Former Tide player helps abused children

Imagine a little girl who thinks nobody in the world wants her. A little girl whose father throws her against a wall and would choose drugs over her. A little girl whose mother isn’t there anymore because cancer took her life years ago. A little girl who just wants to be loved and cherished.

“Please give me a chance,” the girl wrote in a letter.

John Croyle, founder and executive director of Big Oak Ranch, gave that girl, and thousands of other hurting children over the years, a chance.

Big Oak Ranch is dedicated to finding abused and neglected children and bringing them to a safe place they can call home. Croyle’s vision for a better life for children has become a reality with the Boys’ Ranch, located in Gadsden, Ala., and the Girls’ Ranch in Springville, Ala. He has housed more than 1,800 children since 1974.

Croyle is a Gadsden native who played football under Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama. However, when the National Football League came knocking on his door, he turned down a career in professional football in favor of starting a home for abandoned and abused children. Croyle may have had all the tools he needed to be successful in the NFL, but he said he preferred to be used as a tool himself for a higher calling.

“Everyone’s a tool in God’s toolbox,” Croyle said. “I’m the hammer. When I try to be the screwdriver, I screw things up.”

Croyle said his inspiration for starting the boys’ ranch derives from his encounter with a little boy at a camp in Lumberton, Miss. The boy’s mother was a prostitute, and he served as her timekeeper, bringing her the money and sending the next man into her bedroom. This boy lit the fire in Croyle to help children like him.

“I’d found out at 19 why I was put on Earth,” Croyle said.

Soon after, he opened Big Oak Boys’ Ranch. Croyle recalls seeing the Boys’ Ranch for the first time and simply saying, “God, I’m willing.”

Croyle was not just willing to create Big Oak Ranch; he was and is willing to devote his entire life to help these children. He nurtured a young girl whose own grandfather raped her for years. He helped a boy, who Croyle calls “a man at 11-years-old,” heal emotionally from using his own back as a shield for his little brother against their father’s beatings.

Croyle said he felt called to help more children after a 1988 court case involving a 12-year-old girl named Shelley. Shelley had been raped and beaten by her father while her mother held her down.

Croyle pleaded with the judge to allow him to take her to the Boys’ Ranch, as the Girls’ Ranch had not yet been created. The judge refused and sent Shelley back with her parents, where she was beaten to death three months later. Croyle founded Big Oak Girls’ Ranch soon after, saying he would make sure that situation would never arise again.

Children brought to both ranches are betrayed and hurt, but Croyle is determined to turn their lives around by teaching them how to be responsible. Croyle said he makes them four promises when they first arrive at the ranch: “I love you, I’ll never lie to you, I’ll stick with you until you’re grown, and there are boundaries — don’t cross them.”

The children are expected to comply with assigned chores daily and attend Westbrook Christian School, a private school bought and operated by Croyle for the children. However, Croyle said they also have the thrill of riding horses, playing in the lake and running around the beautiful property.

Croyle has a personal relationship with each of the children at Big Oak Ranch, and they all adore him. Their faces light up when they see him, and his face bursts into a grin as he wraps them in a hug. One little girl named Rosa summed up Croyle by simply saying, “Mr. John rules!”

“He’s the biggest little kid here,” said a social worker at the ranch, referring to Croyle’s playful and kind personality.

In the words of Croyle, “It really boils down to, what kind of footprint do you want to leave?”

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