Sentinel great Zac Crews stuck in football limbo

Sentinel great Zac Crews stuck in football limbo
Recent Missoula Sentinel graduate Zac Crews is hoping for a chance to play college football.

Venmo slur leads to pulled scholarship with Grizzlies

By Bill Foley

MISSOULA — As he sat at his grandparents table for Thanksgiving dinner last year, Zac Crews felt like his whole world was crashing down on him.

In a way, it was.

His life as he knew it was gone forever. His reputation as one of the great high school football players in Montana was shattered.

It did not matter that he was a two-time state champion at Missoula Sentinel. Nobody cared that he was an All-State player. It did not matter that he was a 4.0 student. He was about to be canceled.

As of Thanksgiving, Crews was the University of Montana football recruit who was exposed for saying the n-word.

“We were out in Florence,” Crews remembers as he sits with his parents around his dining room table. “I had a friend text me probably around 12 o’clock that I need to go check my Venmo. I think the tweet came out probably at 1:30 or 2 o’clock.”

The tweet was from former Montana Grizzly tight end Brennan Corbin. It included a screenshot of a Venmo transaction between Crews and one of his friends. In the transaction, Crews used the n-word, along with an emoji of a black man and another of a gun.

When Grizzly star receiver Samuel Akem retweeted Corbin’s tweet, Crews’ name was officially mud.

“It was not the best Thanksgiving,” his father, Scott Crews, says.

The family returned to their Missoula home early.

“It was probably not an hour later that the tweet started blowing up,” Zac says. “A lot of people started retweeting it and stuff like that. I started getting text messages from friends of mine.

“We came home, sat right here and talked about it and wrote out the apology.”

For so many people, the apology is not enough. It probably never will be.

Proving to people, especially people who only know him from a tweet, that he is not a racist is next to impossible.

“You really can’t say much,” Zac says. “You just have to apologize and own up to it. You ultimately can’t change their mind. You can try. You can be around them and try to get them to know you. But there’s nothing in a 30 second conversation that you can say to change their mind.”

The Venmo

When Crews made the comment on Venmo, he had no idea it would go public. In fact, Thanksgiving was the first time he realized that such transactions are available to everyone to see, unless you go out of your way to mark it private.

He had completely forgotten about the transaction, which was made on Nov. 15, 2020, when Crews was 17 and a junior in high school.

“I always thought it was a bank transaction,” Zac says. “I didn’t know it was going to be a public thing. I guess now you can’t assume anything on the internet is private.”

As far as what was on that transaction, Crews cannot defend what he wrote. He can only say that he was making a joke with a friend, and he emphasizes that it was not directed at anyone.

“I remember the exact day,” he says. “It was during the hybrid schedule during COVID. It was a Tuesday or Wednesday, and me and my buddy had the day off. We were remote learning.

“So, we went duck hunting up in Hall, Montana, just past Drummond. It was on the way back; I think we stopped and got some chicken tenders from the Clinton Market. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t know we were going to stop. So, I Venmoed him.”

The remark, he said, was in reference to something that was said during the hunt. It was an inside joke that no explanation can make right.

“Earlier in the day when we were duck hunting,” Crews remembers. “It was my first time duck hunting. I had shot my first duck, and that phrase had been said earlier in the day when were duck hunting.”

Hate, he said, was the farthest thing from his mind.

“When I had it typed out, it wasn’t in reference to an African American,” Zac says. “I wasn’t trying to be racist. Looking back at it, it’s a racist term and a racist comment. We didn’t realize that Venmo was a public thing. My friend and I are really close. I knew he wasn’t going to say anything. It was just between two good friends. Things get said all the time.

“However, that doesn’t make it right to say or OK to say.”

None of that, of course, makes the comment acceptable. Crews calls the comment “a horrible thing that should have never been said.” He calls it a mistake.

“We’ve all made mistakes,” says Sentinel head coach Dane Oliver. “I mess up every single day. Everybody does. As a society, we’ve got to forgive and work to change.”

Will that mistake mean the death penalty for his entire football career?

“I do hope that one day I’ll be able to play and prove to people who doubted me — and who threw me out to the wolves — to prove them wrong,” Crews says. “One thing I hope people learn from this is, don’t just go and cancel someone because that’s the culture we live in. Go show them what they did wrong and show them examples of something they could do better.”

On Thanksgiving night, Crews posted the following statement on Twitter:

 

Uncomfortable silence

The Crews family wanted to get out in front of the situation, and the apology hit twitter on Thanksgiving night.

Zac wanted to personally tell everybody that he was not a racist.

“No one knows the back story of what happened,” Zac says. “They all came up with their own back story of what was said. It’s still horrible to say, but it was never directed at any African American individual or an African American group.

“That’s one thing that weighed on my shoulders for so long is no one knew it wasn’t meant as an attack.”

