By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
Crawford Ker proved doubters wrong on the football field. Now he's doing the same in the buffalo wing business.
The WingHouse girl was nervous when he walked in. He tries to move easily and talk softly. Still, he has had buffalo wings dropped on him by other jittery waitresses in tiny garments.
It's his face on the wall and his name on the sign out front, and when he walks through the door, he blocks out the sun. If he notices her or the dozen or so girls deploying sex appeal and cleavage at the Palm Harbor WingHouse, it doesn't show.
He slides his huge body into a booth in the back. Orders a salad.
"The small one."
He tries to be subtle. He eyes the couple seated across the aisle. Have they been waiting too long? Are their drinks empty? He doesn't want his WingHouse girl to see him do this. Doesn't want to make anyone nervous. If she's watching from his right, he'll look at the wall to his left.
"You got to look away when you talk about them," he says.
Crawford Ker is 6 feet 4 and 270 pounds, and he talks like a football player, which he used to be. Once you've been a football player it's hard, he will tell you, to become something else, and even harder to get people to see you as anything but a big dumb jock. Put your name on a place that uses breasts to sell chicken, and you're a big, dumb, chicken-eating, boob-ogling jock.
Is he stupid?
"People have thought that," he says, nibbling his salad, eyes straight ahead. He sort of smiles. "You trap them."
He bought into a Largo restaurant called Knockers in 1994 when he got out of the NFL. Knockers was a knockoff of Hooters, the 400-restaurant chain that started in Clearwater. Like Hooters, Knockers had wings and busty waitresses in shiny nylon shorts. Ker knew what people were saying about him.
"They'd say, "There's a football player who got into the restaurant business. It's going to be a sad story of him losing his money.' "
Fifteen restaurants later, Ker recently won $1.2-million from Hooters, which had sued him for trade violations for ripping off their uniforms and decor. After a three-week trial in which lawyers talked about hula hoops, surfboards, scrunchy socks, pantyhose, and something called "vicarious sexual recreation," a judge decided Ker didn't do anything wrong and Hooters should pay him for his trouble.
For him, just getting sued was a victory. It acknowledged him as a contender. Now, at 43, he's ready to expand outside of Florida to Texas, where he played six seasons for the Dallas Cowboys.
"The biggest thing that came out in the courtroom was they didn't think I'd make it," he said over his salad. "I felt good. I thought, Let's see. Let's see who'll make it."
How has he succeeded in the business world? I think that's the question of this case. How has Crawford Ker been successful? Now, Mr. Hill, he didn't use this word, but what he's saying is that Crawford Ker came in here, he came and he cheated. . . . Frankly we find that repulsive. We find that offensive. All his life, he succeeded by working hard, by beating the competition, by doing better at what they do. I'm just going to put this word up here, and I'm putting it up here because I don't want you to forget it, because that's what this case is about. It's about competition.
- WingHouse attorney Don Conwell in his opening statement in the Hooters-WingHouse trial, November 2004
On the wall of his huge, manly office, above his huge, manly furniture, is a picture of two huge men, arm-wrestling.
Crawford, who bench-pressed 515 pounds in college, has his beefy arm locked with that of his dad, George. George would arm-wrestle anyone.
George was from Scotland, a former Buckingham Palace guard. He moved to the United States with less than $100 and worked two and three jobs to pay for a ranch house in Dunedin. He ran a lawn service during the day and worked at a 7-11 all night. He never complained about it, so Crawford never complained about it either, but Crawford remembers cutting grass beside his dad, staring at the nice cars parked in the driveways at the nice houses with the nice lawns.
When Crawford was in high school, George ran the kitchen at Capogna's Dugout, a sports restaurant on Gulf-to-Bay in Clearwater. The guys at Capogna's still remember how lovable and terrifying he could be. He could send rambunctious football players running from the restaurant, and if food sat too long in the kitchen, the waitresses were afraid to pick it up.
