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A Conversation With Shaun Crawford - Former Player Turned Media Trailblazer

Written by Liam Gaudet|Senior Editor|Twitter/X: @LiamGaudet.IT

Photo by 247 Sports

It wasn't too long ago that Shaun Crawford, former Notre Dame defensive back, dawned the blue and gold for the last time in his Irish career against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2021 Rose Bowl Playoff Semi-Final. At the time, Shaun was a 6th-year senior and a captain on the defensive side of the football for an 11-1 Notre Dame program, an extremely impressive accomplishment in it's own right. What impresses me most, however, is how he was able to achieve these accolades through unrivaled perseverance, and how he has used his experience to excel even further in life after football. Shaun sustained multiple serious injuries throughout his time on the football field, but refused to let them define his career. When the odds were seemingly insurmountable, Shaun proved time and time again that his passion for the game would always prevail, coming back stronger each time, eventually making it to the NFL where he would sign with the Raiders. At the conclusion of his playing career, Shaun founded Varsity House, a multi-disciplined media company featuring a flagship podcast of the same name. Using his vast network, Shaun has seen incredible success in this field and features a wide range of guests on his podcast that a lot of Irish fans would be familiar with, and plenty of others in the world of sports and media. Recently, Varsity House was able to organize a football camp in June, expanding it's reach even further. I encourage you to check out his podcast if you haven't already, and it will be linked below. I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Shaun this past Thursday, where we covered everything from Notre Dame football to life in the entrepreneurial space. The interview begins below.

Check out the Varsity House Podcast here:

The Interview

It’s been a little while since Irish fans have seen you in the blue and gold. How has life been treating you, and what are you up to these days?

"Yeah, it's been a minute. Life's definitely been different because, you know, you've had an identity and you've been known to play college sports for so long and you grew up playing it and fans and friends have known that's who you are. Now, being outside of Notre Dame and being removed from Notre Dame, it is something that I've struggled with in the past and trying to find that new passion because - I say this all the time - from the age of six when I woke up, I've always done something that I loved. I got to play football, and I got to hang out with my brothers in the locker room. So now, one thing that I've focused on is finding a passion and turning it into a business, so it's still that same feeling every time I wake up, I love what I'm doing, I'm excited with what I'm doing. Recently I started a multimedia company called "Varsity House" focusing on community with a mission to give the public a new found perspective through unparalleled access to organizations, communities, athletes and public figures through different mediums. There's digital media, podcasting, fan experiences, signings, meet and greets, watch parties or even just community events like camps or golf outings. That's been the journey so far this past year, being able to connect with athletes that I played with, played against or any coaches that I know and just figure out ways to bridge the gap between athletes and community, like I said, through different mediums."

That's awesome. Getting into Varsity House a little more, do you have any other entrepreneurial projects within Varsity House that you're looking to expand a little more, or something planned for the future?

"Yeah, so like I mentioned with podcasting, I'm still reaching out to different athletes whether it be collegiate or professional, getting them on to promote their story or individual brand. But also this year, I really started focusing on these fan experiences, these live events and establishing a way to put the athletes and fans face to face. Creating a real genuine connection - a unique connection. In the near future we're hoping to plan a meet and greet signing with the entire women's basketball team under the Varsity House brand. I'm also looking to do some more camps and watch parties as well. I'm from Cleveland so we kind of focus on Browns games, but I would love to expand into different regions."

It’s readily apparent that you’ve used your Notre Dame education and experience to build a foundation to be successful in the entrepreneurial space. What advice would you give to an individual looking to start an independent business similar to the way you did, and can you pinpoint anything specific that was able to help you along the way?

"One thing is don't be afraid to use your network and use your resources. I feel like for me, even while I was at Notre Dame I didn't take full advantage of the network that was there because I was so focused on football and my dreams of going to the NFL that I just fully didn't take advantage of what was there. So I would just honestly say to anyone who's looking to start their own business, or for the entrepreneurs out there: Do a deep dive into your network and the resources you do have and start from there. Figure out a way to turn your passion into a business. For me, it was obviously football and sports, but something I didn't know at the time was that my adversity would help me start a multimedia company. When I first started Varsity House the whole mission was to provide a platform for athletes or public figures like myself who have experienced adversity, and to give them a safe space to share their stories, their adversity, their journey. I didn't think that all the injuries that I sustained in college would help me start that platform, but it ended up doing so in the long run."