Zac met with Akem, face to face, to explain himself on the Sunday following Thanksgiving.

“I talked to him about it and apologized,” Zac says. “He was open to it. But the fact of the matter was he was done with the Griz.

“He was like, ‘I appreciate you coming to me and apologizing.’ We had a talk about the history of the word and where he has come from and the situations he has been in and the struggle he has been through. That was good. It was eye opening, to be honest with you.

“He couldn’t do anything for me, but having the conversation with me was plenty. It was a little bit of weight off my shoulders.”

Akem, a native of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, said that Crews seemed to be truthful in their conversation.

“It was good. I just told him he has to understand being in this light and being the guy that he is, everybody’s eyes are on you, especially playing for the Griz,” Akem says. “It seemed like it was a good talk. He definitely seemed genuine. I didn’t walk away from that thinking this guy is just trying to save face. He didn’t have to meet up with me at all. I appreciated that.”

Zac said he asked to address the UM football team. He wanted to look into their eyes and tell his story. The Grizzlies, he said, told him no.

“They were just like, ‘You stay off social media and stuff and just lay low,’ Scott Crews says. “They said, ‘We’ll take care of it, and then in August your scholarship will be there. We guarantee the scholarship will be there.”

Staying silent was very tough, especially for his parents.

“Where we have struggled the most is that we did everything Bobby (Hauck) and the coaching staff has asked, which is lay low, not talk about it, not do anything,” says Zac’s mother, Paula. “There aren’t many adults who would sit quiet for seven months and not talk about their personal values.”

Butte Sports reached out to Hauck, the Grizzlies head coach, and UM Athletic Director Kent Haslam. They declined comment, citing NCAA rules.

“The NCAA won’t let any university employee comment on any unsigned players,” Griz Communications Director Eric Taber said.

Crews said going against Hauck and his assistants was not an option for him.

“I trusted those guys because they were going to be my future coaches,” Zac says. “At Sentinel it is always, ‘Yes coach, no coach.’ I really wanted to trust them. I did, full heartedly.”

Still, Zac wanted the chance to talk to the team.

“I brought it to their attention that I was willing to go in front of the team, apologize and speak about it,” he says. “When we brought it up to the coaches, they thought it was best not to go in, lay low and not say anything about it. It’s had to tell your future coaches — who hold the power to your scholarship and your future — ‘No, we’re going to do it this way. I don’t care what you say.’

“I put all my chips on the table for those guys, and it turns out it wasn’t the best move.”

It probably did not help Crews’ cause that he was planning to play football at a university that boasts one of the best journalism schools in the nation. Late in the school year, the school paper, The Montana Kaimin, got wind of the plan to “Trojan horse” Crews into the football program.

On April 14, the Kaimin published an editorial titled “UM football should brace for blowback if it signs Zac Crews.”

The opinion piece did not paint Crews in a positive light.

It compared his comment to Rob Smith, a former computer science professor who resigned after his misogynistic anti-gay blog was uncovered. It comparted him to Clayton Looney, a tenured UM business professor who was seen on video calling his bi-racial daughter the n-word.

The Crews family, though, says the editorial was correct in one regard. The Grizzlies were trying to quietly bring Crews into the program.

“The sad part is the Kaimin was legit,” Paula says. “It was on point.”

Publicity from the editorial changed everything. On May 11, Crews was told by Hauck that his scholarship offer was pulled.

“The bad part was that we don’t think Bobby addressed it before hand, and the athletes were a little shell shocked,” Paula says.

Nearly a half a year after leading the Spartans to the state title, Crews no longer had a scholarship with the Grizzlies.

Missoula Sentinel quarterback Zac Crews gets off a pass as Butte High defender Dylan Snyder pulls on his jersey Oct. 21 at Naranche Stadium. Bulldog Zach Tierney also gives chase. (Butte Sports file photo)

 

Tough decision

While playing for the Griz is something Crews had dreamed about his entire life, the Montana State Bobcats also made a compelling argument to Crews.

The Bobcats, he said, worked harder for him.

“It was kind of like every little kid’s dream to go to a Griz game, buy that 37 jersey and play for the Griz one day,” Crews said. “But I was a little torn during the recruiting process. It was a hard decision for me. It definitely took a little bit longer for me to make a decision than I thought it would, but I felt really good about it. I thought it was going to be really fun to be a Griz. I had a lot of Sentinel kids who were already there.”

His play on the field certainly warranted the attention from the rival Montana schools. Crews was one of the best Montana Class AA football players — on offense and on defense — during the fall of 2021.

Crews dominated on both sides of the ball while playing the very rare combination of quarterback and defensive end. He passed for 1,771 yards and 20 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions. He ran for another 869 yards and 11 touchdowns as the Spartans ran their winning streak to 21 straight games.