Crawford bused tables there in high school. He worked at Chief Charley's, the Kapok Tree, ABC liquors. He saved his money and bought a K-Mart weight set for the garage. He started by bench-pressing 115 pounds. His senior year he went out for football. He didn't love the game, but he decided he could make a living at it. The kid who started high school at 145 pounds had built himself to 210.
"I made myself into a football player," he said.
Dunedin won a county championship, but no big schools recruited him.
He took a year off rather than settle for a small college. He ran on the beach in army boots. He pushed an S-10 Chevy pickup around the neighborhood: up Dinnerbell Lane and through Ranchwood Estates. He gained 50 pounds. On the advice of a friend, he called the coach at Arizona Western community college and told him he was big and could play football. His dad bought him a plane ticket. One-way.
His goal was the NFL. He doesn't seem to remember being told this plan was unrealistic. But his mom remembers people telling him so. "He didn't listen," she says.
Two years later, he got a scholarship to the University of Florida. He became arguably the strongest player in college football, a 283-pound All-American offensive lineman called "Big Daddy." He was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the third round and became their highest-paid offensive lineman.
Crawford bought his parents a bigger house and told them both they could retire.
I think Crawford went into football in order to make things easier for his dad. It was a means to an end. I mean, he got a ribbon for the high jump. It's hard to believe. He was a skinny kid. Other guys were worried about girls, he was in the gym working out, do you know what I mean, dear? He had a goal and he wanted to achieve it. He got that from his father.
I think Crawford has done everything in his life for his father. They were friends. I guess it's love. I guess it was just love, dear.
- Crawford Ker's mom, Anne
After Dallas, then a couple of years with Denver and Detroit, Crawford retired from the NFL with a bad back. Not knowing what else to do, he took a job at Dimmitt Chevrolet selling cars. He was 30.
He moved into the house he'd grown up in and soon felt he was backsliding. People would say, Crawford, why don't you play football? He'd had five back surgeries. He couldn't go back.
That January, he went to a sports bar and watched the Super Bowl. The Cowboys won.
"Would I say I was a little bitter? Yeah.
"But a lot of people who did go to them Super Bowls are not doing as well as I am today."
So, the funny story was, I come back to the Dallas area and people said, what are you doing now, Crawford? I said, I'm retired. I might open up a restaurant with a partner. What's the name of it so we can go see you? Knockers. And I didn't, I didn't really like the name of it and it wasn't appealing. And we decided just call it Ker's WingHouse. Ker's after myself. And WingHouse. That's what we sell is wings.
- Crawford Ker's trial testimony
He had about as much chance of opening a successful restaurant as he'd had of making it to the NFL.
He had tried the business before, when he bought into a Gainesville restaurant called the Frat House while on the road with the Denver Broncos. It flopped, and he learned a lesson about being an absentee owner.
After he bought into Knockers he lost $30,000 a month for the first few months. Then he realized, hey, this is my money and, hey, what else do I have going on? And he bought out his partner and went about figuring out how to be a businessman.
"People were making fun of him," said John Carmen, the bartender at Capogna's, who has known Crawford since high school. "I heard a thousand people talking, "Here he goes again.' "
He was never interested in formal education. ("I tried the flashcards and everything," his mother said.) He never got his college degree. He took a couple of night business classes at Clearwater High School and read self-help books and biographies, a notepad by his chair.
He did know how to bus tables and wash dishes and fish silverware out of trash cans. And his dad had run the tightest kitchen around.
He adopted sports metaphors. He picked managers like you'd pick a playground kickball team. He applied himself to his work like he was out in the desert in Yuma, Ariz., pushing a blocking sled downfield in the heat.
Crawford nailed the pictures to the WingHouse's plywood walls himself, careful to put the bikini photos in the corners and the sports pictures at table level, so families would feel comfortable.
"He knows every nail in those buildings," said his wife, Melissa, who is not and never has been a WingHouse girl. She and Crawford have two daughters and live in Belleair.
