Imagine what it would be like to play for the professional football team in the city where you were born and raised.
Willis Crenshaw didn’t have to imagine it. He lived it.
Crenshaw, who grew up in St. Louis’ Central West End, was a two-sport star for Soldan High School and a football player at Kansas State University for three years. The Cardinals selected Crenshaw in the ninth round of the 1963 NFL draft. A multi-talented offensive back who could run, block and catch, Crenshaw played six seasons for the Big Red (1964-69) before finishing his NFL career with the Denver Broncos (1970).
What was it like playing in front of family and friends at Sportsman’s Park and, later, Busch Stadium—venues located only a few miles from his neighborhood?
“I felt fortunate to be able to do that because there were a lot of guys who wished that was their situation,” Crenshaw said. “The whole thing was just an amazing experience for me.”
Let’s back up Crenshaw’s story just a bit. Before he became a football star, he made his mark in track and field. Not as a sprinter. Not as a hurdler. Not as a jumper, or a distance runner, or a shot-putter.
No, Crenshaw was a pole vaulter—a somewhat self-made pole vaulter who fashioned his own vault box and used a wooden curtain rod (much to his mother’s chagrin) to jump over a 6 ½-foot fence that separated his back yard and a concrete alley. He always tried to land on his feet; when he didn’t, there was a painful price to pay.
Eventually, Crenshaw was invited to participate on Soldan’s track and field team. As a sophomore in 1958, he was the Class L co-champion in the Missouri State High School Track and Field Meet, with a vault of 12 feet, 8 ¼ inches (his all-time personal best was 13-2). Although he also played football in high school, he was awarded a track scholarship to Kansas State University.
When he started at K-State, Crenshaw weighed about 185 pounds. But after spending time—maybe too much time—at the training table, he shot up to 215. “I was too heavy to pole vault. I couldn’t get up,” Crenshaw said during a phone conversation from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
K-State switched Crenshaw’s track scholarship to a football scholarship. He started out playing defensive end but was moved to running back after the Wildcats suffered injuries in the backfield. As a junior in 1962, he led the Wildcats in rushing yards.
When he played for the Cardinals, Crenshaw had a lot of competition in the offensive backfield. In his first couple of seasons, it was John David Crow and Joe Childress, Bill Triplett and Prentice Gautt. Later, Johnny Roland came aboard.
Finally, in 1968, Crenshaw became the team’s leading rusher. He started all 14 games and carried a team-leading 203 times for 813 yards and six touchdowns (he also caught 23 passes for 232 yards and one TD).
Crenshaw, who never missed a game in his six seasons with the Big Red, was traded to Denver for a third-round draft pick after the 1969 season. Although he primarily was a blocking back who played behind both Floyd Little and Bobby Anderson in 1970, Crenshaw had a team-high five rushing touchdowns in his final NFL season.
For his NFL career, Crenshaw played in 96 games and rushed 642 times for 2,428 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also caught 104 passes for 797 yards and three TDs.
Like most NFL players back then, Crenshaw had to supplement his football income by working at jobs off the field. While in St. Louis, he was a salesman for both Metropolitan Life Insurance and the Monsanto Company. After being traded to Denver, he was an ad salesman for the ABC-TV affiliate in Washington, D.C. He eventually moved to New York where, after his football career, he worked as a salesman for CBS-TV and on Wall Street as a financial planner. He even owned an ice cream parlor, “Ice Cream Park,” for five years.
Then, in 1991, he retired. “I just decided to play golf and have fun,” he said.
Crenshaw became a 10-handicap golfer. He earned a black belt in martial arts. He learned to dance the tango. But age and bodily deterioration eventually caught up to him, forcing him to give up both golf and dancing.
Now 81, Crenshaw still performs a 25-minute workout every day, combining weight training, aerobics and core exercises. He enjoys reading—especially medical journals. He learned to play the electric guitar and has sat in on sets for a jazz band and a blues band in New York restaurants. He also is an amateur magician; show him five $1 bills and he will turn them into five $100 bills—or make them disappear.
Despite all of those skills, Crenshaw fears that he has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain condition/degeneration suffered by athletes, particularly football players and boxers, after repeated blows to the head. Although C.T.E. can’t be diagnosed without an autopsy of the brain, Crenshaw has several symptoms: balance issues, headaches, short-term memory loss. As much as he loved playing with numbers when he worked on Wall Street, he now has trouble calculating the tip on a dinner bill.
Crenshaw and Golda Peskin, his partner of 22 years, live on the seventh floor of a 17-story apartment building that borders Grand Army Plaza, an ovoid memorial at the main entrance to Prospect Park in Brooklyn—built much like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris—with several streets running off it like tentacles. When Crenshaw looks out from one side of his apartment, he sees Prospect Park. When he looks out from the other side, he sees the East River.
“It’s a very beautiful place to live,” he said.
And, like playing football for his hometown team, Crenshaw doesn’t have to imagine it.