At 6 feet, 5 inches and now 210 pounds, Crews is a marvel of an athlete. He is an individual and team champion in track. In May of 2021, he won the state title in the 110-meter hurdles and the javelin as Sentinel’s boys captured the Class AA crown.

Also as a junior, Crews placed third at the Class AA State wrestling meet at 205 pounds.

The Grizzlies liked Crews at defensive end, but he could have played multiple positions.

“I never really had my heart set on one position,” Crews says. “I love catching touchdowns. I love sacking the quarterback. I love blocking. It’s an art to block. You don’t get a lot of glory for it. It’s kind of brutal and it’s kind of nasty, but it’s fun.

“Quarterback was stressful but fun. I had a great time.”

Oliver, who played receiver on the Grizzlies 2001 national championship team, said the sky is the limit for Crews on the football field. With his size and athletic ability, Oliver said he could see Crews getting a shot to play in the National Football League someday.

“I believe he’s got that talent level,” the coach says. “He’s one of the greatest competitors I’ve had. You look at what he did in the big games.”

In two state championship games, Crews accounted for six touchdowns. He caught two TD passes in their 24-15 win over Billings West in 2020.

A year later, he tossed three scores and ran for one more as the Spartans beat the Bears 35-6 in the title-game rematch.

Crews said the 2021 season was an extremely satisfying one because the 2020 state title team lost so many players to graduation.

“We had a good season,” Crews says. “I think it was a lot more fun this year. It was senior year, and we all came together. There was a lot of doubt on us, too. It was a lot more fun.”

The Spartans and their quarterback were on Cloud 9 after crushing West on Friday, Nov. 19. They were on top of the world.

Thanksgiving came six days later.

Holt Downey of Butte High clears the final hurdle on his way to second place in the 110-meter hurdles at the Swede Dahlberg Invitational April 22 on the Charlie Merrifield Track. Zac Crews of Missoula Sentinel, right, won the race. Gallatin’s Nash Coley is also shown. (Butte Sports file photo)

 

Reaching out

Christmas morning was tough for Crews, too. While some teammates, rivals and friends got the call to play in the Montana East-West Shrine Game, Crews was passed over for the All-Star game.

He was hurt by that decision. So were his parents. They still harbor bad fillings about the omission from the West Side roster.

When June rolled around, though, Zac spoke to the West players after a practice one afternoon at Naranche Stadium. It was the first time he broke his silence.

“I just told them my story,” Crews said. “I knew most of them, but there were some from smaller classes that I didn’t know and they didn’t know who I was. I told my story. I told them the situation I was in and stuff like that.

“I just told them to mind their words and actions because someone is always watching. There are always eyes on you.”

Crews said he wanted other players to learn from his mistake.

“I told them football is going to come to an end, so off the field you have to be good people and help others,” he said. “I made a point to say cut some people some slack. You don’t always know the true story behind something. I said instead of attacking someone when they slip up, help them up.

“You can’t make the same mistake twice. Then it isn’t a mistake anymore. It’s a habit,” Crews says. “One of my main messages to the Shriners was, before you go and judge someone else, you’ve got to look at yourself. We’ve all slipped up once, if not multiple times, and you’re going to slip up again. You’re going to mess up, but just because you mess up it doesn’t mean your life is over.”

Crews also went to Great Falls to take in the entire Shrine Game experience. He went to the banquet. He went to the game.

He said it was painful, but worth it.

“It wore on me a lot, honestly to the point where I didn’t know if I wanted to play football again,” Crews said of the Venmo, the tweet and the fallout.

Seeing his friends play football changed that.

“It kind of sparked a fire for me to go to the Shrine Game and see them practice,” he said. “I really do love this sport. It was really fun to watch them.”

Samuel Akem picks up yardage after a catch in Montana’s 31-14 win over Dixie State Oct. 9, 2021 in Missoula. (Photo by Blake Hempstead)

 

A second chance?

Akem, who is trying to catch on with the XFL before making the jump to the NFL, said the word Crews used is not one that can be explained away. He said he understands why the Grizzly players voted not to accept him on the team.

“A lot of them don’t care what the context is or what your excuse to why that word came out,” Akem says, referring to his teammate at UM. “It’s not right. I told him that is the last thing I want here. I told him there would be consequences to your actions.”

While Akem says he does not want to see Crews lose everything, he feels like using such a word should not be taken lightly, either.

“I thought there should have been some serious consequences,” Akem says. “I didn’t know those consequences would be he lost his scholarship. But at the same time, I don’t know what other consequences that would let him know it was wrong.

“What else can be done to show you this is not OK? We can’t just sweep it under the rug.”

Talking with the Grizzly players, Akem says, would have helped. In fact, that is exactly what Akem told Crews he should do. The former Grizzly star receiver, though, said it takes more than talk.

