season was difficult for both. Their friend and Chapel Hill teammate Atlas Fraley died after an August practice. (An autopsy report suggested dehydration and cramping may have led to a fatal heart attack, but the autopsy did not provide a definitive cause of death.) Three months later, another friend and teammate, Rodney Torain, was killed in a hit-and-run car accident.
Crisp and Singer were devastated and depressed. They didn't know how to handle the loss. Singer ran into legal trouble, for underage drinking and misdemeanor charges for possession of a handgun and marijuana.
"We were grieving," Crisp said. "Everyone wanted to make Pete out to be the worst kid in the world, but we all made bad decisions. Pete was just the one who got into trouble."
The legal issues affected Singer's future with the Chapel Hill football team. The family decided to move to Raleigh, to a townhouse it had already owned near Athens Drive, to start over, Crisp said.
"It was the best year we had," Crisp said.
With Crisp, now a five-star prospect ranked as one of the best players in the state and country, on the offensive line and Singer, the team's leading tackler at safety, Athens Drive improved from 4-8 to 9-4 in 2009.
Both signed scholarship offers with N.C. State in February 2010, but Singer got another drinking-related legal charge in March and did not enroll.
Instead of playing college football, Singer began working for his father's company, Northside Cabinets, Inc.
"It has worked for the best for him," Crisp said. "Pete's doing really well."
Potential turns into playing time
At N.C. State, Crisp started his first college game last season as a freshman against Western Carolina. Even against a lower Division I opponent, it was an eye-opening experience.
"Man, I was horrible," Crisp said. "I didn't know what I was doing out here."
Crisp, who was planning to redshirt his first season, played sparingly on offense the rest of the season, although he did play regularly on special teams.
He entered his sophomore season behind senior Mikel Overgaard on the depth chart at right tackle. Since the third game of the season, though, he has gotten more reps, playing about half of the series on offense.
His best outing came on Nov. 5 against North Carolina, taking on the Tar Heels' Quinton Coples and helping the Wolfpack grind out 126 rushing yards in a smashmouth 13-0 win.
N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said Crisp, the highest-rated recruit he has landed in five years, started to play this season more because he picked up his intensity in practice.
Crisp, at 6-7 and 312 pounds, still needs to work on his strength, O'Brien said, but the coach sees the same potential in Crisp as he did in the dozen linemen he sent to the NFL from Boston College.
"He's just starting to scratch the surface on how good he can be," O'Brien said.
The weekend the "Blind Side" movie came out, the extended Singer family went to see it. They left amazed, right down to the details of the color of the truck Oher and Crisp both drive.
Crisp thinks back to his decision seven years ago and appreciates the opportunity the Singers gave him. He wants to play in the NFL, but more than that, he wants to start his foundation and mentor kids.
He wants the chance to pay forward the kindness and opportunity that he got.
"The best part of the story," Peter Singer said, "is to see who Rob has become."