“Sometimes you have to put perception to the side and show ‘em what you’re made of. That’s what football is about.” – Michael Crabtree.

The sun is making its presence felt and it’s not even 6 a.m. I’m not used to this at all. I’m from the Bay Area, where we think 70-degree weather is a scorcher. I’m dealing with the dry heat for good reason, though. I’m in Texas to pick up San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree and spend the next two days with him. I’m not exactly his Uber driver on this Saturday morning in June, but I will be his chauffeur of sorts.

The plan for this excursion was hatched during San Francisco’s offseason program. Crabtree and I have built a good working relationship as team star receiver and team reporter during his tenure with the Niners. A mutual respect was formed from the first time I met him as our first-round draft pick in April of 2009. Through the years, I watched from afar and appreciated his passion for playing the game – and his penchant for wearing the illest football cleats in the National Football League. I’m a sneakerhead, so what? I also write about football and happen to appreciate wide receivers who throw themselves into defenders to spring a running back loose, or wideouts who make difficult catches look routine and inspire Jim Harbaugh to trust his life in their hands.

Crabtree… wait; let’s just call him “Crab.” To avoid confusion, I won’t call him by the nicknames that his relatives use. “Fat Pookie” and “Rusty” are the best ones he told me about during our car ride. “I’ve got so many,” Crab says. “I don’t think my family calls me by my real name. If one of my family members says, ‘Mike,’ that’s a problem. They never call me ‘Mike.’ They never call me, ‘Crab.’ It’s always ‘Pookie.’ I wonder where that name came from… My whole dad’s side used to call me ‘Rusty,’ because I never put on any lotion.”

Crab and I smoothed out the plans for this story in May. It started when he came up to me in the team’s Santa Clara locker room and asked if I wanted to cover his third youth football camp in Dallas. I didn’t hesitate. I said, “Yes” right away. The timing and purpose for the story matched up. San Francisco plays the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Sept. 7 in Week 1 of the regular season and traveling to Dallas would allow us to get a behind-the-scenes story worthy of 49er Studios’ new television show, “The Forty Niner Way.” Nobody knows about Crab’s football camp and how he’s giving back to his hometown community. We needed to document that information, so 49ers producer Michael Blevins and I gathered all the camera equipment necessary to document Crab in his home environment. We plotted and planned – Harbaugh would be proud – and we got ready for a weekend with Crab.

What I learned was much more than how he’s sponsoring kids to be active in Dallas’ Oak Cliff YMCA. I got to know the real Michael Crabtree, the football addict who used to sell hot dogs and water bottles at the Cowboys old home, Texas Stadium, as a way to get football gloves from Pro Football Hall of Famers Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders. I learned about the person who used to cautiously drive around and scour junkyards to find car parts for his cherished Lexus. I discovered more about Crab’s philosophy on dealing with the media. Now I fully understand why he chooses to let his words speak with authority. He doesn’t utter statements just to have his name appear in a newspaper, Internet blog or a nightly newscast.

Crab told me that he had never let anybody in the media document his life in an in-depth way. So we had to do it right. No pressure, I thought.

Crab was accommodating and gracious as we put a microphone on his beige dress shirt and began filming our experience. He bought Blevins and I breakfast and was super chill when our rental car nearly broke down on the way to a local TV interview. He laughed at my corny jokes when I tried to make light of an awkward situation. He was good to us. Crab let us tag along for the weekend when all he had to do was say, “Meet me at my camp. It starts at 10 a.m. on Sunday.”  This trip was so much more than that. He gave us access into his world and I discovered much about his approach to life. I also spoke to his parents and good friends and heard them describe the real person that we see catch footballs from Colin Kaepernick for a living.

Back to the Uber ride. I’m in the driver’s seat and Blevins is in the backseat after we pick up Crab and his Crab 5 Foundation director, Rodney Baker, a classmate at Dallas’ David W. Carter High School. The two football players, four years apart, reconnected through Twitter last December, and now Baker runs the Crab 5 Foundation. Baker helped arrange the day’s scheduled events: morning interview at Dallas’ CBS affiliate, a speaking engagement for Carter’s football teams, a lunch for the young players and a charity dinner at the home of Brett and Sanka Stalcup, two of Crab’s close friends and mentors. Baker was also a driving force in setting up Sunday’s youth camp.

Crab’s being a good sport about being in front of the cameras at six in the morning and we’re not even at CBS yet. I strike up conversation since we have Sony Action cameras mounted on the dashboards like an episode of Catfish. I tell Crab that this is my first real visit to Dallas. He’s taken back by the comment.

