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Simply put, as Croyle goes, so goes Bama

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- On the last Friday morning in July, five weeks before the Alabama Crimson Tide would play its first game, Brodie Croyle didn't make it two steps off the escalator into the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel. Alabama fans flocked to him, gathering before him four deep, footballs and scraps of paper in hand.

A towheaded boy who looked to be 6 years old emerged from the front, a grin from lobe to lobe, a football held gingerly with both hands, and yelled to his father, "I got it!"

Croyle, the Tide's senior quarterback, might be the most recognizable sports figure in the state. It is in part because of his position, and his matinee-idol looks. It is in part because of his unusual first name, which he says his parents plucked out of a baby-name book. What's most amazing about it is that it's not because of his play. Over the last three seasons, Croyle has become a figure both tantalizing and heartbreaking.

In his first game as a starter under new coach Mike Shula, the 2003 season opener, Croyle suffered a separation of his non-throwing shoulder. He missed two starts, and played through the pain in the other nine, and still threw for 2,303 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Last year, after throwing six touchdowns and no interceptions in the first 10 quarters of the season, Croyle blew out his right ACL in a noncontact injury against Western Carolina.

"Sophomore year was tough playing with the injury to my shoulder, knowing every time I got touched it was going to hurt," Croyle said. "Last year, by far, was the toughest year of football I've ever been through."

With Croyle leading the team, Alabama began the season 3-0. Without him, the Tide finished 6-6. The offense, rendered impotent by season-ending injuries to Croyle, tailback Kenneth Darby and fullback Tim Castille, scored fewer than 11 points per game in the six losses.

"When you lose your starting quarterback last year, then you have got true freshman receivers on the field with your second- or third-team quarterback, there's a lot of things you do differently to approach ways to win games," coach Mike Shula said.

Shula might be too politic to say that as Brodie goes, so goes Bama. But it is universally understood. Croyle is the leader and the best player on offense. On a team still hamstrung by NCAA-mandated scholarship restrictions -- the Tide will have 77 scholarship players this season, eight below the maximum -- Croyle's influence in a locker room of young, inexperienced players is palpable.

"He loves to play football," offensive coordinator Dave Rader said. "Out of 10 players, there aren't three who love it like he does."

When Rader and the rest of Shula's staff arrived after spring practice two years ago, hired after the university fired coach Mike Price, they couldn't instruct the players. Rader would draw up plays. Croyle would come into the football office, study the plays, then teach them to his teammates during summer pass drills.

"He's Superman," senior free safety Roman Harper, a close friend, said of Croyle. "He's his own kryptonite. If he can just fight off himself, he'll be all right."

The good news, Croyle says, is that "I'm kind of running out of things to hurt. ... I feel better right now than I have since I was a junior in high school."

Croyle blew out his other ACL as a senior at Westbrook Christian. His father, John, became a star defensive lineman for Alabama under Bear Bryant before blowing out his knee. His sister Reagan played basketball for the Crimson Tide and blew her knee out, too.

"I'm genetically blessed with bad knees," Croyle said with a smile. "Now that we got them fixed, I got big, sharp bones rounded off in there. I feel better knowing I don't have to worry about them anymore."

Such is Croyle's potential that NFL scouts consider the 6-foot-3 205-pounder one of the top senior quarterbacks in the nation. The Bama fans already consider him a star, and treat him like one. He understands the role. He has seen photos of his father at the Paul W. Bryant Museum on campus.

"My dad had a 'fro in college," Croyle said. A grin spread across his face. "My dad can never say anything about my hair."

John Croyle has remained a prominent figure in Alabama, where he started and continues to run a home for troubled children.

"I'd seen my dad and what he had to deal with my whole life," Croyle said. "[Once] you experience it, it's a whole new ball game. It's got its pluses. It's fun to have people know who you are and take care of you. At the same time, there are times you want to go out with your buddies or your girlfriend and just eat dinner. That ain't going to happen in Tuscaloosa."

Last month, he tried leaving the country. He and his father and some friends went to Argentina to hunt doves. While he was there, a rumor spread among Alabama fans on the Internet that he had been kidnapped, or, depending on the in-box, killed.

"We didn't have a cell phone that worked," Croyle said. "My mother had to sit there for six hours and not know if we were dead or alive. That was one of the cases where it went too far."

If Croyle has the season he's capable of, and the one Alabama needs, his status as an icon will metastasize. The trainer didn't declare him officially rehabilitated until June. But Croyle knew he had made it back during spring practice.

"I made a run," Croyle said, "and cut without thinking about it. It was during a [seven-on-seven] pass [drill]. Everything was covered. I took off running and planted. I didn't even think about it."

With a healthy Croyle, Alabama might emerge from the tangle of problems that began when coach Dennis Franchione bolted after the 2002 season and increased when Price didn't last six months. Without a healthy Croyle, well, the Tide has some experience with that.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.