As Sheri Crowder lay wide-awake in bed in her Frisco home, she wondered what her husband was doing. He had gotten up suddenly, unable to sleep. Just hadn't been the same over the past few months. She worried about his depression, about his drinking, about his recent arrest for DWI. Don Crowder was a prominent Collin County lawyer, the city attorney for the town of Allen for the last 22 years, and the Allen police department arrested him. Somehow he couldn't get over the shame of it.
He had always been so strong-willed and fearless, so downright tenacious in every aspect of his life. That's why she couldn't accept that he really wanted to kill himself, though he'd been talking about it calmly, openly, as though it were a topic of dinner conversation. There had been that one time when he took an overdose of prescription drugs, but it seemed more like a plea for help. Always argumentative, he convinced the doctors at Columbia Medical Hospital in McKinney to release him after just one day in Intensive Care.
He was just going through some hard times, Sheri thought. Her daughter, Brooke, was about to have a baby, and Don loved children. Whatever the problem, it would blow over soon enough.
"What are you doing?" she called out to him from bed. No answer. Then she noticed he was not in the bathroom, as she had thought; he had veered into his workout room and shut the door. That seemed strange. He had already exercised that day, for the same three hours that he did every day, obsessed as he was with staying fit, trim, forever young. Then she remembered: Don, who had never owned a gun, had brought one home two weeks ago. He kept it in the workout room.
She quickly tossed off the covers and hurried to the workout-room door.
"Don't touch the door, Sheri," said Don.
His erratic behavior lately had left her edgy; she panicked easily. "Donnie, what are you doing?"
"If you touch that door, I'll do it."
Sheri didn't argue; she never could win an argument with him. Instead, she just sank into the carpeting by the door, terrified of what her husband might do next. "Donnie, just let me call someone to talk to you. If you'll just let me call your father, or your son."
"No. Everyone is better off without me."
For half an hour, Sheri kept him talking. After they prayed together, he became strangely levelheaded, told her he wanted to be cremated. "And publish my book," he reminded her, referring to the 645-page courtroom mystery he had written over the past three years that, in places, seemed autobiographical.
Suddenly he changed the subject, telling Sheri to get dressed.
She refused to budge until he promised he wouldn't do anything foolish while she was gone. Then she slipped on sweatpants and a T-shirt, quickly taking her place on the floor, crying into a wad of crumpled toilet paper.
"I love you," he said, as if trying to console her. "No one will ever love you like I have; remember that."
"And I love you, Donnie."
"God forgive me for this..."
A single shot rang out and echoed through the house. In the daze of those first moments, she grew mad at him, thinking he had shot the gun in the air and put a hole in the roof. Then she saw the hole in the door--a bullet had broken through the wood just two inches above her head.
"Donnie," she called uncertainly. "Donnie?"
When he didn't answer, she nudged the door open slightly. Something was blocking it. Her husband's bleeding body was slouched against the door, cross-legged, naked, his fingers wrapped around the barrel of the revolver. Blood gushed from his sagging head. "Oh my God, oh my God," she murmured as she pushed her way into the room. "He shot himself."
She ran down the stairs and out the front door. On her way, she grabbed the phone and called 911.
"Go back in there and give your husband CPR," said the operator.
"But you don't know what I've just seen!" Sheri cried. "The blood was just running and running...I can't go back in there!"
"Don't you want your husband to live?" the operator asked, but Sheri no longer listened. When the police arrived, she says, they found her unconscious on her front lawn and Don Crowder dead upstairs.
Within an hour, Don's parents and family had gathered at the home of Carol Crowder, Don's first wife. Don and Carol had been married for almost 30 years, and the 17-room house in Lucas, a country hamlet on the outskirts of Allen, seemed the natural place to grieve.
It was in the stately Lucas home that Crowder's four children grew up, along with scores of other kids Don coached in sports and in life. There, on those 40 acres of wide-open prairie, Don Crowder held Democratic Party fundraisers for hundreds of guests as treasurer for the campaigns of his friend and law partner Jim Mattox. From his upstairs office, still decorated with autographed pictures of Jimmy Carter and Senator Edmund Muskie, he managed his own 1986 candidacy for governor, making a respectable primary showing for a virtual political unknown. In his bedroom, he lost sleep over his defense of Candace Montgomery, accused of murdering schoolteacher Betty Gore with 41 whacks of an ax, in a 1980 trial that became as notorious for its scandal as for its verdict. And it was now in this Lucas home that Don Crowder's family reflected on his life and puzzled over his death, wondering how a man who had striven for perfection and believed in a life without limits could die by his own hand.
