By Jon Weisman
Terry Crews is as big as they come, but his heart is even bigger. And Dodger Stadium has played a not-so-small part in that.
The actor, author, artist and former NFL player, currently co-starring on Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” explained why Blue Heaven on Earth is so particularly important to him.
Simply, it began with a desire to find something, in between 12-hour workdays on set and the endless cycle of travel, to find an activity to share with his wife and four children. But, as Crews recalled, the Dodger Stadium experience became much more than eating hot dogs and cheering for home runs.
“A lot of people have a lot of different reasons for loving the Dodgers, and most of the time they have to do with baseball, but for me, it has a lot more to do with family,” Crews said. “Because literally, my wife and I had been going through a really, really hard time, and in 2013 she was invited to sing the National Anthem, and I have to say it was kind of after we came out of this kind of darkness.
“The moment she sang that National Anthem, the sun was going down, and I was there with my kids, the whole thing. We had spent 20 years raising our family, and she was now getting back into her music, and this was the culmination of that. I tell you, it meant so much to me that I actually made it the last chapter of my book. That was the moment that kind of summed everything up, that I knew I was going to be OK.”
Three years later, as Crews told this story unsolicited, you could feel how much it continued to resonate with him.
“When people say baseball is a very spiritual thing, it’s just what it is,” he continued. “It’s more than just about the games. It’s just so deep, and to me, it has tremendous meaning. I got kind of deep there, but really, that’s what it is. And really to this day, those Dodger games, every time I’m invited, if I can get there, I do. But I never go alone. I always have to bring a friend, a family member, kids. We go there, and we always are closer when it’s over.
“When you start to appreciate the beauty of what this whole thing is, it’s a very spiritual experience. I don’t know what else to say … it was beyond belief. We would never have been able to get that anywhere else. It was once-in-a-lifetime.”
Crews’ appreciation for baseball as a fan goes back years, though he admits he didn’t play much as a kid.
“My big experience in baseball was kind of frustrating, because growing up in Michigan, the weather was always a factor,” he said. “It would be freezing, and I would always go to from football to basketball to track once everything thawed out, and baseball was very hard to do. Plus, with fields being scarce — there would be a lot of basketball courts, but not a lot of fields. So my baseball experience is really, really limited.
“But, one of my earliest memories — my first professional event I ever went to was a Tiger game. I remember all the students went down on the bus, and the big thing about baseball was you could actually enjoy the people around you while you’re watching the game. That was one of the biggest, most fun things (for) my friends and I — we could laugh and do all sorts of things, and then when something happened, we were like, ‘Oh yeah!’ ”
When fellow Michigan native Kirk Gibson and former Tiger came up to bat for the Dodgers during Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, Crews was in front of the television at his mother’s house.
“Kirk Gibson — come on.” Crews marveled in recollection. ” I don’t care what sport you’re in, what you’re about, you gotta go, ‘My God — that’s incredible.’ I was literally sitting in my basement at home, back in Flint, Michigan. Incredible time.”
Later, during an NFL career that began with the Rams and took him through San Diego, Washington and Philadelphia, Crews developed even greater respect for baseball players.
“You know, it’s funny,” said Crews. “When I played on the Chargers, they would never switch the (playing surface) from the Padres. We’d play on the dirt. When we were at Jack Murphy Stadium, what I remember from the baseball field was, ‘Damn, there is no cushion over there. I remember scraping (myself) up. People feel like somehow that’s, ‘Oh that’s not real dirt — that’s kind of like this genetically modified dirt that it’s somehow softer when you fall.’ They think there’s a whole giant pad underneath that giant dirt. When were were playing, I was like, ‘This is dirt’ — and it hurt!
“And I remember getting up scraped and the whole thing and it kind of made me imagine what it must feel like sliding, and I have much more equipment on than a baseball player. These guys are sliding around in this stuff all day. … it made me realize how hard this really was.”
Crews also said he was more comfortable with the idea of a running back rushing toward him than a 99 mph fastball.
“That ball is going so fast, it’s a projectile — it’s like a bullet,” Crews said. “You have to have a tremendous amount of courage every time you go to the plate, because you don’t know what’s going to happen — you really don’t know. There’s always this one chance, and this element of something could go wrong, and there’s been many examples of it going wrong and people being hurt. So you always have that excitement and adrenaline rush that ‘I have to be courageous to face this pitcher, every time I do it.’ Like I said, people think football players are tough, (but) man, baseball players have this whole other level of courage.”
