Roy Exum: Now, 31 Years Later

Friday, December 7, 2018 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The description to the photo reads, “In May of 1987, Big Oak Ranch and John Croyle were featured in a Reader’s Digest article that was written by Roy Exum. This article was THE pivotal point of Big Oak Ranch’s visibility to the public, and it started a chain of articles, speaking engagements and visitors coming from all over the world.”

Earlier this week, I wrote how I was reminded of the story that was birthed at a brunch before the Alabama-Auburn game one year and how I had written the story at the behest of about a dozen sports writers in Alabama who I love to this day. None of us had any idea how big the story would become and how it would sweep around the world in the 90 different languages that Reader’s Digest enjoyed at the time.

In the first 12 months after the story was published, over one million dollars in donations, that quite literally came from all over the world, was donated to Big Oak Ranch. This, as happens in miracles, enabled a girls ranch to be built, a Christian high school that is now revered as one of the best high schools in the state to be erected, and for Big Oak Ranch to continually be recognized as one of the nation’s top homes “for children needing a chance.”

Believe it or not, my role was small. I was merely the messenger. I promise, this was a God thing and today there are over 2,000 Big Oak Ranch alumni who stand as solid testament our God watches over us, each and every one.

Since I wrote “The Big Oak Story” earlier this week, I have been besieged with requests to publish anew the original story that appeared in Reader’s Digest in May, 1987. As I do so, kindly remember this was "a God thing” and that I was simply lucky enough to be along for the ride.

* * *

A Speck Of Heaven

By Roy Exum

NOTE: This article is reprinted from the May 1987 issues of Reader’s Digest, Pleasantville NY

One cold and raining October morning in Gadsden, Ala, workers opened the door of an empty boxcar they were preparing to load. There, shivering in the beam of their flashlight, was a small boy.

He had a can of beans and some cereal in a box. In a weak voice he cried, “Go ahead and shoot me.” The men called the police, who immediately summoned John Croyle in nearby Glencoe. Croyle took the little hobo to his ranch, fed and clothed him and cared for him as he would a son.

That story is one of hundreds that filter from a speck of heaven: John Croyle’s Big Oak Ranch in northeastern Alabama. There, a standout University of Alabama football player has forsaken what surely would have been a lucrative business career for blessings far greater than most men ever know.

Croyle, 36 (at the time), once a tougher-than-leather defensive end under coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, takes kids nobody else wants and gives them the support they need to turnout fine. He has pulled kids out of junked cars and lifted them from beds filled with their own grime. Asked how many have been abused or neglected, John answers, “All of ‘em. I’ve had people actually drive up, open the car door, and sling out a boy and a sack of clothes and never say a word. Just like that.”

One boy, picked up along the highway, told the patrolman his mother was dead and that his sister, 18 and pregnant, had told him he’d have to leave because she didn’t have anymore food. So the little kid walked down that lonesome road until the trooper came along. Fighting back tears, the officer put the boy on his front seat, flicked on the blue lights, and nosed his cruiser toward Glencoe.

John asks for some of his kids. “I go to whoever has custody and talk ‘em into giving me the child. I do it because I figure these youngsters ought to have a better life.”

Etowah County district judge Robert E. Lewis, who has placed many juveniles at Big Oak Ranch, says, “If everybody had as much interest in the own children as John Croyle has in any kid, we wouldn’t have delinquency in this country. It’s that simple.

$70,000 FROM THE MAN --  John Croyle was raised as an only child from age five, when a falling tombstone killed his four-year-old sister during a funeral. Somehow the tragedy triggered in the Croyles a profound concern for others. John’s father, Frank, a division manager for the local Sears store, began coaching kids in summer sports. John, a natural athlete, was soon offering his teammates tips of holding a bat and shooting a basketball.

By his senior year in high school, he was inundated with athletic scholarship offers. In Alabama, it would have been sacrilege to play anywhere but in Tuscaloosa. He played on three University of Alabama teams from 1971 through 1973, and all three were Southeastern Conference champions. But there was something more to John Croyle’s heartbeat.

In the summers John worked at a boys camp in Lumberton, Miss. And in those teen years he came to feel that his Christian mission was to take care of kids who had nothing, absolutely no chance.

Towards the end of his final football season, he went to see “The Man,” as Coach Bryant was called by his players. “I told him I wanted to use the money I would earn playing pro football to start a ranch for kids,” said Croyle.

Coach Bryant told him to forget about football, that he knew John’s heart wasn’t in it. But the Bear promised to serve on Croyle’s Board of Directors and do what he could to help him raise funds for his dream.

In 1974 Croyle faced the toughest moment of his young life. He had found a beautiful 120 acres to build the ranch but the owner wanted a $50,000 down payment within 48 hours.

John’s savings totaled $5,000. William Buck, a Birmingham oral surgeon, pledged $15,000 but John was still $30,000 shy. Then, just as his chances of raising the rest of the money seemed bleakest, an old teammate came to his rescue.

John Hannah believed profoundly in Croyle and what he hoped to do that the All-American promised John any bonus he might get to sign a pro contract. Hannah signed with the New England Patriots before John’s contract expired and offered his friend the $30,000 bonus. Croyle named the first house for abused boys The John Hannah Home.

Over the years Coach Bryant became one of the biggest believers in the Big Oak Ranch. The afternoon before the 1982 Liberty Bowl, when Bryant would coach his final game, one fan thrust a commemorative T-shirt through the crowd and shouted, “If you’ll sign this I’ll give a thousand dollars to any charity you name!” Bryant reached for his pen and said in a gruff voice, “Send the money to Big Oak Ranch.”

“When Coach Bryant died,” says Croyle, “we got to checking. Over the years he had given the boys of Big Oak Ranch $70,000.”

