PDT Sports Writer
SCIOTOVILLE — When Todd Gilliland took over the East football program before the 2010 football season, he wanted to find that cog to his team that would put the program in the right direction.
That cog turned out to be Justin Crager, who helped lead the Tartans to their third playoff appearance in school history during his junior season and went on to set a multitude of records during his final campaign on his way to being named Division VI Second Team All-Ohio Offense in 2012. With the high school gridiron career behind him, Crager decided to continue his playing career as a running back at Kentucky Christian University, a member of the NAIA Division I Mid-South Conference in football.
“It just seemed like the right fit,” Crager said. “Immediately, you meet the people, it’s close to home.”
The Knights were his final selection over NCAA Division II Findlay and Division III John Carroll. The decision was relatively swift as Crager made his visit Jan. 30 to the Grayson campus.
Academically, the school’s business program along with sports management initially caught Crager’s eye. What pulled him deep was the interaction with the current players.
“It’s the way the players welcomed you and the way the kids are there,” Crager said. “They were awesome.”
The transition from quarterback to running back won’t be an issue for Crager. Last year, he finished with 2,268 yards on the ground in 281 attempts and 25 rushing touchdowns.
“Justin has meant a lot to the program,” Gilliland said. “When I came into the program three years ago, he was able to be that cog in the machine you could say we could build around.
“He started at quarterback for us for basically two-and-a-half years and we moved him to running back.”
Crager feels things went in the right direction when Gilliland was introduced to take over the program.
“He changed the program people-wise, the way kids acted, the way the football players acted,” Crager said. “Our freshman year, we had a lot of kids in trouble, out doing stuff they weren’t supposed to be (doing).
“When he came in and changed it, (he) made it just a lot more enjoyable to play for someone you knew who cared as much for you as you did for the game.”
Coming off a 3-7 season during his sophomore year, Crager felt there was no feeling that was greater in his high school career than the regular season finale victory over Notre Dame the following season. The 20-7 win gave East its first postseason berth since 2008.
“A lot of the seniors on that team were my close friends because you play third and fourth grade with each other, then fifth and six and then seventh and eighth and then all the way through,” Crager said. “Those are some of the older kids that you looked up to.
“Just to be able to do it with them, when you got into the locker room, there was that brotherhood that kicked in. It wasn’t just as much as they were teammates but it was more like a family thing and it made the feelings all much better.”
The most memorable moment Gilliland will have of Crager comes from the 2012 season opener at South Gallia. With injuries already taking their toll on the team, Crager rushed for 355 yards in a 36-28 win.
“The way I’ll always remember him is looking back is that he was a hard-nosed competitor,” Gilliland said. “The love and the passion that he had for the game. The good thing is that he’ll be close enough to us that we’ll still get to see him play a lot.”
Crager also credits his grandparents, Margie and David Price, as major influences as he moved in with them while he was in grade school. Specifically, his grandfather would take him to practice every day.
The coaching staff at KCU has told Crager the most important thing he needs to do between now and the fall will be hitting the weight room.
Cody Leist can be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 294, or firstname.lastname@example.org.