Even after the restaurants expanded and he had better things to do, if he saw a picture lying around, he'd grab a nail gun. "We've lost a few nail guns," she said, "because they've hid them from him."
When he didn't like the way the cook was handling things, he said so, and when the cook walked out, Crawford commandeered the kitchen and fried wings through the lunch rush.
"We try to keep him out of there now," said Tony Bartolo, who manages the original WingHouse in Largo. "He makes people nervous."
He's done every job in the restaurant, and even though he would look silly in a pair of nylon shorts, when one of the WingHouse girls would yawn at a meeting, he would say, "Are you bored? Do you want to go home? I can work your shift."
At some point, after three stores, or maybe four, he stopped thinking of himself as just a former football player, stopped thinking his career was interrupted too soon. He started thinking, good thing I got out before I got crippled, so I could get a few restaurants ahead.
I call him Mr. Philosopher. He always has these little philosophies about life.
- John Carmen, bartender at Capogna's DugoutCrawford Ker's Philosophies about Life:
- I try to stay in the median of life. Never too high. Never too low. Man proposes. God disposes. They say adversity could hurt you. So could success.
- My philosophy is that the defense is going to attack you, so you better attack them. If I push a guy 5 yards (downfield), well, then I need to push him 15. I've got to try and be more dominating than I am. I've got to be the most dominating player I can be. - October 1984
- Success is finding another endeavor and being as good at is as your first endeavor. I think about Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was a good bodybuilder. Then he was an actor. Now he's governor. What's enough?
WingHouse uniforms are black. Hooters outfits are orange. The score right now, in his mind, is something like 400-15, Hooters.
"They have 400 stores. I have 15. I'm just starting. I'm starting to kick it into full gear now."
No time to celebrate the victory in court?
"No," he said, "It wasn't a celebration. It was, I got to get busy now. You get caught up in yourself and how good you are. Somebody's going to be out there outproducing you."
His chain had $33-million in sales in 2004. The 16th Florida restaurant was scheduled to open Thursday in Orlando. The first Dallas-area restaurant is to open in late September, and he is shopping for other sites there. He makes way more money than he made in the NFL. "But is that a lot of money? Compared to what?"
He says he never really enjoyed playing football, that he did it to provide for his family, and it's hard to tell how much he is enjoying his restaurants. It seems clear that if bird flu wiped out chicken, he'd just do something else.
Sitting with Tony Bartolo at a table in the Largo restaurant, examining the soon-to-be-introduced Asian wings, he acts like this is about as much fun as cutting lawns. He's a picky eater, which is why there are no onions in the quesadillas. He won't try his own chili or clam chowder. He likes the wings but he's no connoisseur.
Mostly he makes big-picture decisions, like picking property. And he tries to visit every restaurant twice a month.
"It's work," he says. "I don't take my eye off the ball. I don't want no one to say, Man, he had a good thing going at the WingHouse but he screwed it up."
A WingHouse girl checks his drink for maybe the fourth time. He whispers to Tony, "That girl's a little pushy."
If you press him, which isn't easy, he will tell you that his highest moment professionally was the day the Cowboys played the Bucs in Tampa. He was team captain and came out to the center of the field for the coin toss with his parents watching. Those being bleak days for the Bucs, the Cowboys won.
What could happen at the WingHouse that would make him feel the way he did that day at Tampa Stadium?
Opening the Dallas store?
No, he says.
"The 40th store in Dallas, maybe."
He doesn't like to talk about the low moments in his life. He'll say he doesn't let himself get too low. But his wife says the lowest was the day in 1999 when his father died.
She also says that even though Crawford mourned his father a long, long time, he was back at work at the restaurant the next day.
I have said to him, when do you stop? When do you stop, Crawford?
Is it the money? He says, No, Mom, it's not the money.
Is it the challenge?
I just have to do it, Mom.
- Crawford Ker's mom, Anne
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Kelley Benham can be reached at 727 893-8848 or email@example.comON THE WEB
Visit the WingHouse Web site at www.winghouse.com