“I LOVE YOU!” – The ranch, which opened with an old farmhouse in January, 1975, now includes two fishing lakes, a big swimming pool and seven two-story homes with a setoff house parents in each. There are 14 dogs, 12 horses, 69 pigs, 40 cows and 176 chickens. But, best of all, there are 56 boys getting another chance at life.

It is a bustling place, especially when the boys come home from school. John’s RATs (Ranch action teams) band together to gather hay, wash cars, work in the huge garden, or tend to livestock. “Everybody has chores to do.” Says Croyle. “That’s part of being a family.”

Each boy gets $2 an hour but they get docked a dollar for every minute they are late,” says Croyle, “so if there is one thing my boys know, it’s how to be prompt!”

John and his wife Tee get 10-to-15 calls a week. After deciding which kids to accept, John tells each new arrival four things:

“One, I love you. I ain’t gay or weird, but I want you to know that I love you, an that one day you’ll understand that.

“Two: I won’t ever lie to you. I may not always tell you everything you want to know, but I will never, ever, lie.

“Three: I’ll stick with you until you are grown. If you try to be the best person you can be, then you’ve got me for life.

“Four: ‘If you ever do me wrong I’ll get you.’

” He says this so a boy will wonder, especially during the instant right before he might do something he knows he shouldn’t! (Since this article was written, John has tempered his views on discipline. Today he tells the kids …. ‘Four: There are boundaries – Do not cross them.”

Each house is patterned after a normal family. “We vary the ages so there is an older brother to look up to and a younger brother to take under your wing,” says Croyle. “House parents do most of the disciplining, but the tough problems are handled by Croyle. He rarely paddles, he says. “What good is that going to do to a boy whose mother has dipped his legs into a vat of hot grease?”

THREE CHANCES – Croyle says experience has taught him to listen carefully before he doles out a punishment. One night a furious Croyle was driving a runaway back to the ranch. “Why did you do it!”

“I wanted to see my mother,” said the boy. Croyle: ”We would have let you! All you needed to do was ask!”

“I did! I asked my mother if I could come see her and she said no, that she never wanted to see me again. But I wanted to see her,” said the boy, his voice small, “so I went.”

There wasn’t a whole lot more that needed to be said during the rest of the drive.

“I don’t care how bad you are, what you do. Everybody gets three chances with me,” says Croyle, whose car has been stolen so many time he leaves the keys in it to save hot-wiring repairs. “I may bend a little on the chances … but once you use the third, you are gone.”

It’s after “strike two” that Croyle puts his arm over a boy’s shoulder and walks out the long drive to the road. And then they turn and look at the sprawling ranch, at the houses and the cattle, and all the boys riding their bikes and throwing balls. “I point to our sign, ‘A Christian Home for Children Needing a Chance’ and I tell that boy, ‘Right now I’m the best friend you ever had, but now you’re down to just one chance.”

He recalls one of the boys he had to send away. “I saw him picking up cans along the road about a year later. He waved but I din’t slow down. You see, I’ve got 56 boys who deserve what that boy didn’t want. But, oh, that kills you … “

“Coach Bryant once told me he never thought about the players who had done well; he remembered the failures. I guess I’m the same way.”

But most of the 500 Big Oak alumni have turned out well. Several have attended college, and one who today owns his own business sent everybody on the ranch to an amusement park in Georgia for a day. One is a government employee and dozens working construction, employing skills they learned at the ranch.

By such a measure, Croyle’s efforts are quite a success. “Let me tell you about success,” he says. “I figure it is three things: doing what God calls you to do, doing what you do best, and doing what makes you happy. To tell the truth, if I had just one more year to live, I wouldn’t chance a heartbeat.”

IS THAT YOU, DAD? – John gets a new boy about every month and builds a new house about every nine. A gymnasium was recently built with a basketball court and a weight room. John is also on the verge of opening a similar ranch for girls.

One of the biggest backers of Big Oak Ranch, is Ray Perkins, who followed Coach Bryant at Alabama and (was then) the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. One day Perkins was admiring the houses and asked John what one cost. John told him the growing price was $67,000. As the two men talked, Perkins spotted an old, swaybacked horse a farmer had given the boys.

“I’d like to have a horse like that,” Perkins told Croyle. And John, so thankful for all the coach had done, quickly said “He’s yours – we’ll give him to you.”

But Perkins shook his head and wrote out a check for $67,000 for that old swaybacked horse. Today eight boys live in the Ray Perkins house.

Thanks to such support, the ranch is today debt free. But the annual operating costs are $480,000. And there is still the responsibly of feeding 56 boys, the fact a van needs repair, and the reality the boys need medical and dental care.

How does Croyle, who works 365 days a year, handle such pressure? Partly by following a lesson from Bear Bryant.  “Coach Bryant was a master at getting you to ignore the aching ribs, the cracked hand. He taught us when our opponent “knew” he had us whipped, there was still some fight left, and we had to call on it.

Then John told a story. “Once, we arranged for a boy’s father to get him for the weekend. His daddy wasn’t supposed to arrive until just before dark, but by mid-afternoon that kid had his clothes laid out and was siting by the window, waiting.

“He fell asleep sitting there. When I realized his father wasn’t coming, I finally gathered up the boy in my arms. As I carried him to bed, he said, “Is that you, Dad?”

“Whenever I feel tired, I think: There is another kid out there who has been waiting for you all his life. And then it gets easy again.”

* * *

For Christmas donations, The Big Oak Ranch business address is Post Office Box 507, Springville, Ala. 35146. A girls ranch has been added since this story originally appeared and donors who wish to designate their contributions are urged to do so. Anyone desiring further information about the ranches or its Christian mission are invited to call 205-467-6226 during normal business hours.

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