Aaron Crowder has been a hit in more ways than one for McCallie this holiday season.
In early December, the junior's leadership at middle linebacker helped the school's football team to a second straight TSSAA Division II-AAA state championship as the Blue Tornado beat Memphis University School 44-0 in the BlueCross Bowl at Tennessee Tech. The standout student-athlete also played the piano and sang as he starred in a music video released recently on McCallie's YouTube channel - a cover of "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," the 1971 single by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Music runs in the Crowder family, and he first started playing the drums when he was just 18 months old. He plays the drums and piano for his church and also enjoys playing the guitar and trumpet.
"Music has been in my family forever," Crowder said. "It is definitely my first passion and one that I want to pursue in life and know I want to do when I get older.
"Music really helps me a lot when it comes to everyday life. When I watch (game) film, I listen to music so I can remember things better. I can put my school work to music, too, so I can remember it better."
Crowder's voice is as powerful as some of the lyrics in "Happy Xmas," which has long been a staple of radio this time of year, with the late Beatle's song covered by many. Near the end of the video, Crowder sings: "So happy Christmas. For black and for white. For yellow and red ones. Let's stop all the fight. A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Let's hope it's a good one. Without any fear."
He is accompanied in the video by Samuel Ellis playing the saxophone and the visual of students in McCallie's welding class building a Merry Christmas sign.
"The music video was really cool," Crowder said. "It only took us a month to put together. The song was so appropriate for the time we are in with the pandemic and all of the things that have gone on like Black Lives Matter. It was a great feeling, and I hope it gives everyone a sense of security and calmness, especially with the ending part in the song that says, 'The war is over.' Because we are all going into 2021 hoping for better things."
In addition to his musical skills, the 6-foot, 225-pound Crowder, who has been contributing in varsity football games since he was a freshman, is one of the state's top defensive talents for the graduating class of 2022.
As a sophomore in 2019, he led McCallie with 120 tackles (10.5 for loss) and four sacks. He had eight tackles and 2.5 of the Blue Tornado's nine sacks - with the team total a state title game record - in the 28-7 championship win over Montgomery Bell Academy that year in Cookeville.
This season, Crowder again led the team in tackles with 95 (including 10 for loss), and he also returned a fumble 37 yards on his way to being named the defensive player of the year for DII-AAA's East Region. In the title win this month against MUS, he had four tackles (two for loss) to help ensure the repeat.
His run-stopping ability is part of the reason McCallie held MBA and MUS to a combined 48 rushing yards on 50 carries in the Blue Cross Bowl matchups. After the Blue Tornado stacked up sacks in the 2019 title win, this time they totaled five interceptions, with the quarterback pressure provided by Crowder and others helping force the picks.
Crowder's strength, leadership, play recognition, work ethic and speed have caught the eye of programs competing at the highest level of Division I football. He has received interest already from Football Bowl Subdivision programs Cincinnati, Duke, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
"After winning the state championship last year, I feel like we knew what we had to do to get back there," Crowder said. "We couldn't be too cocky and made sure we were all working to get to that level and an even higher one. It was all a team effort, and we just had to do our job out there and follow what our coaches had taught us to do."
From Crowder's imposing presence when he blitzes to his calming singing voice, the Blue Tornado have a shining star to be thankful for this Christmas.
"I love the game of football," Crowder said. "From winning it all to the time in the locker room and on the bus, it's all a lot of fun. It's not just a sport, but a family. It's my second passion after music, but if football can provide a path for a free education, I am definitely going to do it.
"Music is something I will always have with me along the way as well."