Column: Greenport great is gone

The eyes were drawn to his knees. One couldn’t help but stare at those ordinary looking knees and wonder how Gerald Crenshaw could do such extraordinary things with them.

How could those knees withstand the force exerted upon them when Crenshaw made one of those Barry Sanders-like cutbacks on the football field? He would be running with the ball at top speed and then — just like that — stop. On a dime. The defenders chasing after him would try to stop as well, only it took them a split second longer, and in that split second, as they slid past him like characters in a cartoon, Crenshaw was off again, leaving tacklers grasping at thin air.

Sometimes he pulled off moves like that two or three times on a single play!

“Oh man, he was amazing, an amazing athlete. Gerald was the man.”

Ryan Creighton

Last week was a tough one for sports fans. Major League Baseball lost the Mets’ greatest player of all time, Tom Seaver, who died at the age of 75. Greenport lost one of the greatest athletes it has ever produced, Gerald Crenshaw. He was 36.

Word of Crenshaw’s death spread last Wednesday as Facebook filled with expressions of shock, condolences, emojis of crying, broken hearts and prayers as well as old photos of Crenshaw in his prime as a football and basketball great for Greenport High School.

The details and cause of Crenshaw’s death were not immediately known. Friends and relatives said Crenshaw’s body was found at a store in Shirley. He lived in Mastic Beach.

Mike Murphy, a former teammate and second cousin, learned of the news when he received a phone call at 7 a.m. last Wednesday morning from another former Greenport athlete, Sam Carey. The conversation, Murphy said, went like this: “ ‘Hey Mike, did you hear about Gerald this morning?’ I’m like, ‘What happened?’ And that’s when he delivered the message to me and I just lost it.”

Rodney Shelby, a Greenport boys basketball assistant coach and Crenshaw’s cousin, said, “I’m still at a loss for words.”

For several years, the “G” in Greenport stood for Gerald. Crenshaw was a two-time Suffolk Times Athlete of the Year for Greenport (2000-01, 2001-02). He completed his high school football career as Suffolk County’s all-time rushing leader, spinning, cutting, twisting and turning his way to 5,346 yards. The three-time all-county player also scored 83 all-purpose touchdowns and led the Porters to their first playoff appearance in 52 years his senior year.

“When I’m running, it’s just instinct,” Crenshaw once told The Suffolk Times. “I just do it. I feel I’m going to get tackled and just change direction and get away from the tackler.”

Those moves were as much his trademark as the red, white and blue, stars-and-stripes bandanna he wore under his helmet.

Crenshaw generated plenty of headlines like, “Gerald the Great.” He was the team’s starting quarterback as an eighth-grader but also played running back in later years as well as taking part in special teams.

Fred Marienfeld, who coached the Porters during Crenshaw’s five varsity football seasons, recalled being asked by his defensive coordinator at the time, Dick Herzog, during training camp who his starting QB would be. Marienfeld pointed to Crenshaw, an eighth-grader at the time.

“Dick looked at me like I had three heads. ‘What are you, crazy?’ ” Marienfeld recalled. Marienfeld said he told Herzog, “I tell you what, he’s not like any freshman you’ve ever seen.”

Crenshaw set that county rushing record on his 18th birthday in his final football game, a playoff loss at Babylon. Trevon Rodney, who ran for four Babylon TDs in that game, said Crenshaw was “a one-man team. He made miracles for that team.”

Cedric Davis, a former teammate, said Crenshaw used to say to him, “C.D., I need one block, man.” Davis said: “He wasn’t playing. That’s all he needed.”

As a guard for Greenport’s basketball team, Crenshaw was a three-time all-conference selection with a career average of 24.5 points per game.

Athletically, Crenshaw was seen as surefire Division I material for college, but college didn’t materialize for him. Academics weren’t his thing.

“He had some issues with his grades,” Davis said. “I think if he would have taken school a lot more serious, he would have been playing on Sundays.”

Ryan Creighton, Crenshaw’s cousin and seven years his junior, would go on to become a Greenport star himself in basketball. As a youngster he watched Crenshaw do his thing. “Oh man, he was amazing, an amazing athlete,” Creighton said. “Gerald was the man.”

Murphy recalled hanging out with Crenshaw, JoJo Moore, Davis and Carey as youngsters, playing ball together and enjoying good times at the beach. The five friends, all good athletes, called themselves “The Fab Five.”

Emotion caught up with Shelby during an interview talking about his late cousin. “There’s so many benefits coming from a large family,” he said. “The most difficult part is saying goodbye to loved ones so often.”

Marienfeld said he was devastated by the news about his former player, who he thought of as a son. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” he said. “I can’t believe the kid’s gone.”