— terrycrews (@terrycrews) July 15, 2014
Though Crews has the prime physical pedigree among the “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” crew, he’s not the only sports fan. One of the show’s executive producers is Michael Schur, who under his alias Ken Tremendous co-authored the Fire Joe Morgan blog years back, and who partners with columnist Joe Posnanski on a fun and wide-ranging sports podcast. Several cast members are also fanatics.
“Andy (Samberg) is a big, big sports nut,” Crews said. “Now, he’s from the Bay, so everything Bay-oriented, he’s in. He’s been super-disappointed in his 49ers right now, but to even it out, the Warriors are killing it, and I know he’s a Giants fan. Joe Lo Truglio is a gigantic baseball fan. He actually flew right after one of our episodes ended to go to the World Series. He was rooting for the Dodgers last year, major — they didn’t go, but he was always talking about it.”
Where it really gets interesting with Crews is talking about his transition from athletics to acting. It wasn’t that he woke up one day after too many collisions on a football field and decided, ‘Hey, there must be easier ways to make a buck.’ Performing was on his mind from childhood.
“I was a big TV guy, and a lot of the comedies that were on TV back in the day, I was a big fan,” the 47-year-old Crews said. “I was a big Carol Burnett fan. I loved song-and-dance stuff. Big (on) Redd Foxx, with ‘Sanford and Son.’ I would watch all the sitcoms: ‘The Jeffersons,’ ‘All in the Family,’ that kind of stuff. But then I was a giant ‘Star Wars’ fan.”
Talents like Jim Brown, Merlin Olson, Fred Dryer, and yes, O.J. Simpson (“I know, it’s like a dirty word right now,” Crews said) showed Crews that there was a path to the screen.
“When you see athletes who made that transition into entertainment, it let me know it was possible,” he said. “I remember Alex Karras on ‘Webster,’ and (that was a) big thing because he was a Detroit Lion and everybody knew him in Michigan as a Lion.
“It got to the point it was bad, because a lot of athletes felt a movie career was kind of owed them right after they decided to retire. And we found out really quick it didn’t work out that way with Shaq,” Crews added with a laugh. “And Shaq is my boy, but he’ll understand. But it’s one of those things, where you realize you really do have to be talented. I’m a big, big ‘Rocky’ fan. Sylevester Stallone is one of my good friends, but when you see Carl Weathers, knowing he was a professional football player and (then) he was Apollo Creed, I was like, ‘These are my heroes, these are the guys I was like — it’s possible. We can do this.”
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Some people take a long time to understand what Crews realized at a young age. He refused to sell himself short or let others try to.
“You can do more than you think you can,” Crews maintained. “A lot of times, people try to make you choose. It’s funny because somehow, somewhere, we kind of have put it in our heads that you can only have one dream. But that’s not true. … You basically are more than one person, in different ways. You can reinvent yourself all the time.
“I would tell any 16-year-old to always, always do it all. Don’t get so wrapped up in one thing to the exclusion of others. And the thing is, as long as you concentrate and focus very very well, you can do the two or three things extremely well. A lot of people try to convince you to give this up or give that up, but you have more time than you think. I mean, you stop playing video games, stop watching a couple of hours of TV — you gain another skill very quickly. It’s just a matter of how you spend your time and what you enjoy doing, because if you enjoy it – you’ll do it more.”
The key, Crews said, is that the passion has to come from within you.
“If your parents are “Do it!” that’s a whole other thing,” he pointed out. “That’s something I hear in the sports world from a lot of people. My parents never did, but I knew guys who were in the NFL who were like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to quit doing this.’ The only reason they were doing this was because their father or people in their family made them do
“I always saw myself doing what I’m doing right now, and there’s other things that I’m doing that other people don’t know about. I’m an artist, I have some different companies, I want to be a restaurateur, (there’s) furniture that I’m designing, different stuff like that. This is stuff that I decided that I’m gonna do, because I like to do it.”
Crews has set an the example throughout his life. Go for it all, and never expect anything to be handed to you.
“Look, you have to play the price,” Crews said. “No one does it for you. It’s one of those things, if you’ve got it and you want to do it, you’ll provably enjoy paying the price — that’s the best thing about it. To me, when you want something bad enough that you’re willing to save up for it, when you get it is one of the sweetest things of all time.”