Green Bay Packers tight end Tom Crabtree dives into the end zone to score on a a 72-yard touchdown catch against Arizona Cardinals cornerback William Gay on the last play of the third quarter of Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. Dan Powers/Gannett Wisconsin Meida
He is the perfect Packer. He also is a cliché, and a reluctant star, and a guy who easily could be confused with a college student as he makes his way around town with his hair hanging out from under his knit cap and gray backpack slung over his shoulder.
Wave after wave of investigators lapped up to Tom Crabtree’s locker on Sunday, because the perfect Packer made the most perfect play that enabled Green Bay to hit the bye week with four straight wins and a promising 6-3 record by virtue of a rather imperfect 31-17 victory over Arizona at Lambeau Field.
It was real late in the third quarter when a 21-7 halftime lead was evaporating quickly. The Packers had four chances in the quarter to stretch their advantage, but went three-and-out four straight times, managing a field goal only because they took over at the Cardinals’ 20 following an Erik Walden pick.
The lead was down to seven, and the Packers were down on their luck. But when quarterback Aaron Rodgers called the next play in the huddle, Crabtree knew it was perfect.
“We knew it would work,’’ he said. “Just a matter of calling it at the right time.’’
Crabtree hesitated just long enough before taking off down the middle of the field, Rodgers got the linebackers to bite and then he hit Crabtree in stride. There was nothing in front of him but grass, and as he chugged along, everyone crossed their fingers hoping Crabtree had enough in the tank to make it to the end zone before the Cardinals could track him down.
Seventy-two yards. The longest pass play of the season and the longest by a Packers tight end since Paul Coffman in, gulp, 1979.
If only Jermichael Finley could … well, another time.
“I was looking back and forth the whole time,’’ said Crabtree as a linebacker was closing in from behind and a defensive back from his right. “I was sure somebody had to catch me, right? But they didn’t.’’
He may have helped himself by taking a peek at the video board to see exactly where everyone was. But you’ll forgive him if he forgot. It wasn’t because his mind wandered to a place where he was contemplating how he would celebrate his big play. This was his 28th birthday, after all, and if ever there was a time to seize the moment, this was it.
But Crabtree had other things on his mind as he cradled the ball like it was the golden goose. He didn’t want to be that guy, and he wanted to live in peace.
“I knew it was a big play, whether I got tackled before I scored or not, so I wanted to make sure I hung onto the ball,’’ Crabtree said.
“And I knew it was going to be close getting to the goal line. I knew I wouldn’t hear the end of it if I got tackled at the 2 or the 1, so I had to get in there.’’
It’s easy to cheer for Crabtree, then and now.
He went to a small college. Wasn’t drafted. Signed as a free agent. Was cut. Was signed to the practice squad in Kansas City. Then was cut again. Then the Packers picked him up and put him on their practice squad.
Three years later. He’s a valuable member of the Packers’ special teams. A valuable blocker in the run game. And, for the second time this season — remember the fourth-and-26 fake field goal run that propelled the Packers past the Bears? — a game-changer.
“That’s pretty cool, but most importantly it helped us get the win,’’ said the quintessential self-made man. It was a theme he repeated time and again at his locker Sunday. Blue-collar guys know their role. They understand if they begin to think they’re something they’re not, the career may suddenly become short. And they are keen to the notion they are often undersold and underappreciated.
That’s cool, as Crabtree might say, because that’s right in his wheelhouse.
“As far as you guys say, me not getting chances, that’s kind of how you guys look at it,’’ he said. “Which is fine, that means not getting enough balls or anything. But I’m happy to be in there contributing, whether it’s special teams or blocking. Those are chances for me, blocking in the run game and stuff like that. I’m fine doing that stuff, too.’’
Scoring touchdowns brings the adulation, doing the dirty work keeps the hefty paychecks coming.
“Absolutely. I love nothing more than blocking a guy and driving a guy into the ground just as much as breaking a long touchdown,’’ he said. “I’m probably more used to blocking and springing a touchdown run, so yeah, I enjoy that just as much.’’
Curious as to how he would celebrate this daily double, a key touchdown and a birthday to boot, Crabtree was asked how much he was looking forward to the evening.
“I’ve still got to go home and probably have to do some chores around the house,’’ he said, not cracking a smile. “Back to reality here in a little bit.’’
“Oh yeah, family man,’’ he said. “I’ve got to make sure the house is tidy and help my wife out with the kids.’’
— Mike Woods writes for The Post-Crescent of Appleton