After graduating from Zephyr Cove's Whittell High School in the early 1990s, all Mike Crawford wanted to do was play football for the Nevada Wolf Pack.
"They wouldn't let me walk on," Crawford recalled. "I was just not good enough. Too slow, too small. But I kept on them."
In 1993, Crawford got his break. The Wolf Pack let him join its equipment team. And as long as he worked there, Nevada agreed to let him practice a little with the team. In 1994, he earned a scholarship. In 1995, he was second-team all-conference. In 1996, he was first-time all-conference. And in 1997, he was drafted into the NFL.
On Wednesday, things came full circle for Crawford, who led the Wolf Pack's ribbon-cutting ceremony for its new playing surface at Mackay Stadium. Now the chief operating officer at Sparks-based ITS Logistics, Crawford's business will have its name on Mackay's turf after funding the $1.3 million project. It will officially be dubbed Chris Ault Field presented by ITS Logistics.
"For all the former players who played here before me and players who played here after that, what an honor to be part of this," said Crawford, who was inducted into the Wolf Pack Hall of Fame in 2016. "It's just super special for me. I definitely have an emotional connection to where I'm standing."
Also at the ribbon-cutting ceremony were UNR president Brian Sandoval, Wolf Pack athletic director Stephanie Rempe, Hall of Fame Nevada football coach Chris Ault and the Wolf Pack's new head man, Ken Wilson, who was Crawford's position coach at Nevada after he moved Crawford from offensive line to linebacker where he thrived before playing four pro seasons.
Nevada football had its first full practice on the new turf at Mackay Stadium on Wednesday morning. The turf was last replaced prior to the 2010 season, so a refresh was overdue.
"ITS has been traveling our team safely for a lot of years to away games and back, and now they've given us one of the safest, most productive, nicest football stadium fields that we could have," Wilson said. "Not only on the road but at home. We're very thankful."
When first presented with the opportunity for the partnership, Crawford joked his initial reaction was, "That's a lot of money!" Crawford said the reason ITS Logistics moved forward with the project is because he believes in the university's leadership, including Sandoval, who opened the ceremony with a few words.
"We've known each other for a very long time, and if anybody bleeds blue more than Mikes does, there's not many people like that," Sandoval said. "He literally spilled his blood, sweat and tears on this football field, and now to come back and make this presentation and this contribution is something I'm very thankful for."
With more than a dozen ITS Logistics employees in attendance, Crawford spoke about the importance of community in trying to build the Wolf Pack athletics department. As a Northern Nevada local, Crawford felt that first hand when playing before packed crowds at Mackay Stadium in the mid-1990s when Nevada had a championship-caliber football program. He believes the Wolf Pack can get back to those winning ways.
Crawford recalled the 1996 Las Vegas Bowl win — Nevada's first bowl victory in 50 years — as one of his proudest moments with the program. Crawford was named the game's MVP after recording 14 tackles and the game-saving interception in his final game in silver and blue.
"Whether it was '96 bowl game or the Sweet 16 runs or the (Colin) Kaepernick days, the energy in this community at a time where we need to bond as much as possible with so much fragmentation (is important)," Crawford said. "This university has the ability to bond this community, and we've got to rally this community. The community needs to step up and start supporting (Wolf Pack athletics). I know a lot of people on the fence. 'I don't know if I'm buying season tickets. I don't know if I'm going to the game. I don't know if I'm going to wear my silver and blue.' We've got to rally that because the university and athletic department is not going to be able to do it without our support."
Rempe, who started on the job last month, applauded Crawford's support of Nevada athletics and said it's that kind of blue-collar work ethic that makes Northern Nevada special.
"That is the Wolf Pack Way," Rempe said of Crawford spearheading the donation. "Everything you learned here, everything you learned from your mom, everything you learned from Nevada is all coming full circle with what you've done to make this field happen."
In addition to the Nevada football team using the new turf, Mackay Stadium is also home to Wolf Pack women's soccer. The first football game on the turf is Sept. 3 when Nevada hosts Texas State in its second game of the year. Women's soccer makes its home debut one day later when it hosts Sac State. While permanent soccer lines were drawn on the previous playing surface at Mackay, the Wolf Pack will attempt to paint temporary soccer lines on the field for home matches before removing those in advance of each home football game.
"I've been coming to football games here since 1970, and this is the best I've ever seen," Sandoval said of the new playing surface. "It's something that's going to make the community proud, the state proud and the university proud."