"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.
"Crowder and Curtis knew I had been planning to run since I was in law school," says Mattox, who now lives in Austin. "We worked out an arrangement convenient for all three: I would be the firm's rainmaker and attract the business. Don handled the civil litigation, and Curtis did the corporate."
Crowder built his practice with workers' comp and personal-injury cases, believing himself to be a champion of the underdog, the lost cause. He personalized his clients' problems, fighting for them as though his own life were on the line. There was no middle ground for Don Crowder. If you attacked his client, you attacked him.
"When he was your lawyer, he was a passionate advocate for you," says friend and Collin County attorney Howard Shapiro. "When he was your opponent, he was tenacious."
Crowder was the kind of lawyer who could think outside the box because he didn't acknowledge that the box even existed, often coming up with novel legal theories that neither the Legislature nor the courts recognized. But his clients loved having someone who would fight for them, and he quickly built a successful practice.
"Don could not abide the thought of not winning," says Frank Jackson. "His approach to law was full-steam ahead, and not too much compromising. When he ran, he ran like a marathon runner. When he decided to lose weight, he looked almost anorexic. Everything he did--in his practice, in his life--was extreme."
By the mid-'70s, Crowder & Mattox had grown into a six-person law firm, and they bought a building just outside downtown Dallas on Cedar Springs. The firm would later open a second office in Allen to take care of its Collin County business. Crowder, forever conscious of his looks, kept his year-round tan by lying on the roof of his Dallas office, often coming to work in the same sweat pants and running shoes he used to jog around Turtle Creek. His overarching intensity set the tone in the firm.
"He was very demanding--he was a perfectionist and volatile," says Deborah Blackshear, his legal assistant for 28 years. "He would explode over something, but when it was over, he forgot all about it...Underneath all that, he was a good and caring person."
Generous to a fault, Crowder hired his own mother, Tynie, to work for him, but they had trouble getting along. "Don and Tynie were a lot alike in the anger department," remembers Carol Crowder. "They would get mad at each other, and he would fire her. He'd fire his own mother. She was just like him; she refused to be fired. He must have fired her about four or five times, but she never quit."
Never quitting was a Crowder family credo--and a sermon Don constantly preached to his kids as they grew older. Don and Carol had three more children, a son, Austin, and two daughters--one of whom died as a toddler in a tragic accident in their Dallas home. The accident made Crowder want to sell the house and drew him closer to realizing his nostalgic notion of raising his kids in the Texas countryside, much like his father had been raised.
In 1970, the Crowders built a home amid the brushy farmland of Lucas, Texas. Allen, the closest town, had 2,500 people at the time, and only one grocery store. As the community grew, so did his influence on those around him.
By the late 1970s, Crowder had become the municipal judge in both Lucas and Seagoville as well as Allen's city attorney. Allen's city judge at the time, Shapiro, says, "Crowder got pretty feisty on people, and you have to understand we are talking here about speeding tickets and dog-leash violations. He was aggressive even as city attorney."
But if he was on your side, if you were a kid in trouble, someone who needed direction, a mentor, Crowder would be there for you.
"There isn't a week that I don't think of Donnie, his generosity, and what he did for me," says Greg Ziegler, staring at a photo of himself and his brother Jason after the UT-SMU football game in which they played opposite each other. "None of this would have been possible if it had not been for Don."
The Ziegler brothers were among the many kids growing up in the Allen area in the late '70s and '80s who benefited from Crowder's fanaticism for children's sports. He saw in the teenagers he coached the fiercely determined athlete he had been, and Crowder gave them every opportunity, offering them coaching, money, emotional support, and in the case of the Ziegler brothers and a handful of others, a home.
From the time his own kids were old enough to join peewee football, baseball, or basketball leagues, Crowder became an untiring coach. He established and financed Allen's Striding Eagles track and field program and coached it for 15 years--even painted yard lines on his street so kids could use it for training. The Striding Eagles became so successful that several of the participating kids--including Don's daughter Christy--went on to receive college scholarships.