Crab: This is your first time in Dallas?

Me: Yeah. I had a connecting flight here once, but that doesn’t count.

Crab: (laughs)

Me: I was out in Austin last year for South by Southwest. That was nice. Austin has the weird food culture. They have interesting stuff to eat. I was out there trying new things. I liked that.

Crab: I think that’s just Texas, period.

Me: They take their bacon seriously.

Crab: Yeah, they’re frying bacon, seasoning bacon.

Me: I liked bacon, but I think I fell in love with bacon last year. I had chocolate-wrapped bacon. I had jalapenos stuffed and wrapped with bacon. You name it, I could go off on it – I had bacon with grilled cheese...

Crab: Man, you never had a bacon grilled cheese?

Me: Mostly grilled cheese – we didn’t put bacon in it.

Crab: Come on, put in bacon!

Me: I found out you can put bacon in everything. It goes with every course.

Crab: They’ll be laughing at me at the facility. I put sugar and butter in my grits. I said, “Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?” They said, “No!” I guess I don’t know any better. Grits, that’s the best thing ever. You gotta try it. Put some sugar and some butter – have it country-style.

I drive us up a hill on Mercado Street toward the TV studio, and just as I accelerate, our rental car stops cooperating. The check-engine light pops on. I try to play it off, but my blood starts to boil and that uncomfortable internal feeling – the one where your body temperature feels like you drank 10 cups of coffee – starts to set in. Did our documentary project just end? It seems so. While Crab shoots his TV interview, I talk with a customer service rep from the rental car agency. Fortunately for us, the next time I start the car up, our SUV comes to life and the engine light goes away. It’s now time for breakfast – and those Texas grits.

It’s 6:45 in the morning, and the CBS reviews come in via text. Bessie Turner, Crabtree’s mother, sends a message with encouraging words and an accompanying video of his sit-down with KTVT morning anchor Adrienne Bankert. Crab studies it as if he’s watching game tape. “Don’t do it,” he says looking back at himself playing on his black iPhone 5. “Don’t be outgoing right now! That’s what’s always on my mind like, ‘Don’t do it!’”

Crab does well in the interview, from what I’m able to observe from the driver’s seat. But he’s also a perfectionist. “Bro, it was so early,” he tells me. “I couldn’t get right.” Crab’s mind turns to breakfast, and I’m right there with him. All this driving has made me hungry. “Real talk: Cracker Barrel has the hottest breakfast,” Crab says. “Like, literally hot. You’ll get their pancakes and they’re hot. Everybody else, they just lay a plate down and you say, ‘I guess I’ll eat this breakfast…’”

The Niners wideout has a long history of being meticulous with his choices. No stone, or hot cake goes unturned. Bessie explains this to us at the camp hosted at Southern Methodist University. “I’m definitely proud of Michael,” she says. “Mike has done some great things in his football career and he’s not going to be satisfied. He’s not going to be satisfied until y’all win the Super Bowl – that’s him. That ain’t a joke – that ain’t a play thing – that’s who he is. He likes winning.”

Crab has been hardcore about football for some time. He used to play ball for hours with 20-plus kids in his Oak Cliff neighborhood. “He never played inside the house,” Bessie says. “If you were dealing with Michael at home, he was chill. You couldn’t get anything out of him. He might have said three words. But when you put him on the football field, he was a different kid.”

Crab is also unique with his on-field fashion. He jokes that he’s been wearing red uniforms ever since his middle school days, but we have scrapbook pictures of him in a blue Moorland Cowboys pee-wee uniform, sent by his father, Michael Crabtree Sr.

The Crabtree family has deeper ties to “America’s Team.” Bessie sold concessions at Texas Stadium in the mid-1990s, and Crab tagged along to raise funds for his football team. Crab got rid of his items faster than anyone else. Why? So he could go to the front row and ask for gear from Dallas’ star players. “When he would get ready to play on the little league team,” Bessie recalls, “I would say, ‘Where did he get all that NFL stuff from?’ That was one of the best highlights. He would have the best outfit. He would have the gloves and the towel; it was just so cool. It’s like he always aimed to be like that.”

When he was old enough to drive, Crab took pride in his used Lexus LS300. He tried to make his four-door ride even fancier with trips to a nearby junkyard. Crab used Velcro to keep the gas tank closed. He also kept a gallon of water in the car in case his transmission overheated. But the most endearing feature of his first car – as he tells it – was its take-off speed. Crab couldn’t step on the gas pedal too hard; he had to keep it around 20 miles per hour most of the time. “Everybody thought I was a smooth driver,” he says, laughing.

