It was a cool December afternoon when Loyal Crawford's phone buzzed. He was sitting with his school friends on the steps outside Eau Claire Memorial when he saw his mother's name pop up on his cell phone. It was a call he wasn't expecting.
"She just said that she died," Crawford remembered. "That's all she said, 'she died,' and she just kept crying."
For four years, Crawford's baby sister Téya Madison fought brain and spinal cancer. It took the Crawford-Madison family all over the Midwest in search of help, from Milwaukee, to Minneapolis, to experimental treatments in Cincinnati. But on December 15, 2017, shortly after the school day ended, Madison lost her battle.
That day changed Crawford. He experienced something no 14-year-old boy should have to go through. It sent him into a depression that could have cost him his future. But over time, Crawford learned how to turn his sister's strength into his own. He climbed out of his personal hole and refocused his attention on his dream of playing running back for the Wisconsin Badgers. And on Thursday morning, just a week after being extended a scholarship offer from Wisconsin, he made that dream a reality, calling up Badgers coach Paul Chryst to verbally commit for the class of 2021.
Since Crawford was in middle school he has been dreaming about playing for the Badgers. He was always just a little bit more athletic than his peers and it showed on the football field, according to his mother, Jayna Crawford.
"When he came to our strength and conditioning class in the summer, you could tell that he was at a different level athletically," Eau Claire Memorial head coach Mike Sinz remembered.
Crawford's skill put Sinz in a difficult position. If Memorial was going to use its best roster, Crawford had to play, but as far as Sinz knew, no freshman had ever suited up in a season opener for the Old Abes.
But Sinz wasn't going to back down to the pressure.
Instead, on August 18, 2017, Crawford made his varsity football debut. His freshman season was stellar, he rushed for 369 yards in eight games while backing up senior running back Jack Brown. But at home, things were deteriorating for Madison.
The family had done everything it could do. A full round of brain and spinal radiation starting in March 2016 proved unsuccessful and a year later the Crawford-Madison family was out of options.
"The doctor pretty much said she had 30 days to live," Jayna remembered.
For seven months, Madison was in hospice. Surrounded by her family, everyone did what they could do to make her comfortable.
For Crawford, that meant starring on the football field and bringing attention to his sister and pediatric cancer. The Memorial football team honored Madison and held a Téya Tough night to raise money to help her fight.
But on that December afternoon, there was nothing more to do.
"I had a feeling that something bad was going to happen," Crawford said, remembering that morning. "I just looked at my sister and something told me that this might be the last time I ever see her."
And yet, he said the call was a surprise.
When he arrived home, his mother cried in the other room. He went to see his late sister as they called the coroner. And that's when Crawford picked up his sister and walked her out of the house for the final time.
It was the one moment that Crawford couldn't talk about. He recounted almost every moment from that day, but when it came to that final walk, he just put his head in his hands and shook his head as tears streamed down his face.
"I just couldn't walk her out of my house," Jayna said while tears streamed from her face. "So he did. And I know that that effected him."
Losing his sister messed with his mind. He said he struggled to stay focused in school and began hanging around the wrong people.
"He was just in a dark state," Jayna remembered. "He just didn't really value his talents or where they could take him."
It wasn't subtle either.
Football recruiters at Wisconsin knew about his off-the-field issues. Playing alongside former Old Abe and current Wisconsin Badger Cormac Sampson meant Crawford caught the attention of the Badgers, but now they were wary that he'd be a fit at Wisconsin.
"People always told me about being careful, but I didn't really think it was that big of a deal," Crawford said. "But once I heard it from a big time school like that, then I was like OK, maybe I actually need to listen to this."
Within a matter of months, Crawford turned his attitude around. His grades went back up and he refocused his attention on football.
"Téya was his motivation," Crawford's grandfather, George Wright, said. "He realized he couldn't get her back, but he wanted to work harder for her."
He wears two gray wristbands with the words "Téya Tough" to remind him of what his sister went through. And when he gets tired, and feels like quitting, he looks down at his wrists and pushes through.
That work ethic has become Crawford's hallmark, according to his trainer Willie T. McCalebb. It's what turned a talented young boy into one of the best running backs in the state.
Now, Crawford just wants to carry his sister's memory as far as it will take him. Those words "Téya Tough" have become his motto, tattooed to his body so he never forgets what she went through and how strong she was in the four years they had together.
"As much as we wish things were different, it's still a life experience," Jayna said. "As much as we miss her every day, we think about her every day, we just have to move forward."