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Keion Crossen ’18 didn’t just grow up a long way from the NFL; he grew up a long way from anywhere. Back in his hometown of Garysburg, on North Carolina’s east coast near the Virginia state line, he had to ride a bus 45 minutes every morning just to get to school. And when Western Carolina held a football travel camp in Plymouth, a 90-minute drive away, Crossen’s speed impressed, but Coach Mark Speir MAED ’95 wasn’t convinced the 145-pounder was ready to play for the Catamounts.

What a difference four years – and a ridiculous amount of hard work – can make. On April 28, Crossen was back in his humble Garysburg home surrounded by family when the New England Patriots made him the 243rd pick in the 2018 NFL draft. He is WCU’s first draftee since Andrew Jordan ’94 went to Minnesota in 1994, and Crossen was the only Southern Conference player drafted this year. His WCU tailback teammate Detrez Newsome ’17 signed a free-agent contract with the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers.

“It really means a lot,” said Crossen, a defensive back. “It’s a fulfilling moment. I’ll do what I have to do as a Patriot and do what I can to help my team. I really respect the Patriots organization and appreciate them for giving me the opportunity to fulfill my dream.”

During his time at Western, Crossen had 165 tackles, three interceptions and 19 pass breakups. But possibly the biggest factor in boosting his draft prospects was the blazing 4.32 time he clocked in front of 20 NFL scouts at Wake Forest’s pro day.

Back when there was still some uncertainty about Crossen’s ability to make it in the Southern Conference, he found inspiration researching another guy who exceeded expectations. “When I was younger, I read (Tom) Brady’s draft profile,” Crossen said, referring to the year 2000 and New England’s sixth-round pick who has gone on to win five Super Bowls. “This guy, who right now is the best quarterback to ever play the game, and he got his opportunity when he was chosen in a late round. He made the most of every opportunity. That’s what I want to do, take advantage of the opportunities I can.” Crossen stands to be a teammate with the man who inspired him to keep plugging away.

The Catamount also stands to change his family’s circumstances. “I remember going to his home,” Speir said. “It was January, and it was snowing. It doesn’t ever snow out there, and he didn’t think I was coming. I remember sitting in his den, and there’s four kerosene heaters and sheets over the door openings to keep it warm in there. So, when I called (Keion) the other night, I told him, ‘Go buy your mama some heat now.’”

Crossen had every excuse to fail, Speir said. “He had to take a 45-minute bus ride just to get to school. He would get up early and he’d get home late. His coach would bring him home. He could have used all these excuses, but he had the right attitude,” he said. “Now, he has a chance to succeed at the highest level and a WCU diploma. He’s an unbelievable young man.”  

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