Eric Crouch was announced as the 2001 Heisman Trophy winner almost three months exactly after the terrorists attack on 9/11.
Ahead of the 22nd anniversary of the event, The Official Heisman Trophy Podcast talked with the Nebraska Cornhusker quarterback great about the time he spent in New York that December in 2001, his opportunity to visit with first responders, and other memories he had from his first visit to the city.
On today’s 22nd anniversary of the events that day, below is a transcript of our discussion with Crouch.
You can also listen to our interview with Crouch HERE on The Official Heisman Trophy Podcast.
“Looking back on it, it was kind of a surreal moment in history … I think everybody was taken aback. I was no different. I’d never been to New York City before and I just kind of watched what happened on TV. I didn’t know I’d end up in New York City during the season and was very fortunate to have that opportunity.
“You get to New York and you are excited about this Heisman vote and who’s going to win. It’s exciting time, and it just felt like there were other things more important. Especially after winning the award and going down to Ground Zero and spending some time with the firefighters and paramedics and first responders. it was still on fire, still smoking, still smoldering
“It was an eerie feeling. What you saw on TV just wasn’t the same when you went down there. A lot of people had lost loved ones and their best friends and people in their community…
“It was an interesting moment. But I do believe the Heisman Trophy did shine some light on their lives, bringing the trophy down and letting them take pictures and photos and they were very appreciative …I’ve got several great photographs. I’ve also got some memorabilia of my own from them.
“I’ve got a U.S. flag that they gave me as well as some signed helmets, like construction helmets or things they were wearing at the time when I went to visit with them. So they were very generous and giving of their time. It was a surreal moment, man, and one of those when you look back … I was humbled to be part of that and just honored to be around such great people and the true heroes of 9/11.”
Crouch still remembered the details of that day, like the smell from the cleanup that lingered months later.
“It was really one of the first things that I noticed. You don’t get it when you’re up in Times Square. But you get there and you get close enough … And I’m sure at times, you could (smell it from further away). But when I was there, I don’t know if the wind was blowing differently … or time had gone by so it wasn’t so strong … but first part of December, you’re talking 2-3 months later, yeah the smell was one of those things where you say “what is that?”
“Its something that’s not the everyday, it’s not the anytime smell. It’s just true destruction and death; it was weird, it was weird. It was something that stuck with me for a long time.
“And you know just being down there, being around it. It’s somber, a little bit sad. I’ve gone back and visited the memorial that’s there. They did a real nice job and it was the right thing to do. I was honored to just be part of it.
“During the season when it was all going down … and we played Rice, the first game after 9/11, we came out and we did some really nice tributes to our first responders and our police officers … just people. After something like that happens, it shines a different light on what those people do on a daily basis to save lives.
“So football was kind of an afterthought. It was all about people year round, your loved ones. It made us reflect on the way we were approaching our practices and our games a lot differently than just being selfish and thinking about what was best for myself. It was all about what’s best for each other and it made us closer as a football team.”
The Downtown Athletic Club had been the home of the Heisman Trophy since its start in 1935. It was just a few blocks from Ground Zero. The building’s upper floors sustained damage from debris from the fallen towers on 9/11 and 11 members from the club lost their lives that day.
“The Downtown Athletic Club was right there. It was gone. It was gone. There was a lot of soot and smoke and damage to the building. I didn’t get to experience it like everyone else did who won the Heisman Trophy. To get to have your family there and the event and the TV show centered around the D.A.C. They brought it up to the Marriott Marquis and so that was different.
“They did one heckuva job. Seeing pictures of the D.A.C., they recreated it. I take my hat off to the people who worked effortlessly on it. They did a tremendous job recreating. What it looked like in a short time to be able to put it together was pretty spectacular. The history is there. I wish it would’ve been different for me but I look back, and I say, that’s the way it was and it made me think a little different about the award. And again, I felt honored in a way to be able to do what I was doing and being able to play football and do it on a great stage and represent the nation in terms of sports.
“The amount of energy that goes into working your butt off. People don’t realize with football, but I kind of turned that energy into other things and I think that had an impact on the reason for me winning the trophy that year.”
Crouch’s visit to New York City was his first.
“It was my first trip to New York and I’ve been back almost every year since. Well, first of all, I’m just not used to – I’m from Nebraska. We don’t have that many buildings in one area – there was a lot of people and a lot of culture. You’re just kind of wide eyed – look at that building or that architecture … how do people live like this (chuckles).
“I had my family there which was nice. Learning and meeting all the people from the Heisman Trophy was great. It was a fun moment. I was happy to be able to share it with them.”
“I do remember leaving New York and going home back to Nebraska. And you know how airport security got after 9/11. So here I am, I’ve got a couple guys with me helping escort me back to the ticket area and I’m rolling in this large steel box, a strange box, and it’s like ‘who are these guys, what’s going on’.
“So we get stopped at security, ‘what are you guys doing, what are you bringing in here.’ And we kind of open it up and (we) showed them. And we took pictures and laughed. It was one of those moments. Things changed very quickly.”
In the midst of his unique weekend, Crouch was still able to make special connections and he quickly felt the bond of the Heisman Fraternity.
“There was a of former winners that showed up for me that day and I’m sure it was probably a tough thing to do for some. I remember Dick Kazmaier celebrating his 50th golden anniversary, which was really cool. I got a chance to meet Billy Sims from Oklahoma. I got a chance to meet Danny Wuerffel. I’ve had the chance to meet many great guys over my time. Just the guys that are there, year after year, is neat to go back and show their support for the new winner every year. I think it’s important and that’s why I’ve gone. I haven’t made every one, I’ve missed a couple due to health reasons. But man it’s a cool thing and a great group of guys and people who run the organization.
“And you know what, you’re around guys that you relate to, guys who you know what they’re going thru. I’ve had some good friendships and gone to support some of the other Heisman winners at their events around the country, whether at a charity fundraiser or a golf event or maybe they have an idea for something new. There’s been a lot of that.
“I wish there was more. It seems like, especially after the pandemic and covid, it’s shaken things up a bit with guys. There’s a good solid 20-25 guys that always seem to come back and after being 22 years, like you said, you start to see the aging process of some of the guys that had been the staples — some start having some health issues and some have passed away and that’s sad to see. But they’re all great people and a lot of great memories I’ve had and been able to share over the years.”