SOUTH BEND – Sports is littered with stories of players returning from devastating injuries. From torn ACLs, ruptured Achilles tendons, Tommy John surgery, the narrative fits a familiar template: months of grueling rehab, followed by low points when it feels as though complete recovery is impossible, before – hopefully – ultimate success and a return to the playing field at 100%.
Shaun Crawford did all that. Then he did it again. And again.
That is the story of the Notre Dame defensive back's career, which is now in its fifth season: flashes of brilliance interspersed with serious injuries.
He missed the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL, all but two games in 2016 with a torn Achilles and all of 2018 with another ACL tear. Now, Crawford is finally healthy, starting for the Irish at cornerback and trying to prove that all of the rehab, all of the waiting, has been worth it.
“Going into every game that's my No. 1 goal, no matter how I play, no matter the outcome is just to walk off the field healthy,” Crawford said. “Just to be able to contribute any way I can.”
Crawford's third injury came in August 2018, just days before the Irish were set to open their season against Michigan. He played in all 13 games in 2017, finishing with 32 tackles, seven pass breakups and two interceptions.
Then came the second ACL tear. After that third injury in four seasons, some players likely would have questioned whether another recovery process was worth the pain, worth the outrageous effort – whether their football career should end. Crawford never asked those questions.
“I don't know the future,” Crawford said. “I usually just take (my recovery) day by day. I do know what happened in the past. I came back from two (injuries), so why can't I come back from three?
“As long as the coaches were going to give me the opportunity to, I felt, 'Why not?' I had nothing to lose.”
Crawford, a Lakewood, Ohio, native, leaned on teammates and family during his third rehab, which stretched past spring ball and into this summer. His mother would sometimes send him photos of herself working out on a track early in the morning to motivate him to attack his own workouts. Meanwhile, his teammates and coaches never doubted he'd be back.
“There's always going to be those times, those low points, where you're going through a third operation that (you think) maybe it's not in the cards,” coach Brian Kelly said. “But it never happened with me and Shaun. I have always felt that he was going to overcome this again, because that's the kind of spirit he has.
“He's exactly where I thought he would be. Going to be playing a major role in the success of this football team.”
Crawford's rehab culminated in Notre Dame's Week 1 win over Louisville, when he turned in four tackles and combined with Troy Pride Jr. to form a lockdown cornerback combination.
His fellow Irish defensive backs are thrilled to have him back in the lineup.
“(Crawford)'s instincts are off the charts, football IQ,” safety Alohi Gilman said. “He's one of the smartest guys in the room. Put him out on the field with his instincts, it makes a great player. Just competitiveness, his tenacity, I love having him out there.”
It's been five years of near-constant struggle for the Irish corner. Now all that's left is playing football.
For Crawford, being on the field is a victory by itself.
Notre Dame vs. New Mexico
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
When: 2:30 p.m.
Records: Notre Dame (1-0), New Mexico (1-0)
Radio: 1190 AM, 92.3 FM