When Eric Crabtree was born, the end of World War II was 11 months off. When he played his final game in the NFL, the Vietnam War was still raging. Crabtree’s personal war was to prove he could excel on the gridiron — he won that conflict, proving to be a success everywhere he played.
A high school standout at Monessen High, he made it big with the Pitt Panthers, and later continued his winning ways in pro football.
As a high school senior, Crabtree was a huge cog in the 1961 team which won 11 contests, including the WPIAL title. He teamed up with two other future NFL players that year, Doug Crusan and Bill Malinchak.
From 1963-1965, Crabtree played in all 30 of Pitt’s games, enjoying a fantastic season in 1963 when the Panthers went 9-1 to finish the year nestled in at the No. 4 slot of the Associated Press rankings. His best season, though, was his senior year when he accounted for 1,096 yards from scrimmage, with 724 yards coming on his 45 catches — all three of those stats established personal highs. He had also averaged a lofty 18.2 yards per reception as a junior.
Overall, Crabtree snagged 68 passes for the Panthers, good for an impressive average of 16.4 yards per reception. He also rushed for 867 yards on 190 carries, averaging 4.6 yards per pop. His two primary quarterbacks for the Panthers were Fred Mazurek and Kenny Lucas.
Despite such stats, Crabtree was drafted low by both the Baltimore Colts (as the 170th player picked) and the Denver Broncos back in the days when the NFL and the old AFL were separate leagues. He signed with the Broncos in 1966, and ranked eighth in AFL in 1967 for total pass receptions.
Two years later he was fourth in the league for the most yards gained on catches. Furthermore, twice he wound up in the league’s top 10 for the best yards gained per catch average, and twice for touchdowns scored on pass receptions. In 1967, his longest reception of 76 yards was the league’s second longest of the season.
Crusan, who became a star for the Dolphins where he played in three Super Bowls and was a part of Miami’s glittering undefeated season in 1972, critiqued Crabtree.
“Oh, he was good, a good running back,” Crusan said. “He went to Pitt where he had a great career, then Denver, Cincinnati and New England. He had pretty good size [6-foot and 185 pounds]. Back then at Monessen they had Benny Jones and Crabtree in the same backfield.”
When Crabtree was a member of the Broncos from 1966 through 1968, one of his teammates was future Hall of Fame running back Floyd Little, a three time All-American out of Syracuse. In a recent interview Little said, “Eric was my wide receiver and my roommate my first two years (1967-68). We never called him Eric, we called him ‘E-Tree.’
“He was a good wide receiver and a good friend. When the NFL expanded to Cincinnati, every team had to give up three players, and Eric was one of the ones we gave up. And it was painful for me because he was my roommate, but we stayed friends after he left the Broncos.”
As a Bengal, Crabtree worked with quarterbacks Greg Cook, Sam Wyche and, for one year, Marlin Briscoe who later switched positions and became a wide receiver for Buffalo and, most notably, for Miami where he played with Crusan on their 17-0 team.
Crabtree stayed with Cincinnati in 1969 and 1970, then split the next season as a Bengal and a Patriot after being traded to New England for his final days in the NFL. Crabtree was wise enough to set up a business for his days after he hung up his cleats. Little remembered, “He had a big company in Denver when he retired. He did a lot of commercial signs in and around the Denver area for a lot of people.
“E-Tree had a lot of skills, and he was very articulate, and he was a good businessman. He had a lot of opportunity in Denver — that’s why he moved back there and didn’t stay in Cincinnati — and he did well.”
Along his journey through life, Crabtree, who still lives in Denver, worked with some legendary men who helped turn him into a success. For example, his receiver coach at Cincinnati was Bill Walsh and his head coach was the legendary Paul Brown. At Denver his head coach was Lou Saban who once led the Bills to two AFL championships.
Clearly, Crabtree was surrounded by some great coaches over his years in football — and to think it all started with Joe Gladys back at Monessen High School.