By Bill Sterling- As a boy growing up in Wattsville in northern Accomack County, Marshall Cropper would have thought it outrageously absurd to think he one day would be a member of the Eastern Shore Golf Hall of Fame.
“There was no golf being played on the playgrounds where I lived,” said Cropper with a hearty laugh, adding, “In fact, there were no playgrounds. We played in the fields, and it was mostly baseball and football.”
Cropper, now 74, went on to become a two-sport star at Mary N. Smith, 22 miles from home and the only black high school in the county during days of segregation.
“I got home many nights after practice by using my thumb,” recalled Cropper. “Or John Parsons would take a bunch of us home. He must have worn out three cars carrying all his players home.”
Cropper was good enough in baseball that the Cincinnati Reds wanted to sign him to a contract. But he wanted an education and thought a better path to the pros was in football.
When colleges came calling, he chose Maryland State College, today the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne, Md.
“I remember going there with a church group as a teenager in the 1950s and just falling in love with the place. And that was before they had all the facilities they have today,” Cropper added.
The UMES campus, a short drive from Route 13 in Princess Anne, today boasts outstanding facilities and is a popular choice for students from Virginia’s Eastern Shore, including Issac Taylor of Wachapreague, a former Nandua High School basketball star who is expected to play a big role for the Hawks this season. One of Taylor’s assistant coaches is Ace Custis, former Northampton standout whose number is retired at Virginia Tech.
The women’s bowling team has won the NCAA National Championship three times in the past 10 years.
Maryland State Once a Pipeline to the Pros
Although no football is played on the campus today, there was a time Maryland State College was a pipeline to the pros.
“I played with 11 guys in my career who went on to the NFL. There were more than 40 from Maryland State overall who got there,” said Cropper recently, standing below a wall of photos of Maryland State greats, including his former teammate and today one of his best friends, eight-time Pro Bowler Art Shell, the second African-American coach ever in the NFL and a member of its Hall of Fame.
Another Maryland State gridder who shared the field with Cropper was Emerson Boozer, a star in the Jets’ Super Bowl III win over Baltimore that hastened the merger of the NFL and the AFL.
Cropper also played with Charlie Stukes, a Baltimore Colt great, and preceding Cropper’s time at Maryland State were Roger Brown and Johnny Sample, another Eastern Shore of Virginia native who played prominent roles in both that Super Bowl III and the 1958 NFL championship game that saw the Colts defeat the New York Giants in overtime, often called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
“All those players coming out of Maryland State and going to the pros paved the way for the rest of us. Scouts kept coming back to the campus to look at us because they knew we could play ball with the best,” said Cropper.
Another one of Cropper’s Maryland State teammates had his NFL hopes cut short by an horrific car accident. But, fortunately, Clarence Clemons also had a love for music and had a fabled career as a saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band from 1972 until his death in 2011.
“He was good enough to play ball,” said Cropper, reflecting on Clemons. “I know that. I think we all got pleasure out of seeing him successful.”
Cropper Gets a Golf Tip from The King
Cropper was a good-hitting, left handed first baseman at Maryland State and an All-CIAA tight end in 1966. He signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers after graduating from Maryland State in 1967.
The Steelers trained at Latrobe, Pa., the hometown of Arnold Palmer, and after practice, some of the players would hit golf balls at the nearby driving range.
“I was hitting the ball a country mile, but it would usually veer right or left. Arnold Palmer came up and told me I should try swinging right-handed because I might have more control.
He was right, too. I have played that way ever since,” said Cropper, getting one of his first golf tips from the man known as “The King.”
Cropper played for the Steelers before they were among the NFL elite, catching 14 passes for 181 yards in three seasons and leaving just prior to the arrival of Chuck Noll, who eventually coached Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl wins.
But then he signed on with the Washington Redskins for two seasons, including 1969, the only season there for famed NFL coach Vince Lombardi.
“Coach Lombardi had a way of instilling his expectations on you and getting more out of you than maybe you thought you had to give,” recalled Cropper.
Lombardi took the Redskins from a 5-9 record the year before he arrived to a 7-5-2 mark and then died of cancer before the next season.
“I think Coach knew he was sick that season,” said Cropper, “but he never stopped coaching us.”
Cropper Returns to Alma Mater After D.C. Career
After two years with the Redskins, Cropper stayed in the D.C. area to work for the city’s Department of Environmental Services and then the D.C. Department of Recreation.
He earned his master’s degree in 1975 from National Graduate University and was inducted into the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Hall of Fame in 1984.
If Cropper deserved inclusion in the school’s hall of fame in 1984, then today there should be a separate room just for him.
In 2004 Cropper started a golf academy at the school. And four years later, he founded with the support of the school’s president the first PGA golf management program at any historically black college in the country. It remains the only such program and is just one of 20 programs anywhere, with most located at major universities.
The educational program is accredited by the PGA of America and includes extensive classroom studies, internship experience and player development, providing students the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills necessary to have success in the golf industry.
Cropper also serves as the men’s coach of the golf team. The Hawks have upcoming matches in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, as well as the Virginia State Trojan Fall Classic, a tournament they won two years ago.
“We are Division 1 and hold our own with some big schools. But I tell the coaches at those schools, ‘You are giving out trophies. I am providing my guys careers.’ ”
Cropper said numerous UMES graduates are now making their livelihood in professional golf in a number of capacities. The golf program has an indoor hitting area with a simulator that includes 30 courses, an outdoor driving range and a practice green. Students in the golf management program take all the prerequisite courses other students must complete.
Cropper said the university’s golf management program isn’t just about golf. “Even if you don’t make a career in golf, being able to play at a competent level helps you in business dealings. Our program also includes hotel and restaurant management skills,” added Cropper, who has coordinated numerous fundraiser activities, including the Eastern Shore Art Shell Celebrity Golf Tournament held at area courses for many years.
Cropper’s Passion Has Been Working with Youth
In 1995, Cropper was presented the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education Award. One force that has driven Cropper’s entire life is giving back. “I had a lot of mentors in my life. First there were my parents (James and Lurine Cropper). But John Parsons and his wife, Florence, were major influences on me. She might have taught me more baseball than Coach Parsons. She really knew the game,” said Cropper, who also mentioned Floyd Nedab Sr., another one of his coaches.
“One reason I came to Maryland State was it was close to home, where I could help kids become successful where I grew up.”
Cropper lives in the family home in Wattsville and still attends the church where he grew up. “I look around the church and can see in my mind’s eye where my parents used to sit, where my uncles, aunts and cousins used to sit. There are lots of memories there,” said Cropper, sitting under a sign that reads, “I started my life with nothing, and I am proud to say I’ve got most of it left.”
Cropper’s wife of 36 years, Sarah, a Berlin, Md. native he met at Maryland State, died of cancer in 2008. They had two children, a son, Vashnile, and a daughter, Vashti, and today Cropper has three grandchildren.
Earlier this year, Cropper became the first African-American to be inducted into the Eastern Shore Golf Hall of Fame, a program started by Eastern Shore Golf Magazine in 2011.
Cropper plays golf today mainly at fundraising and celebrity events, saying his handicap “is anything I want it to be, depending on who I am playing,” but golf for him is mostly a tool for teaching life skills and raising funds for those programs dear to him.
“I was shocked and humbled when I was told I was being inducted into the Eastern Shore Golf Hall of Fame. Who would have thought a poor kid like me from Wattsville would be in a hall of fame for golf?”
The answer is that few have done as much for others with simply a game.