Published November 27. 2012 4:00AM
Montville - Jeremiah Crowley wanted to show Montville High School football coach Tanner Grove what he had been doing in the offseason to work on his strength and agility.
Grove watched a couple seconds of a mixed martial arts bout, involving Crowley, his star running back-in-waiting, and made him turn it off after one of the fighters suffered a kick to the head.
"He put it together. Big strong legs and worked on his upper body," Grove said, nevertheless, of Crowley's improvements in preparation for this fall. "Just overall strength.
"Before that he had the heart of a lion. But he just wasn't a Friday night, varsity level fullback."
Crowley, who had it in his mind a year ago to follow star backs Tyler Girard-Floyd and Skyler McNair, waited a year. He worked out with Grove in the weight room and at night he competed for the Black Dragon Martial Arts Academy in Norwich. He kept a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, Grove said.
The result? Crowley, a junior, scored an Eastern Connecticut Conference best 26 touchdowns this season as Montville went 8-2 with an ECC Medium Division championship and a Class M playoff berth.
Entering tonight's quarterfinal game at No. 1 Wolcott (9-1), Crowley has 1,537 yards rushing for 19 touchdowns and has also excelled on special teams for the eighth-seeded Indians, returning punts of 88 and 52 yards last week in a Thanksgiving Eve victory over St. Bernard.
"After football ended (last year), I started mixed martial arts," Crowley said after practice Monday. "I did it until spring football started and then again during the summer. It was pretty fun. It got me in real good shape. It was a lot of running, a lot of legs and core work. It wasn't so that I ever wanted to quit, but I was sore. My endurance wasn't as good then as it is now.
"Between last year and this year it was basically working out and coach pushing me real hard."
Grove worked out with Crowley every day last winter. He said he would go home after their sessions in the weight room, eat dinner and take a nap while Crowley was out fighting mixed martial arts.
It was during that time he learned a lot about what fuels Crowley's desire to play football. Crowley and his mom moved around a few times when Crowley was young; also, his dad, Thomas, died when Crowley was a freshman at Montville.
Through some sometimes tough moments, one of the constants in Crowley's life has been football.
"He hasn't had it as easy as some other kids," Grove said. "Through everything, he's had his mom (Erica Day) and football."
Crowley, who is listed at 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, started playing youth football when he was 4 years old in Coventry.
He also played youth football in Norwich along with Norwich Free Academy star Marcus Outlow before returning to Montville for high school.
Grove said this season he saw a lot of improvement in Crowley during spring football, but it was during the first scrimmage this fall that the coaches got a good look at the new Jeremiah Crowley.
He carried the ball three times on the Indians' first series against Rockville for 80 yards and a touchdown. Then, in the Indians' ECC jamboree, he scored four times in one half.
"Confidence is as big a factor as muscles sometimes," Grove said. "We were pleasantly surprised it took effect so quickly. When camp opened up, he was laying hats on people, getting up field. We said, 'OK.'"
One of the things of which Grove is most proud with regard to Crowley is the relationships he's developed with Montville's corps of seniors, specifically the linemen.
"He's like the little brother that they need," Grove said. "... Jake (Basilica) and Isaiah (Holloway, senior linemen) are big guys with beards and they're not real flexible when things go wrong. Jeremiah's 16, but they embrace him. He's been a part of a lot of the big moments we've had this year. These kids have that trust. They play for each other."
Said Crowley, asked what Montville football means to him: "The team chemistry, how good everyone is to everyone. I couldn't have done it without coach Grove and the rest of the coaches. We couldn't have done it without the linemen and the defense and the receivers. Making the playoffs is real big."