Homegrown: The hard #LLB to ‘DGD’ road for Tae Crowder at Georgia
EDITOR’S NOTE: This original Tae Crowder story continues a special series in partnership with Georgia Farm Bureau profiling homegrown talent from the state of Georgia. To access the other HomeGrown Talent articles, please visit the series hub on DawgNation.com.
The eye black can tell the Tae Crowder story. Or at least kick it off.
Crowder’s eye black is the 2019 model. It no longer requires a big jumbo marker. The strip of black adhesive allows the wearer to write on that strip.
He has done so often in his breakthrough senior year. It could convey his struggle and pain, but he chooses hope instead.
It is limited, though. It cannot trace the position changes before he settled in during his fifth season in Athens. He now patrols the middle of Georgia’s nationally-rated defense. Yet his season is not an example of one of the oldest guys on the team finally being good enough.
It is more like he is finally being great.
The Harris County High alum (Hamilton, Ga.) did soak up four previous seasons of how the Georgia staff sculpts and molds its ILBs, including three under Kirby Smart.
Now, he’s finally earned the starting reps.
That’s a good story, but this takes a speed turn towards the exceptional with the way he’s played this fall. His recent selection as a Butkus Award semifinalist jacks up the degree of difficulty with his climb a great deal.
That Butkus recognition places the first-year starter among the top 12 linebackers in college football.
How does one go from four career starts to a Butkus semifinalist? What powers such a sharp hairpin turn in his football career?
Check the film each week. Then check his eye black. These scripts in white ink have been seen this fall:
“#LLB 4s up”
His head coach could start his story there, too. His proud inside linebackers coach knows what those things mean. So does his buddy up in Chicago. That’s the one who is younger than him and yet somehow he is the one who is already in his second NFL season.
Crowder just never gave up. Never. He just never walked back his dream to play for Georgia. That’s what impresses his family the most.
“LLB 4s up” is for his lost older brother. It means Long Live Big. If his brother Cortez Johnson, Jr. was still alive today, he would still just be 23 years young.
Everyone knew him as “Big Man” and not as Cortez Johnson. When Crowder makes a play, that is for him. It was inspired by him, too.
“Every time I make a big play I thank God and I just think about him every time,” Tae Crowder said.
When he said that, he took a breath. Pausing his train of thought to point to the initials “LLB” that are also tattooed across his chest and neck.
“This tat is all him,” he said. “I feel like where ever I go, then he is with me.”
Tae Crowder: Coming up out of the mud
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound senior has made a statement with his fifth season in Athens. Check the timeline.
- 2015: Rated as a 3-star and the nation’s No. 221 WR
- 2015: Was the No. 175 prospect in Georgia and No. 1868 overall (247Sports Composite)
- 2015: Almost signed with Georgia Southern.
- 2015: Redshirted. Slated to play RB at Georgia.
- 2016: Moved to ILB. Played in one game
- 2017: 15 games played. No starts. Recovered a big Rose Bowl squib.
- 2018: 15 games played. 4 starts. That’s one for every year on campus up to that point.
- 2018: tarted to get his career “up out of the mud” as he likes to say
- 2019: Started in all nine games. Second on the team in tackles.
- 2019: From WR to RB to Butkus Award Semifinalist.
Amid that progression, his world was rocked. Crowder lost his older brother. That’s why Crowder chose to write “LLB 4s up” across his eye black for the Notre Dame game.
The year was 2017. It was a traffic accident. Crowder was with his older brother the day before it happened.
The biggest question here will not be why he did not transfer out while he waited for his turn. It is how he kept his head up as he waited for his time at Georgia.
I didn't come this far, just to come this far 💪🏽
— Tae Crowder 4️⃣ (@TaeCrowder) August 5, 2017
That tweet was from back in 2017. His personal faith had been tested, but it was still strong.
It is represented by that Phillipians 4:13 verse. The wait and the grind to get to the 2019 season feels to him like it was worth the wait.
“It is just a great feeling, man,” he said after the Notre Dame game. “I just thank God for it each and every day.”
That unbreakable spirit comes from his mother, Felicia. She raised him as a single parent. That set the example. Those who know her and her son wearing that “Dirty 30” Georgia jersey describe them as two of the most positive people in this world.
Crowder already had that spirit about him. When he lost his brother, it just lent even more fuel to his will he was going to make it. Eventually.
Those who know him best clearly believe that.
Tae Crowder: What “LLB” will always mean to him
Crowder is from Pine Mountain. That part of the state might hold as many Auburn fans as it does Georgia Bulldogs. This week’s game will be another special one as it is played closer in proximity to his roots.
He grew up a Bulldog. That “4s up” part of that hashtag is a local thing. If you hear someone from that part of Georgia say “4s up” it is meant to convey they are from Pine Mountain.
There’s a reason why he also wears that bible verse beneath his eyes on gamedays. It reads: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
His older brother was hit by a car. He was on a motorcycle.
“Right where we would hang out every day,” Crowder said. “It was crazy. I was actually at school. It was on a weekend when it happened. It was just crazy.”
The two were so close, but they were just half-brothers. It didn’t lessen the bond. They were always together, but they were actually like night and day. Tae was the one who liked sports.
Georgia’s digital storytellers released a video this week about Crowder. It included the hardship of his brother’s passing. He called it one of the biggest challenges of his time at UGA.