It’s now a little after 10 a.m., as he helps me merge into a right lane by rolling down his window and asking a driver to let our SUV in. “We’re good now,” he says. Crab knows his way around the commuter-heavy Dallas freeways. He drove them carefully in his Lexus and as a prominent athlete in Dallas’ competitive prep sports scene. Back then, he competed in basketball, football and track and field. The latter sport was his least favorite. He’s still sour about Dallas high school athletes being forced to wear water shoes on the track and not spikes. After one embarrassing slip in front of his peers, Crab stuck to playing on the hardwood and gridiron. Football, in particular, was always his top choice. Crabtree Sr. was his football coach up until middle school and they formed a tight bond through the sport. Crab, one of six children in the family, helped his father break down film at a young age. “It started from pee-wee football and I pretty much feel the same about him now as I did then,” Senior says. “Seeing him grow and become the person he is today, it’s really great.”

Crab respects his parents, but he recalls that their styles being vastly different. “My dad, he used to be on me at an early age,” Crab says. “He was one those dads where if you scored five touchdowns, he’d say, ‘You would have had seven if you did this.’ My mom was probably tougher than my daddy though.”

Bessie was especially strong in the disciplinary role. “I understood at an early age who was the toughest,” Crab says. “You get in trouble at school and they’d say, ‘I’m going to call your mama,’ and I’d be like, ‘I’m not even worried about it; you can call my mama. Do whatever you need to do.’ But in reality, I was like, ‘Please don’t call my mama!’”

In turn, Bessie recognizes her son was good at heart. He just caused family members anxiety in a different way. “He’s never been a troublemaker,” she says, “but he’ll cause problems on the field. He wants to play football. He wants to win.  He’s only hyper on the field. Everything else is low-key.”

Crab got called out for being late to class a few times, but he still was respected as the starting quarterback at Carter High, the school made famous for its role in “Friday Night Lights.” As was the case with most Dallas prep schools, the team’s run-first offensive attack featured the best athlete on the team at quarterback. That’s where you’ll find Crab in his high school highlight tapes. The 16th-ranked athlete nationally and four-start recruit in his 2006 class, according to Rivals.com, was offered a scholarship to Texas Tech University to play wide receiver.

Crab blew up at Tech. He won two Biletnikoff Awards as the nation’s best wide receiver. He caught 231 passes for 3,127 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns in two seasons for the Red Raiders. It was ridiculous. People still remember his 28-yard tight-rope touchdown catch; the YouTube clip that saw him beat the No. 1-ranked Texas Longhorns with eight seconds left at home. Crab hears about that moment all the time, especially when he’s in the Lone Star State. “It was one of those games where we shouldn’t have been in that situation any way,” he says. “It was exciting. Everyone was on the field, happy that we won.”

Crab parlayed his redshirt sophomore season into a first-round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft. Six years later, he is a leader in the wide receiver’s meeting room and a go-to play-maker for one of the league’s perennial Super Bowl contenders. We talk about how he’s four years away from having his number 5 jersey retired by Tech, which requires a 10-year grace period before celebrating its Hall of Fame inductees. Crab is a no-brainer as a first-ballot inductee. He can’t wait for that ceremony. It’s getting closer, but so is the start of the NFL season. We shift the conversation from his experiences in Lubbock, Texas to what he’s gone through with the Niners.

You can understand why Crab is in the best shape of his football life. He’s been through a lot. Even so, the 6-foot-1, 214-pound receiver has caught 279 passes for 3,629 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns in 63 career games in San Francisco. A five-game holdout as a rookie added another year onto his original contract making him slated for free agency following the ’14 season. Recent reports indicate that Crab and the Niners have made progress on a contract extension, but that topic doesn’t come up in our car ride. That business can wait. Crab’s story is more about him overcoming recent trials and tribulations. For starters, he was involved in the final play of San Francisco’s heart-breaking defeats in both Super Bowl XLVII and last year’s NFC title game. I’ll spare Niner fans from the play-by-plays. Crab also suffered a torn right Achilles tendon in May 2013 offseason workouts. The injury sidelined him for 11 regular season games and caused him to cancel his 2013 football camp. “He had surgery and called me the next day,” Baker remembers. “He was sad. He was hurt. His whole goal was to get healthy. Whatever he had to do to get back on the field, he did, and he came back pretty quick.” Crab returned to the field six months after the severe injury and admitted to reporters that he wasn’t 100-percent healthy at the time. Despite his health status, Crab provided a spark to San Francisco’s passing attack, helping the team reach a third consecutive conference championship Game.

