ATLANTA – As the final seconds ticked away at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium on Jan. 20, giving the New England Patriots a 37-31 victory over the Chiefs, Keion Crossen turned to teammates Tom Brady and Dont’a Hightower and said, “We’re going to the Super Bowl.”
It was at that moment that the former Western Carolina University Catamount realized what had just happened. On Sunday, Feb. 3, the Patriots’ rookie cornerback will cap a dream-come-true season with an appearance in the 2019 Super Bowl.
“Tom (Brady) gave me the look like this is what it feels like to get there,” Crossen said.
It’s been two weeks since that magical moment in Kansas City. And yet Crossen still has no idea what it will be like when he steps onto the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But he does know he plans to enjoy every minute.
This is the culmination of a 2018 season that saw Crossen defy the odds when, after not being invited to the NFL combine, he opened some eyes of NFL scouts by running a 4.32 40-yard dash at Wake Forest’s pro day workout, and subsequently was drafted in the seventh round by the Patriots. Crossen became the first WCU player to be selected in the NFL draft since 1994, when tight end Andrew Jordan was selected by the Minnesota Vikings.
After Crossen’s incredible day at Wake Forest, New England cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer came to Cullowhee to meet him and to put him through an individual workout. It was a memorable day for Boyer.
“He’s got a charismatic personality, probably a little bit different than mine,” Boyer said. “He was very eager. He wanted to learn. He loves football. All of those things kind of jumped out at you. He’s got a good personality. He’s a good kid. He’s got a good heart and he works hard. He was very serious about his craft and football. He came to us like a sponge.”
After Crossen was drafted, that sponge mentality carried over into the Patriots’ OTA’s (organized team activities), where he sought out advice from veteran players on how to be a professional athlete.
“My goal was to make the team,” Crossen said. “That was the first step. The next step was to learn as much as possible throughout the whole process; just take whatever opportunities you get and do what you can with it.”
Crossen learned from both the good and the bad experiences. Like during training camp when he was in a battle to make the team’s 53-man roster that featured a deep defensive backfield. In the team’s second preseason game against Philadelphia, Crossen was flagged for two pass interference calls and a holding penalty.
But it was his ability to bounce back and finish the preseason with two strong outings that helped land him a spot on the team.
“The whole thing is a learning process,” Boyer said. “All of us make mistakes. I would say Keion has taken the coaching and he’s taken a lot of knowledge from other players that have had a little bit more experience in the league than him, and I would say he’s done a good job with that.”
Crossen made his NFL debut in Week 3, a 26-10 loss at Detroit in which he had one tackle. He appeared in 11 regular season games, mostly as a special teams player. Crossen had 14 tackles, nine of those coming in the Patriots’ final two games.
In the playoffs, he had one tackle in a win over the Los Angeles Chargers and two tackles against Kansas City.
“It was a lot of adversity, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of learning experiences,” Crossen said of his rookie season. “But what you have to do is ignore the noise, ignore the hype and just keep grinding. Keep your head down and keep grinding. You’ll learn as time goes. As you get more experience, you learn and you get better. When the time comes that the team needs you, you’re able to perform at your best.”
“That changes up the game plan when you have to start that far back,” Crossen said. “When the guys come and congratulate you after that, giving you high fives and smacking you on the helmet, that feels good. (Receiver) Julian Edelman told me, ‘In the regular season you get paid, but in the playoffs is when your name gets made.’ I try to take that to heart and do what I have to do to better the team.”
In the divisional playoff round against the Chargers, Crossen got to meet up with fellow rookie and former WCU teammate Detrez Newsome, a running back who made the Chargers’ roster as an undrafted free agent last year.
“The first thing we said was, ‘Hey bro, we’re in the NFL,’ ” Crossen said. “It was really crazy. The next thing was, ‘Let’s do something with it. Let’s make an impact and enjoy every moment you get.’
“It’s great for the (WCU) program. You have two guys from the same FCS (football championship subdivision) school. That just lets you know the tradition at Western is to get players to the next level, but at the end of the day, it’s your will and your want to get there,” he said.
Earlier this week, WCU head football coach Mark Speir stopped by Crossen’s hotel for a brief visit in between recruiting. Newsome will be at Sunday’s game as a spectator.
And another former teammate, Hunter Jacobs, will be working at the game. Jacobs is a ticket sales executive for the Atlanta Falcons and will be escorting NFL owners and celebrities to their suites on Sunday. He’ll also be trying to get a glimpse of Crossen during the game.
“I’m so excited for him,” Jacobs said. “Keion deserves it. Seeing Keion play in the Super Bowl for the Patriots is amazing. I cannot be happier for him.”
Like all players, Crossen will have several family members and friends in the stands cheering him on. And he’ll be there, soaking in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in one of the world’s biggest sporting events.
“I don’t know what to expect,” Crossen said. “It’s my first time, but I will definitely be excited. I’m seeing right now that the atmosphere is pretty wild. It’s a live atmosphere and I really enjoy just the suspense of what’s going to happen. I will be ready.”