TAMPA — Angelo Crowell's journey to the NFL was tough enough, beginning with a childhood during which his family struggled to make ends meet.
And for the new Bucs linebacker, spending the past year out of football after knee surgery tested him again, "a really, really frustrating" situation that ultimately rekindled his passion for the sport.
Crowell was a defensive captain for the Bills in 2007, when he led the team in tackles with 140. But it was the seven-plus months of rehab, and not playing on Sundays, that gave the 6-foot-1, 238-pounder a chance to sit back and realize "how much the game meant to me."
Now Crowell, 27, who will compete for the strongside linebacker job, is healthy and ready to take his career to the next level.
"In my standards, (2007) isn't good enough anymore," Crowell said.
"I'm going to be a different player from what I was then. I expect myself to be better than 2007."
That could be a boon for the Bucs, who welcome the laid-back leader and hard-hitter who is known for his work ethic and determination.
"(He can) find laughter and joy in just about everything," his father, Napoleon, said.
Those qualities were embedded during Crowell's youth. With seven children living in their three-bedroom Winston-Salem, N.C., home, Crowell's father and mother, Patricia Brown, worked multiple jobs. Napoleon, a longtime pastor who founded a church, also delivered newspapers. Patricia worked at a warehouse and McDonald's.
But there were times the family was without power, without a refrigerator.
"There were times we didn't know how we were going to make it," said Crowell's brother, Germane, 32, a former receiver for the Lions.
"Times I knew my mom and dad didn't know how they were going to make ends meet. It was a time where we were living right at poverty. All the meals we had sometimes were the meals that mom brought home from McDonald's."
"The only thing we always had was family," Angelo Crowell said. "Just seeing my parents work ethic, I wanted to be successful to make them proud."
And Crowell also wanted to make a name for himself, getting out of the shadow of Germane, who also starred at Virginia before playing five seasons with the Lions.
The brothers are close. Germane worked out with Angelo while he was at Virginia. They would watch film together. Germane would run routes against his brother.
Crowell was drafted in the third round by the Bills in 2003 and worked his way up from special teams to become a three-year starter. But in 2007 training camp, his left knee began to bother him. He played through it. But after last season's training camp, he elected to have arthroscopic surgery a few days before the season opener — surprising the Bills, who put him on injured reserve.
Crowell's contract expired after last season, and the Bucs signed him in March. His rehab now complete, Crowell got the green light medically to participate in last week's Bucs practices.
"There's no substitute for experience," Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "A guy could have great feel. He could have great toughness and all that stuff; great speed. There's nothing that beats actually doing it on Sundays, and (Crowell) has done it and done it on a high level."
Speaking of Sundays, Napoleon is the bishop of the church he founded, where Germane is a pastor. His mother teaches children who have who have behavioral issues.
"I help them realize the talent within themselves," she said. "They ask about my kids."
After all, they're living proof.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.