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Carl Crawford
Speedster overcame odds to reach big stage

By Mychael Urban /

One of many October participants with ties to the Houston area, Rays outfielder Carl Crawford is living a dream.

Having made his big league debut in 2002, he's the longest-tenured player on Tampa Bay's roster, so more than anyone he's a symbol of perseverance in the Hollywood-style story of the Rays' rise from perennial doormat to American League champions.

There was nothing Hollywood about Crawford's early days, however, and thus his ascension to stardom after having been raised by a single mother in Houston's notorious Fifth Ward should serve as inspiration to similarly challenged youngsters all over the country.

The Fifth Ward has been called "The Bloody Fifth," and a 2004 article in the Houston Press explained why: "Say the words 'Fifth Ward' to most Houstonians, and they'll think crime, poverty and desperation."

Gerald Garcia, Crawford's baseball coach for four years at Houston's Jefferson Davis High School, suggested that the Fifth Ward's reputation is a little overblown. But he acknowledged the inherent hardships of the area while giving credit to Crawford's mother, Leisha, for guiding her two
sons -- Cory is about two years younger than Carl -- through them.

"I'm not gonna tell you it wasn't dangerous," Garcia told by phone while sitting with Davis High principal Jamie Castaneda. "But no matter where you're from, if there's people looking out for you and you're a good person, you can make it. And Carl had a lot of things going for him and a lot of people looking out for him.

"He was just like any other kid. He got into a little trouble here and there like every other kid, but he was always a good kid."

Garcia also noted that Crawford's father, Steve Burns, who split with Leisha when Carl and Cory were toddlers, didn't exactly abandon his sons.

"He was always around," said the coach, "but his mother was the driving force, no doubt about it."

"His parents were super people, and Carl really was a good kid" added Castaneda, the assistant principal when Crawford graduated in 1999. "We knew he was special. I'm not surprised he's so successful now."

Nor is anyone else familiar with Crawford's days as a three-sport star at Davis, where he perpetuated the athletic achievements of his bloodline.

Leisha was a standout volleyball and basketball player in high school, and her brother, Jack, played Minor League baseball. Those athletic bloodlines were evident as Crawford ran the point for the basketball team, ran the option as the football team's quarterback and batted .500 in his senior season before being selected by Tampa Bay in the second round of the 1999 Draft.

Age: 27

Houston, Texas

Jefferson Davis High School

Team: TB

Video | Player bio

Crawford turned down a basketball scholarship at UCLA and signed a letter of intent to play quarterback at Nebraska -- then coached by Frank Solich -- but eventually backed out to give baseball, which he's called his "third love" as a teen, his full attention.

Solich's Cornhuskers went 7-7 in 2002, which would have been Crawford's senior year, and Solich was fired after the 2003 season.

"If Carl would have gone to Nebraska, Solich would probably still be the coach there," Garcia said with a laugh. "The option was made for Carl."

Garcia knew, however, that Crawford made the right decision to dedicate himself to the diamond, so he had him sign a baseball before graduation.

"I have it in a special place in my house," Garcia said. "When people come over, I take them back to see it."

Crawford, 27, went back to Davis two years ago to be inducted into the school's Hall of Fame.

"He came in to visit and interacted with the kids; he was very generous to everyone," Castaneda said. "We actually give him credit for motivating our kids."

The school returned the favor with rabid support for the Rays' run to the World Series. There was a TV monitor in each classroom on which daily announcements were made, and Castaneda school officials procured a highlight reel of Crawford to play for the students.

"The students are very proud of Carl Crawford," Castaneda said. "We already have one Hall of Famer from Davis (1950's NBA star Slater Martin), and we'd all like to see Carl become the second."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.