We’ll move into some football questions now. I want to start at the beginning of your career, specifically when you were first being recruited. You were originally committed to Michigan, but you took an unofficial visit to Notre Dame in May of 2014 and decommitted from the Wolverines six days later. What did you see, or what was pitched to you on that visit that caused you to reconsider your decision?

"Maybe some people know this story, some people don't but I actually took a visit to Notre Dame before I committed to Michigan, and Bob Diaco was the D.C. at the time. That was my first time ever going on campus at Notre Dame and I fell in love pretty much like any recruit or any fan that visits Notre Dame for the first time. It's very hard to not fall in love with the place, with the atmosphere, and the people and community. Also coming from St. Edward high school in Lakewood, Ohio, it was a brother of Holy Cross. It had a very similar background of network and community, I just felt like it was the next step up. I had interest in Notre Dame then, it was just after that visit I didn't get offered. It seemed like I wasn't going to get offered just because I wasn't the style of player that Bob Diaco recruited, so I couldn't commit to Notre Dame, I didn't have an opportunity to commit to Notre Dame. Michigan was my number one school, I was a fan of Michigan growing up, my dad was a fan - The Mike Hart days, the Mario Manningham days - those were all legends to me when I was growing up, so it was just that opportunity where I thought "this is the time". It wasn't Notre Dame, so I'm going to Michigan. Late in my junior season I committed to Michigan. And then following that season, Bob Diaco left for Uconn and coach Van Gorder was hired. Coach Kelly ended up calling me and explained the situation of having the new D.C., and he wasn't aware of the conversations that we had with [Bob] Diaco. Coach Van Gorder called me, just to like, rebuild the relationship honestly. It was something we talked about over a time, and I did two visits that weekend. I went to Michigan on Friday or Saturday, and then I took a visit the next day to Notre Dame on the same weekend. It was the same thing that it was the first time. The decision to decommit was very tough, I had been a fan of Michigan my entire life, and it was a hard conversation to have for any 16 or 17 year old kid. I decided to make that decision and just knew that Notre Dame was the school that I wanted to go to. I'm glad I made that decision, it's the best decision I ever made in my life."

Staying on the subject of recruiting, you and I can both agree that the recruiting landscape has changed drastically since you made the decision to attend Notre Dame. I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on NIL, and do you think Notre Dame is maximizing it’s potential with NIL and it’s student athletes?

"First of all, I think NIL is a great thing, you can obviously check the numbers and see how much students and athletic programs do for universities and the money that they bring in to universities. I think finding a way to provide payment for the student athletes is great. As far as it being used - and not to talk specifically for Notre Dame - but you know, I think Notre Dame could do more. Luckily, I've been able to get in some rooms and have some conversations with some people at Notre Dame and try to help out in any way that I can with the NIL, just try to add more to the plate. I think being Notre Dame, we want to protect the brand and do everything the right way and that's who Notre Dame is. I don't think you can fault Notre Dame for that safety and being true to who they are and true to the brand. I'm reaching out and trying to do my best to figure out a way that Varsity House and Notre Dame can do something to where we can provide a platform, areas, or different avenues to allow student athletes to grow their brand through content, through experience with media, anything like that, that can live on but also provide opportunity for them once they're done playing the game."

I wanted to talk about that infamous 2016 season and the impressive turnaround which lead to five straight 10 or more win seasons. In that offseason, was there a massive change in the philosophy of the program, and in your opinion, what was the catalyst to the success that followed?