It was. More than he lets on in that video. Some members of his family still “can’t speak on it” because it makes them so emotional.
Who We Are | Tae Crowder "I'm from Georgia, and I just take full pride in it.” pic.twitter.com/X5u43DLZ1Z
— Georgia Football (@GeorgiaFootball) November 14, 2019
When Crowder got the call with the tragic news, he was stunned. He didn’t want to believe it. So he didn’t allow himself to.
“Then you get that second call and it just confirms it,” he said.
He was with him just two days earlier. Crowder left to go back to Georgia for workouts on that Saturday.
“It happened that Saturday night,” he said. “I was with him that whole week before that. That Thursday and Friday.”
Crowder’s deep voice has some Rick Ross tones to it.
But that was a moment where a few of his deep raspy octaves cracked a little bit.
He got the “LLB” script tattoed across his neck maybe a month or two after that happened. It was necessary. Cathartic. He’s been playing to honor him and his memory ever since.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “To honor him. No doubt. It showed me I had to go. It showed me I had to grind. I took a loss in my family. It taught me to cherish every moment. You just don’t know when your day like that will come.”
He still thinks of how his brother motivated him during his senior year of high school ball.
“My senior year all he wanted to see me do was shine,” Crowder said. “When I go back and watch the film of my senior year, he was always behind me. He was always putting a hand on my helmet. He was always with me on and off the field. It was just a special bond we had.”
When he lost his brother, the Georgia program was there for him.
“The team was there for me, “Crowder says in that video. “The coaches were there for me. They let me come back when I was comfortable. I came back a week later just because I wanted to get better with the team and I used him as my motivation.”
He didn’t start playing linebacker until the end of his redshirt sophomore year.
“Another challenge I had was just coming home each day not knowing if I was going to ever play,” Crowder said. “I didn’t know if I still had a love for the sport. I just put my head down and went to work.”
Kirby Smart: His view on the Tae Crowder story
Rewind this year back to Rocky Top. The head coach of the Georgia team was beaming about Crowder’s scoop-and-score TD.
Eric Stokes forced the fumble. Crowder claimed it and hauled it for 60 yards for the final points of the 43-14 win. Smart knows what Crowder has gone through so he used the moment to crack a little joke about that ultimate havoc play.
“I told him he was probably the slowest guy on the field by the time he got to the end zone,” Smart said. “He looked like a turtle finish.”
Want to watch a game a little differently? Want to know who the good dudes really are? Watch what happens when a Bulldog makes a big play. Do his teammates swallow him up in hugs and helmet slaps they are so happy for him?
With Crowder, his teammates all dap him up. They know. Who he is. What he has worked and waited for.
They are just like Big. His team loves it when their Dirty 30 shines, too.
It was not an easy transition for Crowder at the ILB spot. It was hard. As it should be.
A young man doesn’t just put on some magic eye black and shoot out of a cannon to make that big tackle for loss he had against Notre Dame. He had nine tackles that night. Crowder came up with another 12 stops in that tough South Carolina loss.
“The first couple times he played he didn’t like contact, he wasn’t into that, but he’s come so far, and he’s such a great story in college football for perseverance and sticking it out and staying and looking to see what he’s done,” Smart told the Georgia beat reporter pool this year. “It’s pretty awesome when you think about that.”
Remember that eye black? Crowder was tested early in his Georgia career. He was determined to prove that he could go on and do all things.
It includes being rated as the nation’s No. 1868 football player coming out of high school. It means still making impact plays after waiting for your fifth season in the SEC.
It steeled him after a position change. Crowder played in just one game in his first two years at Georgia.
“I’ve known Tae since the eighth grade, he was a receiver, he got [a] scholarship super late, he came to be a running back, he was going to Georgia Southern, and then he ends up a Georgia,” Kirby Smart said earlier this year. “I can still remember the first time we practiced I thought this kid is a good athlete, he’s just not going to play running back here.”
Now, he’s a Butkus semifinalist and a proud member of this program. When he sees his name on the back of that jersey now, it means something to him.
“Because I am from Georgia and I just take full pride in it,” he said.
The young man with the #LLB underneath his eyes certainly seems worthy of another set of initials. It would be the hallowed “DGD” label that DawgNation has for players who truly reflect the Bulldog spirit.
With what he’s endured to finally make plays for Georgia, Crowder is a Damn Good ‘Dawg if there ever was one.
Georgia’s Homegrown Talent: The DawgNation series
- Down South Georgia Boy: How Richard LeCounte III kicked off the Kirby Smart era
- Homegrown: From Rodrigo Blankenship to “Hot Rod” status at Georgia
- Brian Herrien: Why he embodies the Georgia Bulldog spirit
- Trey Hill: From Homegrown to the center of the Bulldog offense
- Homegrown: The twists and turns in Quay Walker’s road to UGA
- The Eric Stokes storyline will read more like “UGA-grown”
- Charlie Woerner: Homegrown from a Bulldog family
- Jake Fromm: From Little League to duck holes to the face of a program
- Andrew Thomas develops quickly into a hometown here at UGA
- Warren McClendon: Family roots run 44 years deep for this Georgia family
- D.J. Daniel: Likely impact defensive back took a longer route to Athens
- Travon Walker: Expect big things on the line from 5-star freshman
- Dominick Blaylock: Talented freshman WR found a homegrown fit in Athens
- Nolan Smith: From “Baby Boy” to a long-awaited Bulldog in Athens