"Donnie could have been a giant in the legal profession if he had wanted to be," says Mattox. "But his greatest pleasure in life was kids' sports, and seeing not just his kids but all the kids that he saw as his own be successful."
Crowder's support was not limited to sports. "There were kids who came to live with us because their families were having troubles. Most of them would stay a few months, and Don would show them how to get back on their feet," remembers Carol. "Other people in Lucas keep horses. We kept kids."
Not that Don was the gentlest of hosts: He expected hard work and discipline from the kids, and he coached little league as if it were the major league. Some parents complained of the intensity of the drills; so did some of the kids.
"My father was a mean coach," recalls his daughter Christy, laughing. "Sometimes by the time you got through practice, you wouldn't want to see him anymore...But he was so serious about it, he made you feel like you could really do something."
An eye injury might have prevented him from becoming a pro, but if Crowder could help it, nothing was going to stop these kids, his kids, from the sports careers he thought they deserved. His fierce coaching style turned them into the best athletes they could be, and his money and influence took care of other obstacles.
Crowder sent his son Austin, Jason Ziegler, George White--another aspiring football player who lived with the Crowders for two years--and several other promising players to football camps all over the country. He wrote hundreds of enthusiastic letters to universities recommending them for scholarships.
"He hired a man to make highlight tapes of our football games, and then he would mail these tapes off to colleges. He did this for so many kids, even friends of mine he barely knew," Jason says. "Don was trying to get us to the NFL, which was where he had wanted to go. It was almost like he was trying to live through us."
Crowder surrounded himself with kids, thriving in the obvious admiration they had for him. When his family visited their winter vacation home in Montana, each of the four Crowder children brought two or three friends along. For years he took the basketball team to the family beach house for a week to challenge the Galveston Boys Club. There, he would entertain them on the Strand and give kids from Allen, Fairview, Wylie, and Lucas a chance to play on the beach.
"He could yell, he could get upset, but the kids really respected him," says Carol. "He was like the Pied Piper."
Though not a religious man, Don went along when Carol joined the one-room United Methodist Church of Lucas. As his wealth grew, he became one of the church's biggest donors and a member of its board of trustees. At this church, among its tightly knit fellowship, Don Crowder came to know a woman who would someday become his most notorious client: Candace Lynn Montgomery.
The old Collin County courthouse once stood as the most imposing building in McKinney's modest red-brick-paved downtown. Now, it's a 19th-century memento, lending its charm to the town's sleepy business section--mostly antique shops and tea rooms capitalizing on its quaint, small-town feel.
On the afternoon of October 29, 1980, however, the cool, late-fall atmosphere was anything but provincial. The air crackled with anxiety as curious spectators waited in the crowded courtroom. The jury was deliberating its verdict in the most dramatic criminal case ever seen in this placid county: the Candace Montgomery ax-murder trial.
"Candy" Montgomery, a petite blonde housewife and mother of two, was charged with murdering Betty Gore, her friend and fellow church member, with 41 blows of a three-foot ax. Long before this afternoon, the local and national media and public opinion had turned against her; in their eyes, she was guilty as could be.
Montgomery's broken-off affair with Allan Gore, Betty's husband, became the talk of the town. Newspaper articles detailed Candy's relationship with Betty: They sang in the church choir together, and Betty trusted Candy enough to let her 7-year-old daughter spend the night with Candy's daughter. It was hard to say whether the Collin County residents hated Montgomery more for the gruesome murder or for her daring to flaunt local mores.
When the police found clues linking Montgomery to the crime scene, the first person she went to for help was Don Crowder. He was a lawyer, but most important, his was a familiar face she could trust. So the most explosive case ever seen in those parts landed in the hands of Crowder, a civil lawyer who had never handled a criminal trial. Crowder enlisted the help of Robert Udashen, a young attorney three years out of law school who had been taking the criminal cases at Crowder & Mattox.
Both lawyers' inexperience and Crowder's forceful personality combined to make their defense of Montgomery rather unconventional. One of the things neither anticipated was "how aggressive the press would be," recalls Udashen, or how much Crowder would enjoy the attention.
