RALEIGH — For Jonathan Crawley, student took a backseat to student-athlete.
In 2009, Crawley was a 320-pound starting right tackle for the Winston-Salem State football team. The Rams had begun the reclassification to Division I, and Crawley was enjoying the attention. So much so that he neglected classes and tests and soon was academically ineligible. It was the best wake-up call he could have received.
Crawley returned home to Richmond, Va., enrolled in the local community college and became a student again.
In 2011, then-Saint Augustine’s men’s basketball coach Ken Spencer went recruiting for a “big man.” Spencer was good friends with Crawley’s high school coach, who knew about Crawley’s situation and recommended Spencer take a look since Crawley played football and basketball at Huguenot High.
Spencer got his big man, with a huge emphasis on “big.” By then, the 6-foot-7 Crawley had ballooned to 375 pounds.
“I told him I still had my football weight, but I wanted to come play basketball and it was going to take me a while (to lose weight),” said Crawley, who leads the 11-11 Falcons against rival Shaw (7-15) on Saturday. “I told him I would come and work hard and would do anything he told me to do.”
Crawley played eight minutes a game in his first season as a Falcon and averaged 2.6 points, mostly due to his weight and endurance. But “Big Jon” had become a fan favorite, and his rusty basketball skills were starting to take shape.
Crawley lost 30 pounds that first year by cutting out fried foods and late-night meals.
“Once I got here and got accustomed to it (I) started losing weight, and (Spencer) liked what he saw. So he kept pushing me and told me I was going to do good things,” Crawley said.
But Spencer was released at the end of the season, setting the stage for coach Lonnie Blow’s return. Blow coached the Falcons from 2008-10 and led them to a CIAA tournament championship.
Meanwhile, Crawley continued his physical regime, losing 30 more pounds over the course of the season. His playing minutes rose to 15 per game and his scoring to 7.4 points. He became one of St. Aug’s go-to players.
“The turning point for Jon came during practice when I laid into him,” Blow said. “I told him I thought he was only interested in being a novelty act. Everybody liked this big guy running up and down the court, and he enjoyed the attention. But he had so much more potential. I told him he could do better.”
Blow lasted a season before taking off for Virginia State. Longtime Florida A&M assistant Tony Sheals was hired just before Labor Day – Crawley’s third coach in as many seasons.
Sheals said he was more concerned about Crawley’s health than his skills.
“I told him it’s not just about basketball that you’re losing this weight or athletics, it’s a life-changing thing for yourself, too,” he said. “Because when he stops playing sports, he would put his life in jeopardy with all the things that come with being obese and overweight. So for him to do it right now and make a life-changing decision, then I was proud of what he did.”
Crawley has started every game this season and is averaging 12 points and eight rebounds. He’s also shooting 60 percent. Opponents now know him by his game rather than his weight, which is what he wanted all along.
“Losing that weight made me feel different,” he said. “I never quit on myself, always saying to myself ‘you can do one more lap, one more.’
“I wanted to be a factor, and I wanted to help my team out as much as I could. I wanted them to be able to depend on me.”