Mike Croel Rode the Waves to Nebraska
Story by Shane G. Gilster
Mike Croel was a dude on the field for the Huskers but his first love was riding the waves on his surfboard. If you look at some of the Nebraska football photos of him, you will see a white towel with a surf image hanging out of his back pocket.
“I’ve been surfing since I was thirteen years old,” Croel said. “My love of surfing came when I grew up in Los Altos [California]. That was back in the 1980s, when you didn’t see too many black kids surfing. I was more of a dirt bike racing, skateboarding, and going to the beach kind of kid. I didn’t start playing football until junior high flag football. My dad wasn’t a big sports fan so our household wasn’t into it.”
It wasn’t until Croel and his family moved across the country to Massachusetts that he got more into sports. Croel played his last two years of high school at Lincoln-Sudbury where he was an all-state tight end on back-to-back state title teams. He was also the New England high school 100-meter dash champion.
“When I moved to Sudbury, I did pretty well in track and won the 100 meters (10.7) my senior year,” he said. “I was the biggest guy on the track, so for someone my size to run that fast was unusual. A high school coach from Connecticut was going to be one of the assistant coaches at Nebraska so he told them about me. That is how things got started in the recruiting process.”
NU assistant coach Frank Solich was Croel’s primary recruiter for Nebraska. Having grown up mostly in California, Croel originally wanted to go back there to college. But his favorite school (UCLA) didn’t recruit him so his final choices were Penn State, Syracuse and Nebraska.
“I visited Nebraska during a snowstorm, so you can’t accuse me of picking them because of the weather,” Croel laughed. “NU had a good academic program; the coaches were really friendly and the football program was amazing.”
Croel along with teammate Joe Sims committed to the Huskers and became part of the 1987 recruiting class that also included quarterback Mickey Joseph who is now on the Husker coaching staff.
“Joe and I made our own decisions and it just happened to be Nebraska. I was recruited at linebacker but when I got to Nebraska, they weren’t sure were to put me,” said Croel who also played receiver and returned kicks in high school. “My speed was a big factor in my success, if I made a mistake, I could overcome it with my speed. No one could catch me and I could catch anyone I wanted.”
Croel’s fastest clocked time was a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash but he was on the lighter side of the Husker linebackers, weighing around 225. But playing on the outside, he could be aggressive and cover receivers. His speed and versatility helped him become one of three true freshmen to play along with defensive backs Reggie Cooper and Tahaun Lewis.
Croel made a name for himself on special teams his first two years. He blocked a kick as a freshman and the following year, had a team-high two punt blocks, which resulted in Husker TDs. He then moved into the starting role at outside linebacker in 1989 and 1990.
His best games at Nebraska came in his junior year. One was against Utah when he was named the Big Eight defensive player-of-the-week. Game. Croel had five tackles (four unassisted), broke up two passes and returned an interception six yards for a TD. Then against Oregon State, he had a career-high eight tackles, including two sacks for 15 yards, a quarterback hurry, and a pass breakup.
As a senior, Croel was second on the team in sacks (5) and the fifth-leading tackler with 61. The Blackshirt defense was touted as the best in school history during most of 1990 season. Then November hit. The Huskers were 8-0 and faced the nineth-ranked Buffaloes in Lincoln. NU looked to be in great shape heading into the fourth quarter up 12-0 until the Buffs scored 27 unanswered to win 27-12.
“We had a really good defense, but the night before that game against Colorado, our video production crew made a highlight tape to the song ‘Wipeout’ by the Fat Boys / Beach Boys and showed it to our defense. I think we got too hyped up and it hurt us the next day,” Croel said.
The Huskers finished 9-3 that season but Croel was a second-team All-American, first-team All-Big Eight, and a Butkus Award semifinalist.
Leading up to the 1991 NFL Draft, Croel became a hot commodity. He did well in the NFL combine and kept moving up the draft board. He was a sure-fire first rounder but declined an invite to New York in favor of staying at home to watch the draft with his family. He had heard too many horror stories about guys sitting in the draft room and dropping out of the first round.
But Croel went higher than anyone expected, being the number four overall draft pick by the Denver Broncos. His teammate, Bruce Pickens, went third to Atlanta.
“I was surprised at the time to go that high but the draft is all about teams drafting for what they need. You could be the best linebacker in the draft but could go later based on team needs,” Croel said.
Because of contract negotiations, Croel showed up late to the Broncos training camp and was thrust into a starting role after starter Tim Lucas went down with a knee injury. Croel used his speed and athleticism as a pass rusher to record ten sacks and be named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was two sacks shy of tying the team record.
“Denver gave me the opportunity to rush the passer as a strongside linebacker,” Croel said. After my first year, my sack productivity went down but I was doing what I was supposed to do at my position. I looked at myself as a linebacker/defensive back. Half the time I was covering the number two receiver.”
Croel’s sack production was cut down to half (5) each of the next two seasons, but his tackle total went up each year with a career-high 110 tackles in 1993. That season he also had an interception return for a touchdown against Brett Favre of Green Bay Packers.
Then in his fourth season, Mike Shanahan came in as head coach and did a rehaul of the Denver team, causing Croel to have one-year stints at the New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks.
“I wanted to play defensive end and rush the passer so I played in the World League to get practice at defensive end and then played my final season in the NFL with Seattle. I then took a year off and had a chance to play in the XFL, but because of injuries, I decided against it,” he said.
Since his retirement from football, Croel has become a surfer dude, taking surfing trips to Costa Rica, Bali Indonesia, and Maldives.
“I usually try to get out about four times per week and about two hours every time,” said Croel, who mainly surfs at Malibu, California. “There are always around a couple hundred people in the water and I know sixty percent of them. We are all trying to catch the perfect wave and just have a good time. Surfing keeps me shape and is a great workout in the water. It is also relaxing when it’s just me and my board.”
Croel does a little real estate on the side along with sports consulting work with speed and agility programs for kids. He also does some artwork on the side, having been a graphic design major at Nebraska.
“I like doing abstract artwork, manipulating photos, and painting,” Croel said. “I mainly do stuff for myself but have done movie posters and designing signs and logos for people.”
Croel has two daughters. Chase (18) will be graduating from high school this year and with hopes of earning a track scholarship and Carson (22) is at San Francisco University studying sports medicine.
Croel doesn’t watch much football as he would rather spend his time at the beach but he still follows his Huskers.
“I am shocked at what is happening at Nebraska,” said Croel who is planning on coming back for this year’s Spring Game. “The program went downhill after they got rid of Frank [Solich]. They should have just left Frank alone.”