"I woke up one Saturday morning and saw a headline in the Dallas Times Herald that said, 'Lawyer dares police to arrest ax murderer.' They were talking about me. It made me more leery about talking to reporters. Not Don; he loved it. He kept on giving them all this misinformation...I was afraid at the time, but in the end it helped us; the district attorney had no idea what our defense was going to be until we were in court."
Playing the media had its costs: Before the trial even started, Crowder violated Judge Tom Ryan's gag order and racked up 24 hours of jail time and a $100 fine.
"Judge Ryan ran everything in Collin County back then," says Udashen. "For some reason, he just wanted Candy convicted, and he was giving us as hard a time as he could. Don was not a person to back down from anyone, judge or not, so he would stand up to Ryan." The old county judge wasn't used to that. He wasn't about to surrender control of his courtroom with the whole country watching.
"The joke around the courthouse was who was going to get more time, Candy or Crowder," recalls Howard Shapiro.
True to form, Crowder believed that Montgomery was innocent, and his in-your-face aggressiveness and unorthodox legal theories kept the prosecution off-kilter. The state might have been prepared for an insanity plea or an alibi defense, but Crowder stunned many courthouse observers when he raised the issue of self-defense at trial. The idea that she could be defending herself by hacking away at her aggressor 41 times with an ax seemed, at best, absurd.
Crowder called to the witness stand two psychiatrists who testified that Montgomery suffered from a "dissociative reaction" stemming from childhood trauma. They claimed that when Betty Gore first touched Montgomery, it triggered memories that prompted Montgomery's defensive response.
After a four-month trial, the jury finally delivered its verdict: not guilty. The perplexed silence that fell over the courtroom indicated that the only people who bought Crowder and Udashen's self-defense argument were the 12 who really counted. Montgomery was free to go--if only she could make her way through the hostile crowds who shouted out "Murderer!" as she moved among them.
"In the community, a lot of people were upset with Crowder for having defended this brazen hussy," says Jim Atkinson, who co-wrote the book, along with John Bloom. "As far as he was concerned, however, it just fed his sense that he was a hero. He had defended this poor woman no one else would defend. He just had this way of looking at everything as if he were in a movie."
Crowder wanted leading man Tommy Lee Jones to play his part in Killing in a Small Town. Ever proud of his athletic built, Crowder was disappointed when the director instead cast portly character actor Brian Dennehy.
"That case made Don both famous and infamous," says Mattox, who was then running for a seat in the U.S. House. "A lot of people in civil practice couldn't understand how he could defend a criminal, a murderer."
"After it was over, Don got death threats," Carol remembers. "People that were supposed to be our friends wouldn't sit by us when we went to football games."
But the scorn of those in the community didn't stop Crowder from trying to parlay his notoriety into grander plans. "In the original deal he struck with me," says Mattox, "Don would practice law so I could be in politics. Don kept that deal, but it could just as easily be cut from the other direction."
Crowder certainly had political ambitions. After an aborted attempt to run for the state legislature in 1969, when he was only 26 years old, Crowder never lost his taste for politics.
In 1972, he joined up with Mattox as North Texas coordinator of U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, and in the following years, he served as treasurer for Mattox's successful campaigns for the Texas House, the U.S. Congress, and Texas attorney general. Apart from his responsibilities as Allen city attorney, Crowder became president of the Lovejoy school district, and then a member of the Lucas City Council.
So in 1986, when Don Crowder announced he would run for governor, he was only following the pattern he had laid down for himself years ago: If you want it, go for it, no holds barred.
"I was lying in bed one day when he walked out of the closet, where he had been hanging his clothes--he was a very neat person--and announced he was going to run for governor," says Carol. "I almost fell out of bed. 'Most people start at the bottom and work up,' I told him."
Not Don Crowder.
He made headlines only when he called incumbent Gov. Mark White a "nerd" and a "low-life scumball," threatening to trail him around the state until White agreed to debate him. "Don was a progressive, populist individual, and he saw politics as a means of attacking some of the hypocrisy that exists in our society," says Mattox. "His run for governor was a Don Quixote challenge--he ran with very little money."
In the Democratic primary, he received 118,530 votes--more than 11 percent of the total--enough for Carol to consider it a "relative victory for an unknown," but certainly not enough for Crowder.
"He told me--and he really believed this--'If I'd had 30 more days, I would have been governor of the state of Texas,'" recalls Shapiro. "He told me, 'I am the most recognized political name in the state.'"
