When the Nease football program won the state championship in 2005, an enamored fifth grade boy sitting in the stands set a plan in motion. As he watched his older brother Travis – the team’s starting left tackle – protect quarterback Tim Tebow’s blind side and play with other Nease greats, he decided to follow in his footsteps.
“For me, growing up and seeing those kids like my brother and everybody that played at Nease that won states and watching them go to college and play on TV…it definitely was something I wanted to do since I was a little kid,” said Lucas Crowley.
More than 10 years later, Crowley has followed through on his plan. With one game remaining in his career at University of North Carolina – a Sun Bowl matchup against Stanford Dec. 30 in El Paso, Texas – the former Nease standout is one of the top offensive linemen in college football and soon to pursue the National Football League.
Coming into his senior season, the 6-foot-3, 290-pounder was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, which recognizes the country’s top center. By the end of the year, Crowley was named to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference’s second team and selected as the ACC lineman of the week three times.
“It’s been a good year,” Crowley said. “I set a few goals before this year, and I’ve accomplished a lot of them. It was exciting getting a few accolades, which was something I have worked for all three years.”
Reflecting on his life’s journey and accomplishments, Crowley is quick to pay homage to Nease and the Ponte Vedra community
“All those people at Nease helped me a lot,” he said. “I haven’t regretted going to Nease for one day. I loved it.”
Crowley started playing football in Ponte Vedra when he was in first grade. Due to his size and raw ability, he played Pop Warner with kids who were three years older than he was, father Dan Crowley said. Once he outgrew Pop Warner, Crowley played in Ponte Vedra’s Junior Development League until high school.
Based on where the Crowleys lived in Ponte Vedra, the budding football star had a choice to attend either Nease or Ponte Vedra. After watching his brother’s state championship team, it was an easy decision for him to become a Panther.
During Crowley’s freshman year, he played on the defensive line. It wasn’t until his sophomore year that the coaching staff convinced him to switch to offensive line. He immediately made an impression.
“Right away when he got to high school, you could tell that he was a special kid and certainly had some special talent,” said David San Juan, a former Nease offensive line coach.
Crowley played left tackle, like his brother, until his senior year, when Nease hired a new coaching staff led by former NFL and University of Florida quarterback Shane Matthews. Corey Yarbrough, a former center for the Gators and Nease offensive line coach, convinced Crowley to move to center.
At about the same time of this positional change, Crowley committed to North Carolina after receiving interest from several other programs.
“I set a visit date to go visit North Carolina and the weekend after that I was supposed to go to Missouri and Nebraska,” said Crowley. “I drove up to North Carolina with my parents, and I just fell in love with the place. It was a place I felt comfortable.”
Crowley committed within a few days of his visit and canceled his recruiting trips the following weekend – a decision that Tar Heels Offensive Coordinator Chris Kapilovik embraced.
“Everybody just raved about him,” said Kapilovik, who recruited Crowley. “The coaching staff he had there in high school had been around the NFL game and some high division one programs, and they were all sold on him.”
Crowley was drawn to North Carolina for many reasons, one of which was the opportunity to play for the Tar Heels early. By the middle of his freshman season, he got his opportunity.
“Typically you redshirt your linemen,” said Kapilovik. “But he showed that he had some signs of possibly being the guy that could help us.”
In his first start against University of Pittsburgh, Crowley lined up against Panthers star defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who is currently an All-Pro player in the NFL for the Los Angeles Rams.
“Lucas had a few tough moments against him,” said Kapilovik. “But like I told him: There’s a chance you may not play against another guy as good as him the rest of your career so it’s probably going to look up from here.”
Crowley would go on to thrive for North Carolina as the starting center over the next three years.
“The first thing that comes to mind is how he’s gotten better every year,” said Kapilovik. “It’s comforting to know you can really count on him. I don’t have to worry about him on game day. He’s been our best lineman all year.”
At 8-4 this year, North Carolina finished in the middle of the ACC pack after coming into the season with high expectations. When Crowley reflects on the season, losses to Duke and North Carolina State are tough to swallow, but the upset win over Florida State Oct. 1 is a game he highlights as a proud moment.
“That was an incredible feeling,” said Crowley, whose team beat Florida State on a last-second field goal. “I was so nervous that I couldn’t watch the field goal. I was sitting on a knee with my head down staring at the ground, praying it would go in. I just waited for everyone to celebrate around me.”
Crowley grew up a Florida State fan, with many of his extended family members attending the university. So, when the Tar Heels defeated the then No. 12 ranked Seminoles in Tallahassee and broke the team’s 22-game home winning streak, it was a special moment for his family.
“My wife and I said if they can pull that game off, they didn’t need to win any others,” said a chuckling Dan Crowley.
Now, just one college football game remains for Crowley: a matchup with the Cardinal.
“We feel pretty good,” Crowley said about the Sun Bowl game. “I think that everybody is locked in and wants to get this last win for the seniors and for the program. Just because we had those few bad losses doesn’t mean we’re not a very good team. We’re still here, and we’re still a really good team. We want to go out and have the chance to prove that again and do what we can do.”
After the bowl game, the former Nease standout will play in the East-West Shrine game, an annual postseason college football all-star game, Jan. 21 in St. Petersburg.
Crowley then has one more one more dream to chase: the NFL. Kapilovik thinks he’s a guy that can consistently play on Sundays.
“With him improving every year and this being his best year, I don’t have any doubt that he can get it done,” he said. “Somebody is going to take him. When they do, he’ll work hard. His football knowledge and IQ will stand out. He’s a guy that’s going to be a solid player for you.”
Dan Crowley already has a team in mind.
“It’s been his dream since he was little to play for the Jaguars,” he said. “They need a little help. You never know. I’d be proud of him doing whatever he decides to do.”
It’s undetermined if Crowley will participate in the NFL Scouting Combine in February, and the date for North Carolina’s pro day for NFL scouts is also to be determined. Regardless, he will train, and he will set a goal just like he did some ten years ago.
“It’s surreal when you look back on everything and see where you came from,” said Crowley. “I’ve played football since I was in first grade. It’s crazy to think about how fast it went and where I am now and where I was then. I wouldn’t be here without all the people that helped me along the way.”