Nolan Cromwell was nothing if not versatile when he played football at the University of Kansas. A starting safety during his first two years, a coaching change led to a position change as he headed toward his junior season.
"Bud Moore came from Alabama and brought the wishbone (offense), and ended up moving me to quarterback," Cromwell said. "If I could do it, then great, it would be a good move for the team. And if I couldn't, he said I could always go back and play safety because I had the experience and knowledge of that position."
Rams General Manager Don Klosterman saw the experienced and knowledgeable safety-turned-quarterback and had a plan. Even though Cromwell was an honorable mention All-American and the Big 8 Offensive Player of the Year as a junior, Klosterman decided to select him in the second round of the 1977 NFL Draft and turn him back into a safety.
"It was really a great fit for me because when I went there, Don Klosterman said, 'You'll play special teams your first year. You'll play nickelback your second year. And you'll start your third year.' And that's exactly what happened," Cromwell said.
"I went in and played behind Dave Elmendorf and Billy Simpson; they were the two safeties at the time. And I'll tell you what, I learned so much from them and so much in practice. I would rotate back and forth between the strong safety and free safety positions, so I knew both of them because I was backing both of them up.
"Looking back on it, it was a blessing for me because I got the chance to learn the defense and understand how to play with a good team defense. You just had to do your job. Everybody else would do theirs and it'd all fit together. So you didn't have to try to gamble and make a big play."
Cromwell, however, would make many big plays in 1979, his first season as a starter. He and Jim Youngblood co-led the Rams with five interceptions and helped lead them to the NFC title and Super Bowl XIV.
"It was great, the excitement of getting there," Cromwell said. "For a lot of the players on the team, the older guys that had been so close for so many years going back to when Chuck Knox was there (as the head coach from 1973-77), and every year was either in the (NFC) championship game or (the divisional round of the playoffs). We finally got there. It was disappointing that we lost, but it still was a great experience."
As well as Cromwell played during that Super Bowl season, he was just getting started. In 1980, when he had a team-leading and career-high eight interceptions, he was named as the NFC Defensive Player of the Year. Cromwell began streaks of being named All-Pro three consecutive times and selected to play in the Pro Bowl four straight seasons.
"It was the second year I started, and I was playing in a scheme I was very familiar with. Bud Carson was our defensive coordinator, and we were a very attacking type of defense. Everything fit together for all of us. It was really a great season," said Cromwell, who is as modest as he was talented.
With Los Angeles for 11 seasons, 1977-87, Cromwell, who was named to the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 1980s, finished as the team's all-time leader in interception return yards with 671 on 37 picks. Four were returned for touchdowns. What are among the fondest memories from his time with the Rams?
"Well, getting drafted, No. 1," Cromwell laughed. "The great players that were on that team at the time I got drafted, that made up that defense, they're just country guys. Jack Youngblood was from Monticello, Florida, which is a town of about 2,000 people. Larry Brooks is from a small town. Jack Reynolds is a country boy. They were all country people, and they were all just guys that enjoyed playing football. They had a hardworking ethic for each other. And it was a team defense, it wasn't a me defense.
"In my later years, a lot of the young players would come and ask me questions. I had the opportunity to tell them how I looked at the defense and where they fit. Explain to them kind of the way it was explained to me. You do your part, and everybody's got to do their part to be successful."
Cromwell was able to enjoy two careers in football. As a player and then as an assistant coach for 22 years with the Rams on two occasions, Green Bay, Seattle, Cleveland, and Texas A&M.
"Even in high school, I thought I'd grow up and be a coach," Cromwell said. "I think you could definitely think that (having been there and done that was an advantage) because when you know what worked for me won't necessarily work for somebody else, at least I could give them examples of what it was, how it was, how to do it.
"Because everything can be done in maybe a little bit different way, whatever fits that person, I understood that. Not everybody's going to be able to do it exactly how I did it, but we've got to get the job done."
And what did Cromwell enjoy most about coaching?
"Winning," he laughed. "Seeing a game plan come together and executed correctly, and have it work by using the things that you felt during the week prior to the game that, yeah, this is what's going to happen. And putting players in the best position to be successful."
Now enjoying retirement, Cromwell and his wife, Mary, have a son, Lance, who is in the Army and stationed in Washington State; and a daughter, Jennifer, who's married and lives in Utah. They also have two grandchildren.
He has swapped game plans for bait, and has traded training camps, practices, and game days for hanging out on his boat.
"I do a lot of fishing. I enjoy the water," Cromwell said. "We spend time in Washington and California, and both are good places to be able to fish. I probably fish three days a week. It's all freshwater bass fishing."