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.
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.
On June 21, 1998, his drinking finally resulted in a DWI, an arrest that was all the more humiliating because it occurred in Allen, the same town where he had dutifully served as the top prosecutor for more than two decades.
"He told me, when he first got arrested, that he was thinking about ending it all," says Frank Jackson. "One of his concerns was his standing in the community. Because of the DWI, he couldn't be the city attorney in Allen anymore...These were failures he just could not accept."
"Don was seeking something else in his life beyond what he had, beyond law practice, and what he was seeking did not come," says Mattox. "A lot of us never know what we are going to be when we grow up, so to speak, and Don was still searching when he got lost."
On October 25, the day of his 56th birthday, Crowder followed through on his warnings and took an overdose of a prescription medication. Rushed to Columbia Medical, he spent 28 hours in the Intensive Care Unit before he "talked his way right out of that hospital," says Sheri. "I told them I wasn't going to sign any release papers; the man was sick, and he needed help. But they let Don walk right out of there."
On October 29, as if writing his own obituary, a despondent Crowder reflected on the Montgomery trial: "That case was maybe the zenith of an extraordinarily successful career, or the demise of what could have been," he told the McKinney Courier-Gazette. Throughout the trial, he said, he "watched the Gore family. They were simple farm folk, and they didn't understand that I had a job to do. It bothered me a lot. Their faces still haunt me."
For the first time, Crowder's image of a perfect life was cracking. He had gone through his brother's suicide, Gameday's demise, the failure of his first marriage, his body's aging; and in February, he was going to court not as a lawyer but as a defendant. The unfailing, admirable man he had worked so hard to be was fracturing under the weight of his own unflagging expectations.
He did, however, make several desperate attempts at bringing back his old self. On October 6, he filed a petition to divorce Sheri. On October 15, he withdrew it. Five days before he first attempted to take his life, he reinstated the divorce petition. A week after his release from the hospital, he had it dismissed again, but told friends he planned on divorcing Sheri and remarrying Carol.
Crowder became so depressed, Carol says, "He was like a lost soul. For the first time in his life, he was afraid. He felt his life had become a roller-coaster ride he couldn't stop."
November 10 began as a typical day for Don Crowder. He woke up at dawn, as he always did, and exercised. He drove to his Allen office, where he discussed the details of a case with Robert Udashen. He left, got a haircut, and around 2 p.m. took his wife to lunch at Mi Cocina, a local restaurant they often frequented. They had a long, leisurely meal topped off with a couple of drinks, Sheri would later tell the police. Then they were home by 5 p.m., and soon got ready for bed. They always went to bed early. Only this time, when Don tried to make love to his wife, his body failed him. Perhaps this was the one final failure he just couldn't abide. He got out of bed, walked into his workout room, and put a bullet in his head.
Even in death, Don Crowder defied the ordinary, his funeral larger and grander than most. On November 14, a memorial service was held at the Turentine-Jackson-Morrow Funeral Home Chapel in McKinney, and more than 600 mourners attended. During that sunny autumn morning, friends, family, and dozens of the kids he had helped coach into adulthood walked up to the podium and remembered the impact he had on their lives. There was no preacher, but he was eulogized by so many, the service lasted two and a half hours.
True to his wishes, Crowder's body was cremated; his ashes now rest in a copper box on the mantel of Sheri's fireplace. Crowder, 54 at the time of his second marriage, told Sheri he figured he had at least another 10 good years left. "He only gave me two years, and he promised me 10," Sheri says, glancing at the mantel. "I'm going to keep him there for a while; he still owes me another eight years."
Sheri wanted a memorial service that reflected the way Don Crowder really was: The music played was the "moody stuff" he enjoyed, like Al Green and LeAnn Rimes; the photo brought for the occasion was one of his favorites, a flattering profile done years earlier. Most revealing of Don Crowder's life, however, was the sheer number of people who came together to grieve his loss.
"I didn't even know how many people he had helped," says his mother, Tynie. "It made me feel so good to see them all there...they couldn't even get in the place all at once and had to wait outside and in the parking lot."
"A lot of people pass through life and never leave a mark," says Jim Mattox, who also spoke at the memorial. "Don may not have made as great a mark as he wanted to make, or as great a mark as he could have made, but he made his mark.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.