That brings us back to present day. Crab has a noticeable burst off the line of scrimmage. He’s leaner and lighter than his 2013 playing weight. He’s also stronger for what he’s experienced, both mentally and physically. “It’s a learning experience,” Crab says. “I’m sure a lot of guys went to championship games and lost before they actually won, you know?”

Just as we go through the Super Bowl fallout in our car ride, Crab’s day takes a turn for the worse. It’s my fault. I mishear Siri’s instructions on my iPhone 5 and I veer toward the Dallas Love Field Airport. “Bro, did we really just drive through the airport?” Crab razzes me. “Oh, Lord. This is crazy… The funny thing about this, as soon as you come out the airport – you have to pay some money. So we’re going to have to pay… Taylor got us going through the airport!”

It was worth the $2 charge, one that I added to my company expense report. Although it was slightly embarrassing, we were able to make good time on the way to our next stop, Crab’s high school for a noon speaking engagement.

Me: It’s only two bucks.

Crab: Only two bucks? Do you know what you can buy with two dollars?

Me: In California it’s like five dollars to cross any bridge.

Crab: We’re in Texas, though. Two dollars, that’s like five dollars.

Most people in Dallas know about the Super Bowl. They also know about the NFC title game and about how the game ended. They don’t dwell on it. They support their local star. They want to see him win it all.

By this point of the day, the Texas heat lives up to its reputation, and I’m reminded why rent is so high in the Bay Area. Right on time, I pull into the parking lot at Carter High. Inside the school’s basketball gym where Crab “used to get buckets,” awaits 50-plus kids, all of them itching to follow in Crab’s footsteps and become a high-profile NFL star.

“Get the grades,” Crab tells the kids in a short, but impactful speech that lasts less than five minutes.

The Niners wideout relays what nearly held him back coming out of high school – his SAT scores. Crab had to raise them to get accepted into Tech. He has no problem sharing the information with the Carter football players. “I always wanted him to go to college and be a good person and be happy with whatever he chose to do, but he was destined,” Bessie says. “He told me, ‘I’m going to play football. I’m not going to be a scientist. I’m going to play football, mom.’”

Crab’s talk concludes, but he’s still the center of attention as we walk out of the gym. He poses for a group photo with the 50-plus kids and tells them of a surprise. Lunch is on him. It’s going to be at Cajun restaurant, Pappadeaux’s Seafood Kitchen. Blevins, Baker, Crab and I pile back in the SUV and I drive us over to lunch for some local fare. Inside a private dining area within the restaurant, the young football players take a look through large menus. Most choose seafood dishes. (I found it funny to see one of them eat crab legs just 10 feet or so from the player known as “King Crab” on Twitter and Instagram.) The kids grub on appetizers and main courses, and their smiles are ear-to-ear across the room. The same look is on Crab’s face. He signs an autograph on the lunch tab and says his goodbyes to the room full of Carter players, making sure each kid knew they were invited to his football camp the following day.

By this time it’s 2:30 in the afternoon and it feels like a whole day has already passed – yet Crab remains upbeat. He knows what’s coming next – a fundraising event for his foundation at the Stalcups’ immaculate Dallas home. Crab says goodbye to our car ride, the one that started before the sun came up. He goes off to freshen up at his hotel and we return to our abode to prepare for the next portion of our shoot.

The fundraiser is a casual affair, but Crab still showcases his personal style. He is, after all, the reason everybody came out. Being basic is out of question. The Niners wideout pulls up to his foundation event at seven in the evening. He steps out of a sleek all white silver Rolls Royce Phantom in an all-black ensemble, complete with black and yellow Jordan 14 retros and one of his own “Last of a Dying Breed” (LODB) brand shirts. Crab’s attire is complete with stylish black frames by Alexander McQueen. The charity cocktail party is definitely a moment to enjoy for the receiver. “As a boy, you dreamed of this day,” he says. “Just looking back on it, nobody really had a football camp or a legit foundation for the youth. I always thought of it like, ‘Once I make it, I’m going to come back and do something for the kids.’ A lot of guys aren’t genuine about it, but when it’s coming from the heart, you enjoy it.”

