By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"He had always been so strong. He was always the one to motivate us," says his youngest daughter, Christy. "Toward the end, he just wasn't like my dad anymore."
Don had always told his kids, his friends, anyone who would listen, really: Push yourself harder and higher, and no matter what the obstacle, never quit.
On the night of November 10, 1998, 56-year old Don Crowder quit. He just gave up, for the first time in his life...and the last.
They called him "Crazy Crowder"--that was the nickname he earned while playing football for SMU. He loved the thrill of the sport, loved mixing it up--blocking, tackling, hitting players hard and often--even though he had no business playing college ball at all.
"Donnie's the kind that, when he wants something, he isn't going to let anyone or anything stand in his way," says his father, Alton Crowder, who still speaks of his son in the present tense. "He was that way with football. He was the skinniest kid on the block, but he would go play with the bigger boys, and he would always hold his own."
Don had jug ears, buck teeth, and a hot temper that drew him into one schoolyard brawl after another. Push him into a corner, and he'd come out fighting. Wrestling with his two brothers, Barry and Dale, was the main event in the Crowders' house in Northwest Dallas; Don even picked fights with his own dad. "As a fool, at age 15, I believed I could 'whup' my father and occasionally tried," Crowder would later write in the Lucas Looking Glass, a town newsletter that he edited and published himself. "In my juvenile conceit, I believed him to be less of a man because he refused to strike back."
Only in sports was his over-the-top aggressiveness rewarded. In 1961, his senior year, he played varsity quarterback and was voted "Most Athletic" at Thomas Jefferson High. In his yearbook picture, he stands grinning awkwardly, his long arms dangling by his sparse 6 foot, 120-pound frame. Because of his small build, Don was not heavily recruited by college scouts, but his bull-headed determination attracted the attention of SMU's coaching staff, and eventually, he was awarded a four-year athletic scholarship.
"Donnie played the game so hard, he would not only injure other players, he would injure himself," says Frank Jackson, an attorney who also played football at SMU and later befriended Crowder. "Hard-charging, very competitive--that was how he went about football, and life."
His reluctance to recognize limits would remain with him, as would his obsession with weight training, which transformed him into a bulky 200-pound defensive back. Even a football injury resulting in a detached retina wasn't enough to keep him on the bench for long. His recovery took a full year, but was so successful that the doctors gave him the option of returning to the team. He played for another year, finished his bachelor's degree, and enrolled in SMU's law school mostly so he could stay in football.
Despite his efforts, Crowder watched his college years come to an end without a single offer from a professional team. So when he received an invitation to the Washington Redskins' summer training camp during his last semester of football eligibility, Crowder pumped himself up to 220 pounds and convinced himself he could make it in the pros.
When the Redskins' doctors turned him away because of his old eye injury, Crowder didn't know where to turn. To be refused a chance because of something he couldn't control violated his sense of fair play. He fell back on law school initially because he simply didn't know what else to do, and he already had a year under his belt. Soon, however, Don recognized that he felt as comfortable in a court of law as he had on a football field. Both are public arenas in which there is a winner and loser, and Crowder could never stand to lose.
During his third year in law school, he started dating Carol Parker, a high school classmate who was now divorced with two young children, Rhonda and Jimmy. They married on August 24, 1968, only months after his law school graduation. "That was before everybody was getting divorced, and marrying people with children was unusual," recalls Carol Crowder. "Everybody thought he was crazy, taking on so much."
But Crowder was so committed to winning by the force of his will (or his fists, if that was the only way to settle the matter), he never seemed dogged by everyday anxieties. Seldom did he show fear. Three months out of law school, he began his own practice, even though it meant giving up the security of a job with an established law firm.
"Donnie never could work for anyone but Donnie," says attorney Greg Ziegler, whom Crowder coached as a child. "He had to be the boss."
In 1970, to satisfy his own ambitions, Crowder formed a partnership with a former law school classmate, Jim Mattox, and an older lawyer, John Allen Curtis. Mattox, just as driven as Crowder, had spent two years in the Dallas County District Attorney's office and now set his sights on the Legislature.