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Remembering Those With Retired Jerseys: Memphis Tigers Defensive Back Bill Crumby

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A walk-on and true son of Memphis, his career-ending injury was overshadowed by the life he led afterwards.

A plaque in the Memphis Athletics Hall of Fame lists the 2004 M Club inductees. Bill Crumby's name is second from the top.
A plaque in the Memphis Athletics Hall of Fame lists the 2004 M Club inductees. Bill Crumby's name is second from the top.
Daniel Taylor

Last Friday, Memphis football writer cdjames84 started a five-week feature covering the retired jerseys of Memphis football with his article on Dave Casinelli. This week, we'll look at a special case, defensive back Bill Crumby.

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Let's go ahead and get this disclaimer out of the way now: Bill Crumby's number 39 jersey is not officially retired by The University of Memphis. It was practically removed from circulation by popular acclamation after one fateful Saturday in 1977.

The Memphis State football Tigers were a tough bunch. They had fought to a 4-3 record in 1977, with some impressive wins and some baffling losses. When October 29th rolled around, they were ready. The game that day was against rival Southern Miss, who had won four straight games against the Tigers. Memphis State was ready to show that things had changed; that Southern Miss couldn't out-tough and out-mean them.

Bill Crumby was as excited as anyone. Crumby had roots in Memphis, growing up in the bluff city where his father, W. O. Crumby, served as chief of police. Bill graduated from local Christian Brothers High School and joined the Memphis State football team as a walk-on defensive back. Crumby wasn't a big star for the Tigers, but he did win a role on the kickoff coverage team and had a few tackles at that point in the 1977 campaign.

The 1977 Memphis State-Southern Miss game went well, with the Tigers taking a 20-0 lead with just 35 seconds left till halftime. On the ensuing kickoff, Crumby went in for the tackle on Golden Eagle ball carrier Willis Tullis but missed, hitting Memphis State teammate Tony Graves instead.

Tullis got up and Graves got up, but Crumby stayed on the turf. Seconds ticked away, but still there was no movement from the sophomore defensive back. The crowd at the Liberty Bowl went silent. Trainers rushed to his side. Rather than risk moving him any considerable distance, the medics backed an ambulance through the South tunnel and onto the field.

Crumby was taken to Baptist Hospital, where doctors used traction to remove the pressure on his spinal cord. Early reports from the local newspapers, the Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar, noted that he had fractured a vertebra in his neck.

In the span of a moment, the 19-year-old son of Memphis, Bill Crumby, found himself a quadriplegic.

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Those are the facts. They spell a sad story.

But a life is defined by more than one moment. Bill Crumby's was too.

This was a man who went through a year of rehabilitation and then returned to Memphis State to finish his degree. He started a chain of dry cleaning stores. His injury did not dampen his resolve.

This was a man who flew with his family to the Soviet Union because doctors there had an enzyme treatment that might help his spinal injury. Only, once he got there, the Soviet doctors determined he would need additional spinal surgery first. While he was thinking it over, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, and he decided it would be wiser to get on back to the states. "[I'm] too American and too redneck" he said. His injury did not dampen his humor.

This was a man who regained enough use in his arms to drive a van, becoming a fixture around town: the "Big Guy in the Monster Wheelchair," as the Memphis Flyer's Dennis Dugan put it in an online article. He'd go to discos with lovely ladies in tow. His injury did not dampen his spirit.

And this was a man who kept attending Tiger games; who told people they should use their abilities to help others; who "never spent a minute getting down about [his] situation because [he] knew it was something [he] had no control over." His injury did not dampen his purpose.

Those are facts too. They spell, if not a happy story, at least a more complete one.

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Crumby never liked that his number was in unofficial retirement. He thought a football player should wear it. As if respecting his wishes, upon his death in 2000 the school started assigning the number to a Memphis Tiger; always a defensive back, and always a walk-on.

It's a reminder that none of us really goes through life alone. No one lives in a vacuum.

I'm just an Internet-jockey whose worst misfortune is having to settle for Nacho Cheese Doritos occasionally because the store is out of Cool Ranch, but, in reviewing the life of Bill Crumby, a question came to mind. I've asked and answered it myself. May I ask it to you?

What is your purpose? Are you investing in something greater than yourself? Are you building something that will outlast you?

Bill Crumby's life and lesson still rings out.

Quotes for this article were taken from "He'll Be Fine" by Dennis Dugan for the Memphis Flyer and "On This Day in Memphis History" by G. Wayne Dowdy.