Actions, he says, speak louder than words.

“It is hard,” Akem says. “You just have to do the work. You can look at it and think ‘These guys are going to never trust me.’ You just have to do the work and show them who you are.”

Crews talked to other schools after the Grizzlies pulled his scholarship offer, and nothing materialized.

He had multiple things going against him.

No. 1, his name was toxic after the Venmo screenshot went viral. But there was also the poor timing. Teams were done recruiting for the Class of 2022 in May, and they were already focus on the 2022 season.

Another problem was the COVID year. Players with an extra year of eligibility have rosters filled up around the country.

“I have reached out to other schools, but it’s the same story,” Crews says. “Money wise, there are no scholarships. It was so late when my scholarship got revoked that it is kind of hard.”

So, Crews is going to just be a student when he starts taking classes at Montana State University late next month. He said he is going part time because that means his eligibility clock does not start ticking.

Then, Crews will wait.

He will wait for an opportunity to play college football. He will wait for the day when his name is no longer mud.

Eight months after Crews name went viral, Akem is torn by the situation. He says a second chance would probably work out best for everybody if it was at another school.

“I think the way it is playing out right now is probably the best for everybody involved,” Akem says. “It sucks that he has to be going through this, but there’s no place in this world for that. I want to make that clear.

“Still, I don’t want his life to be over.”

If he still had a year of eligibility left with the Grizzlies, would Akem welcome Crews onto the team?

“That would depend on me talking to the other seniors and the other guys on the team, who it affects,” Akem says after a long pause. “I don’t know. I’d have to talk to the other guys.”

 

The long game

Waiting is tough for Crews and his parents. It is also tough for Oliver, who says he is constantly asked about Crews.

“It was a long year for Zac, but it was a long year for his parents and his coaches,” Oliver says. “It’s just constant. From all of this, I always try to judge people on how they interact with me. Let’s not judge people on just one act.”

The coach says the way Crews handled the situation — the fall out and the forced silence — is commendable.

“It would have been easier for him to deny it,” Oliver said. “He did what we want our kids to do. He owned up to it. He’s paid a consequence.”

Crews said the hardest part is knowing that others still think he has hate in his heart. He insists he does not.

“I can’t say I’m completely over the fact that there’s people out there who think I’m racist — people who don’t know who I am or have ever talked to me,” he says. “Step by step, I’m starting to get over that. Being around people I know, people who love me and people who know who I am, it has become a lot easier.

“I just stayed true to myself. That was probably one of the biggest things. Once people start to know me for me, it will start to work out. I truly think it has. A lot of people who initially attacked me, I met with them and apologized.”

Scott Crews gets emotional when he talks about his middle son.

“I was proud of him on the field and what not,” Scott says, starting to choke up. “But what he’s done and how he’s composed himself … there’s been days when I lost it.”

His parents are also struggling to come to deal with how much Zac has lost. He was never suspended from his team. He was never in trouble with the law. He was never accused of a crime.

They see so many athletes who do run afoul with the law. They see them get second and third chances, but their son was just shut out.

“For them to cancel him without the opportunity for them to hear from him is tougher as a parent, I think, because usually you have your day to explain yourself,” Paula says.

“There’s been no jury,” Scott adds. “It’s just been a sentence.”

Making things even tougher is that so many people have no idea that Crews will not play for the Grizzlies. It was all handled under the radar. The media hardly took notice.

When graduation cards started pouring in, they were a daily reminder of what Crews lost. So many people wrote “Go Griz” or “excited to watch you play for the Griz.”

“Graduation cards are kind of brutal to read,” Crews says, shaking his head.

While it might take a while, Oliver says he believes things will eventually work out for his star player.

“I love the kid,” Oliver says. “He’s a good person. He’s done a lot for me. It’s been terrible to just watch this, the downfall from something he did two years ago.

“He’ll be back,” Oliver adds.  “I believe in the kid. It’s unfortunate, but I believe something good will come out of it.”

Crews, meanwhile, has done a lot of soul-searching over the last eight months. He said the situation has made him stronger and wiser.

“It took me a while. I felt like I took two steps back to take three steps forward,” he says. “Now looking back on it, it’s weird to say, but I’m glad it happened to me and not someone else. I’ve taken a lot away from it than I ever imaged I would. When it happened, I was like, ‘My entire world is crumbling down on me.’ Now, I’ve learned so much from it.”

Through it all, Zac learned that life will go on long after that horrible Thanksgiving.

“They may never forgive you, but you’ve got to learn to forgive yourself,” Crews says. “I know for a fact that there are people out there who will never forgive me for what I said. But I know there are people out there who have already forgiven me and know I am a better person because of it.

“I was a good person before it, and I’m an even better person now.”

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