"After that 4-8 season I feel like we had a lot of buy in. Obviously some guys left for the league and we had tremendous talent on that 4-8 team. We made some changes as far as coaches and the strength staff as well. I think everyone just bought in, it was funny because my freshman year we went to the Fiesta Bowl and we didn't have much of a winter break and things like that, but that 4-8 year we had that entire winter break, we were going home with our classmates and we came back with our classmates. I just remember texting friends and talking to friends when we got back and was like "let's never do that again" it was the longest break that I've ever had playing football, it just didn't feel normal. We were away from training, we were away from the game that we loved and we had to watch everyone else go to bowl games and receive gifts and doing all those things. It was a tough season, it was tough around campus so I think just having those feelings and being the ultra-competitors that everyone is in the locker room, it was just something that we never wanted to experience again. With the new staff members coming in, whether it be coaches, new players coming in and our new strength staff - they didn't allow us to revert back to our old ways or to be complacent. Coach Balis pushed us harder than we've ever been pushed, and I credit our success a lot to him as well because when I say no one allowed us to be complacent, no one allowed us to just be satisfied, it was because of him. He pushed our best players, he pushed everyone in the locker room so I credit a lot to him, and when we got on the field, we were in shape, we were tough, we were strong. We already had the talent, but now that we really bonded over the offseason, we knew the feeling that we had last season and that we had to come out and really dominate to get the Notre Dame brand back to where it needed to be."

You’ve played in and been around a lot of big games over your career. Playoff appearances, top 10 matchups and rivalry games come to mind, and I was wondering what atmosphere still sticks out to you to this day whether it be a home, away or neutral site game?

"To be honest, the most recent Ohio State game. It was the best Notre Dame environment that I've been a part of during my tenure and a little bit after. From 9AM, with college gameday, all the way up until one second left on the clock. The fans, the energy, South Bend, the campus, it was just... unlike anything before. I love the direction that we're headed, I love the buy in from the campus, I love the buy in from the team, the university... I love the light show. I love being able to open up campus to ESPN, even the away fans they were great. As far as playing, for me it was either at Georgia or at Texas. I think both of those environments were ridiculous, both were night games, both were prime time games. Georgia was the first light show that I've ever seen, the stadium went dark, they played music and it was like a concert in there. And it was a close game throughout that entire time so, I would most definitely say playing in Georgia, and then most recently being able to watch [Ohio State] as a fan."

I’ll end things off here with a question about this year’s team and specifically where they find themselves right now, in the middle of a tough four game stretch. I was hoping you could comment a little bit on coming off of back to back high emotion games as you have before, and what process or mindset you would adapt in order to maintain that composure moving forward?

"I think coming off of Ohio State, it's tough... Obviously you want to win that one in front of your home crowd as well. One great thing about that game is they had another opportunity the next week. Another [college] gameday experience, another night game. I loved prime time games, especially on the road because you knew everyone was going to be watching on TV, but you had an opportunity to put on in front of the away fans. You had an opportunity to send their crowd home disappointed, sad, and so I love that approach. Being able to go on the road and play those tough games is why you come to Notre Dame. I don't think anyone chose Notre Dame to play Central Michigan or play Tennessee State or play, you know, a down Duke or a down NC State. We want to get everyone's best - we are going to get everyone's best. When we're fortunate enough to get them at night, I personally love those opportunities and I know those guys love those opportunities as well, because we all have the dream of going to the NFL, we all want to play the best and perform the best, so what greater stage to have than a night game on ESPN, or whatever station it is? Those are the moments you look forward to, the reason why you come to Notre Dame. Now that they're coming off of a win, and they have another night game against Louisville I think it'll be special. You just have to continue to start fast, you can't afford to start slow. That was Duke's season, you know, that was Duke's national championship. They had college gameday for the first time, it was a night game, the fans were rocking, so they came out ready to play. As a team, we have to match that energy because we're getting everyone's best. We're going to get Louisville's best. Fans are flying in, alumni are coming in, so we're going to have to start fast and be physical. As far as USC as well, like they have the reigning Heisman trophy winner who dominated the game last year against us, so it's the same thing - start fast and be physical. As we continue to play these tough games, we're going to have to let our traits and let our characteristics show, because we have the talent, there's no doubt about it, everyone saw that when we matched up against Ohio State. We have to be sound, we can't be undisciplined, can't be taking penalties - and again start fast and be physical."

A big thank you to Shaun for taking the time to talk with me this week. Please remember to check out Varsity House to support an outstanding former Notre Dame athlete as he continues his 4 for 40 journey. The Irish Tribune is proud to continue giving Notre Dame athletes of the past and future a platform to voice their opinions.

- As always, Go Irish!


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