Crab’s closest NFL friends flood the event. Delanie Walker, a former Niners tight end, represents the Tennessee Titans. Current Niners Frank Gore and Tony Jerod-Eddie mingle with the crowd and sign autographs for the attendees. There’s more NFL players – Ted Ginn Jr. of the Arizona Cardinals and Von Miller of the Denver Broncos are also among the notable guests. “Even though we’re not on the same team, we’re always going to be friends,” Walker says. “I played with him, and you built a bond when you play together. We’re like family. If he asks me to come out here and support something that’s so positive, that’s what I’m going to do. Crab has always been that type of person. That’s something you don’t see of football players, behind the scenes, behind the locker room. He always had that passion. Growing up where he grew up, he wanted to help change his community.”

Crab’s foundation dinner raises more than $50,000 through tickets and a silent auction. The money will allow 200-plus inner city youth to participate in a variety of programs at the Oak Cliff YMCA.

For the Stalcups, hosting the fundraiser is an easy choice. Brett Stalcup, a proud Tech alum and respected lawyer in Dallas, mentors Crab with personal and professional advice. They’ve seen tremendous growth in him, especially in his philanthropic interests. “He doesn’t brag about it, but he has a huge heart,” Brett says. “All you have to do is visit with him and listen to him. He’s very bright and intelligent. He’s his own man and people can say what they want to say, but I know his heart, and his heart is true and good and it’s all about kids for him.”

Crab continues his charitable work on Sunday with his youth camp at SMU. Crab and his NFL friends also make an incredible entrance; they run out of the SMU home tunnel through smoke-machine created clouds. Campers line up down the field like NFL players awaiting the announcement of their starting lineup. Crab can’t even fully run out for his entrance – the kids mob him immediately.

SMU’s Gerald J. Ford Field also happens to be the sight of perhaps his most memorable football game in his home state. On Sept. 3, 2007, Tech beat SMU, 49-9. Crab shined in front of his friends and family, catching 12 passes for 106 yards and three touchdowns. “Everybody was in awe,” Bessie says. “It was wild.”

Crab proudly considers himself to be a family man. That’s why his Dallas roots are so important to him. He often home because he loves a good family cookout and dominating his relatives in a game of dominoes. In our Saturday car ride, Crab tells me that’s where the “King” moniker comes from: dominoes, not football.

The proud Texan will be back in Dallas very soon, but not to play leisurely games. There will be many red number 15 jerseys inside of AT&T Stadium when Crab returns on Sept. 7. Crab’s father, for one, never misses his son’s games. Crabtree Sr. is already besieged with ticket requests. “Everybody is trying to hit me up, all our friends, our family,” Senior says. “It’s going to be crazy.”

Crab now has more than just football on his mind. He and his girlfriend Jae welcomed their first child into the world on Aug. 18, Michael Anthony Crabtree III. It’s safe to say Crab will be busy upon his Week 1 road trip. Besides game-planning for the Cowboys, he’ll be catching up with his son and sharpening his diaper-changing skills.

Crab says he’s enjoying all the hype that’s building up before his return to Dallas. “I like all that,” Crab says. “In football you always get a chance to come back and show people what the real deal is. You always get a chance. You live to see another down.”

The Niners will see plenty of downs, and they’ll do it for 16 regular season games with Crab and Anquan Boldin as their starting receivers. “I’m definitely going to give the people what they want,” Crab says. “Put it like this: I’ve been doing this, I’ve been the man on the field since middle school. It’s nothing new to me. I’m in my prime right now. I don’t really have time to be playing. I’m all business.”

That’s “The real Michael Crabtree.”

He speaks like a man on a mission. He’s also carrying out what he learned from another veteran receiver. “Be yourself,” Crab says. “That’s one thing I want to get out to the kids. That’s one thing I learned from Randy Moss. It’s really OK to be yourself. In that short period of time he taught me – being you is the best thing you can be.”

The camp and weekend with Crab was a huge success. Each camper gets a Jordan Brand T-shirt and an opportunity to work with NFL stars. I had a chance to see Crab in his home environment and share it with people who’ve never seen him in that light. By three on Sunday afternoon, it’s almost time for us to leave. There’s just enough left for us to interview Crab on camera before flying back to the Bay Area. I thank Crab for hosting us and promise to tell his story accurately.

I saw Crabtree at his realest. He’s his own man, a football player who is always comfortable in his own shoes, or in this case, Jordans.

Just wait to you see the ones he wears against the Cowboys…


Written by Taylor Price
Produced by Eric Stark
Videos by Michael Blevins
Graphic Design by Ben Mayberry

The Crabtree Family, Rodney Baker, Brett & Sanka Stalcup

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