Chris Bouyer’s mom was one of the loudest fans at any of her son’s football games.
Whether it was the Northwestern High ninth grade team with a handful of people watching, or televised rivalries against South Pointe or Byrnes with thousands jammed into District Three Stadium, Gwen Crouch was there for her son.
She smuggled air horns into every game, even though they were banned. Silly restrictions couldn’t silence her.
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Crouch worked the 8 a.m.-8 p.m. graveyard shift at a nursing home on weekends but on Friday nights she got a coworker to cover the first few hours so she could watch her boy, fast becoming a man, torment opposing quarterbacks with his relentless pass rush. Then she went back to work.
Crouch cheered her son through four successful years at Northwestern, and he signed to play college football with East Tennessee State in the spring of 2015.
After ETSU home football games, family, friends and fans are allowed down on the field to greet and fellowship with the players. Bouyer’s step-dad, Nate Jeter, and biological dad, Lamont Bouyer, attend some of the games. His girlfriend, Mercedes Cain, lives in Charleston but makes many of the games in Johnson City, and sometimes her parents come too.
But there have been more than a few ETSU home contests the last two years where no one came on the field after the game and hugged Bouyer.
And Gwen Crouch’s air horn hasn’t made it to any ETSU football games.
Out of nowhere
Gwen Crouch worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles. She knew many of her son’s friends and classmates, and probably whether they had passed or failed their drivers’ license test.
She was originally from New Orleans and loved to cook Cajun food. Her son loved to eat it.
The family moved to Rock Hill when Chris was six years old. Bouyer’s parents split up, but his mom remained tirelessly supportive of him and his younger sister, Gloria.
Two days before the 2015 Northwestern prom, Crouch told her son she wasn’t feeling well. When Bouyer returned from a dance that night with Mercedes, he called his mom and asked where she was.
“I’m in the hospital, baby,” Crouch said.
She told her son she’d be fine, nothing to worry about. Three days later, on April 28, she passed away from organ failure. She was 48 years old.
“It just came out of nowhere,” Bouyer said. “That’s what really hurts about it.”
Cain and Bouyer were the only people at the hospital when Crouch died. She took her last breath and Bouyer slumped into the arms of his girlfriend.
Love around the neck
Barely two months later, Bouyer left for college. He took a couple of summer school classes and preseason football training camp began. The days, weeks and months whirred past. A packed schedule helped Bouyer cope with his grief, but when the day slowed into night he missed his mom badly.
“You just need that person to talk to about a new experience and everything. It was kind of hard,” he said. “She was there with me in spirit but it would be real nice just to hear her voice on the phone.”
Bouyer’s academic advisers and ETSU football coaches supported him through a tough few months that combined intense grieving with the bewilderment that accompanies a first college semester. As ETSU coach Carl Torbush said, “we basically tried to love him around the neck and let him know we’re here for him. But he handled a lot of that on his own.”
Bouyer also got “love around the neck” from Northwestern High School, including his defensive line coach, David Pierce, and Bryan Coburn, a Northwestern teacher who helped shape Bouyer’s interest in engineering. Pierce and other Northwestern coaches and administrators brought food to Bouyer and supported him in a way that much of his family, down in Louisiana, couldn’t. Cain even turned to Pierce when Bouyer realized he suddenly didn’t have any insurance.
Cain was also ever-present, a sure candidate for 2015 Girlfriend of the Year. She’d make the five-hour trek from the College of Charleston to watch Bouyer’s home games and she was usually his first phone call in the morning and last at night.
“She’s been in my corner since ninth grade,” Bouyer said.
There were nights where Bouyer, physically and mentally exhausted from football and the rigors of school (he made the Dean’s List that first semester), cried himself to sleep in his dorm room. Cain and Bouyer have dated since the beginning of high school. To see Bouyer, 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds, vulnerable and hurting was difficult for Cain.
“It took a lot for Chris to pull it back together and make it through the school year,” she said.
Bouyer entered college with a strict “no homework on Saturdays” policy.
It didn’t last long.
The former Shrine Bowler is majoring in engineering technology, which ended his homework policy. Bouyer said he can’t count the number of hours he spends each week on school work. He has even finished assignments on the bus or plane after playing a college football game, whatever it takes to get his school work done before Saturday midnight deadlines.
“I go to the game, visit my family, eat real quick, then come back to the room and I have an assignment due for 11:59,” said Bouyer, laughing. “And the thing about it, I don’t procrastinate!”
Bouyer’s academic hustle has paid off so far. The ETSU junior has a 3.6 grade point average in his challenging major and was named an Arthur Ashe Scholar by Diverse Magazine. His academic motivations stem in part from his mother.
“I always told myself, ‘I’m gonna work my tail off because I want to take care of my momma, take care of my sister,’” Bouyer said.
Maintaining his grades will get harder the next two years as Bouyer enters advanced levels of his major-specific classes. He’s taking courses called “Statics,” “Computer-automated Design,” “Technology in Society,” and “Applied Technology.” There were others with lengthier titles he couldn’t remember.
“I really haven’t looked at it,” Bouyer said with a rueful smile. “When I’m on my break I just enjoy my break. When it’s school time and football time I just grind.”
The complete package
Bouyer said he’s “just really interested in building stuff.”
He’s been a load-bearing wall for East Tennessee as it rebuilds its football program that was dormant from 2003 to 2015. He’s started all 22 games the last two years and was voted a team captain for the upcoming season, one in which the Bucs will play in a new stadium against a true Southern Conference schedule for the first time.
Torbush said other ETSU players notice when Bouyer, one of the team’s best on-field performers, voluntarily goes to extra study hall sessions.
“He’s the type of young man you’d want to be your son,” said the veteran coach. “Academically, athletically, socially, spiritually, he brings the complete package.”
Bouyer was an undersized defensive tackle as a sophomore at Northwestern, just as he is now at ETSU. Pierce said Bouyer, who is up to 280 pounds now, was the perfect player to walk up to and say, “Here’s this impossible task: will you do this for me?”
Interior defensive linemen have to be consummate team players. They accumulate few stats and earn little recognition for tying up blockers, allowing their linebackers to make tackles. Doesn’t mean they can star, though.
“I want to be an All-American-type guy,” Bouyer said. “Now that I have two years down in the weight room, my junior year should be a good one to explode.”
Sure, football helps keep Bouyer busy and driven, but in some ways it also jabs the pain. Bouyer represented ETSU at the Southern Conference’s football media day in Spartanburg on Tuesday. Even if his mom couldn’t attend the event, she would have been incredibly proud. And Bouyer would have talked to her for hours about the bright lights, cameras and countless questions from media.
And of course there are the postgame family celebrations that intermittently ram home Bouyer’s reality. As Torbush said, “He’s still got an empty spot in his heart.”
“My dad and Nate were there for me,” said Bouyer. “But my mom was my motor. She was there for everything. Just to have her be gone, along the ride, just really, really hurt.”