By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
To those who knew him, that claim made perfect sense. Crowder lived his life in superlatives: His wife Carol was the best woman he had ever known, his son Austin was the best high school football player in the state. Whether this was delusional or just the way he perceived himself was of no consequence. What mattered was being the best--winning in sports, in law, in life--by the sheer power of his will.
On election eve, Don Crowder turned away news crews and stayed away from the celebrations of loyal supporters. He just wanted to be at home, surrounded by his large family. "The family was the most important thing to him," remembers Carol. He often compared himself to the Godfather, author Mario Puzo's magnanimous head of another large family.
Crowder arranged work and family life so the two intertwined. He surrounded himself with an entourage of those he loved and helped. In addition to employing his mother, Crowder had his wife Carol do the firm's bookkeeping. All the Crowder children except Christy (who became a hairdresser) worked there at some time or another. Rhonda became a paralegal, Austin is now finishing his last year of law school, and Jimmy got involved in the restaurant business.
In part because he wanted to give Jimmy a restaurant to run, Crowder, in 1991, decided to open his own sports bar in Plano: Gameday Sport Cafe.
Like his law practice, Gameday became something of a family affair. None of the family, however, had any experience. "Starting at the bottom, with a little restaurant, he didn't want that," says Carol. "He wanted a big one."
On the walls, amid the din of 27 televisions, hung sports paraphernalia a la Hard Rock Cafe--autographed jerseys, helmets, and action photos from the famous (Larry Bird and Bob Knight) and the not-so-famous (Jason Ziegler and Austin Crowder).
The place was always busy but costly to run. And Crowder didn't anticipate that construction of the George Bush Freeway would shut down the access road to the restaurant or that a recently enacted Plano anti-smoking ordinance would run off customers.
By 1996, Gameday teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, and Crowder would eventually settle with his creditors for $300,000. As Carol remembers, this is when Don entered what she calls "male menopause...He was afraid of growing old, slowing down." Their youngest child, Austin, was graduating from college, and now all the Crowder children were married, with families of their own.
"Taking care of the family had been the most important thing for him," says Christy. "He felt we didn't need him anymore."
With the house suddenly empty, Don and Carol "drifted apart," though their friendship lasted through their divorce in October 1996. Don still came by the Lucas house to talk and exercise, and Carol continued to work at his law office. "He started feeling that he had missed out on something in life by being married, and he felt like no one needed him anymore. He was searching for something," she says.
Perhaps Crowder found that something in Sheri Guernsey, the perky 36-year-old meat manager at Albertson's he married a few months after his divorce. They had met as attorney and client when he represented her in a personal-injury case. "He ended up asking me out. He was very persistent and kept on calling and calling, every day. When I finally agreed to meet him, I took my daughter and a friend of hers along." A few months later, at his condo in Montana, they got married Crowder-style, in sweatshirts and jeans, with little fanfare.
"Don lived to take care of kids, and I was another kid to him. I think I made Don younger," says Sheri. "He always said he didn't want to get old."
At Don's asking, Sheri left her job and eventually started working at his office. So did her daughter, Brooke. Don tried to rebuild the family life he had known with Carol--kids gathered around him, under his care and influence. Once again, he could be the Godfather.
Only this time the perfect life he was planning began to crumble. Not only was he unable to prevent Gameday from closing its doors, but he suffered another inexplicable tragedy. On August 15, 1997, his brother Barry, just back from New York, where he served time for DWI charges, killed himself in a reckless, drunken moment. Barry was watching television and sharing a bottle of scotch with his best friend that evening, toying with his friend's .357 Magnum. As if replaying a movie scene, he pointed the gun at his temple. Only this wasn't the movies; the shot was deadly.
Don was devastated. Since his business floundered, he had "started drinking," says his father, and Barry's senseless death made him even more despondent. Sheri would later tell police that Don also had a problem with cocaine.
Crowder had also begun writing a book, a courtroom mystery based loosely on his own life and set near Lake Texoma. On weekends he would frequent a bar in the Texoma Inn and would go on drinking binges while doing research on the characters he met there.
Crowder's drinking and temper put a strain on his marriage, and in May 1998, he and Sheri made the first of several trips to a marriage counselor. "Sometimes he would be really nice, and sometimes he would be really mean to me, really angry," says Sheri.