Published 12:00 am Friday, May 31, 2013

By Mike London
WEST POINT, N.Y. — When Army played its 2011 football home opener, an American flag that flew at Ground Zero in New York City following the 2001 terrorist attacks was delivered to the team by a firefighter.
Only one Black Knight could carry that flag as his teammates rumbled into Michie Stadium behind him, and the guy chosen to lead the charge was Jon Crucitti, a leader among leaders.
Crucitti held that flowing patch of red, white and blue aloft as he was pursued by a sea of black and gold. He ferociously sprinted the 50 yards from the end zone to midfield as 26,778 fans and his teammates went crazy. Then he shook the hand of New York mayo Rudolph Giuliani, and then he played a little football against San Diego State. That sort of opportunity doesn’t happen many places, and that’s why Crucitti, the former West Rowan star, is certain he made the right college choice.
“Absolutely if I had the chance to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change my decision,” Crucitti said. “There’s no place on earth where I would’ve had the experiences I’ve had here.”
Crucitti, who set receiving records with 79 catches for 1,262 yards for West’s 2009 state-championship team, will lead the Black Knights once again today — when he steps into the batter’s box against Virginia at 1 p.m. in the Charlottesville Regional of the NCAA tournament.
Crucitti, 21, is the only Army athlete who plays both football and baseball and is one of just three in the last dozen years. Because of his brilliant 2009 gridiron campaign, people tend to think of him as a football player, but Crucitti also was a sensational center fielder for the 2009 Rowan County team that reached the American Legion World Series.
Crucitti has played in 20 football contests for Army, but his greatest athletic impact has come out of nowhere in the current baseball season. A broken thumb from a boxing class ruined his freshman baseball season and shoulder surgery wrecked his sophomore year on the diamond. Coach Joe Sottolano didn’t expect anything from Crucitti except toughness this spring, but he immediately earned the jobs of tone-setting leadoff man and gold-glove right fielder.
“Just the opportunity to get back on a baseball field has been fantastic, and that’s very important to me because Army was the first college to recruit me in any sport,” Crucitti said. “Being able to play this season means I’m following through on a commitment. I showed I could put together competitive at-bats and go get the ball in the outfield in our first series at UNC Greensboro. I instilled confidence in our pitchers that when they got a flyball, it was an out.”
Crucitti has been a prototype leadoff man. He led the Patriot League in walks (35), was second in runs scored (43), third in on-base percentage (.440), fourth in HBPs (15) and tied for first in steals (16).
His driving leadership for a youthful team has been as important as his ability to get on base. He plays with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder, but that hasn’t slowed him at all.
“Twenty-six of our 35 guys are underclassmen, so I’m someone most guys look up to in our chain-of-command off the field,” Crucitti said. “That carries over to the baseball field. I can lead them and mentor them.”
Army baseball is better than you might think. The program has made the NCAAs five of the last 10 seasons.
“The regionals where all the Army teams have played are listed on our outfield wall,” Crucitti said. “There’s baseball tradition here, and I’m proud of how far we’ve come this season. Navy beat us three out of four early on, but then we swept them in the league tournament.”
Crucitti admits his life was a whirlwind when he first arrived at West Point.
“I was taking 20 credit hours, along with football and baseball, and I quickly found out there weren’t enough hours in the day to excel at all the things I wanted to excel at,” he said. “Most freshmen here are allowed away from campus one weekend, but with two sports, I was only on the campus one weekend. But I overcame that first year, and it gets easier the older I get.”
Crucitti’s torn labrum will require shoulder surgery when baseball is finished, so he’s unlikely to be active for his senior football season, except in a coaching role. He’s been enlisted to help tutor Army’s running backs and wide receivers.
He should be healthy for his final baseball season, and his senior year also will provide answers to all of his most important questions.
In November, he’ll find out what sort of service he’ll provide for his country for five years (infantry, armor, artillery, etc.). Next January, he’ll learn the destination where he’ll perform that service.
“I have my hopes and my dreams and aspirations,” Crucitti said. “But whatever happens, no regrets. There’s no place I would’ve grown as much as I have here.”