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May 11, 2012

Takeo Spikes: In Your Face, Part 2


This is the second in a two-part article on Auburn legend Takeo Spikes, whose larger than life passion and intensity define him as a fan favorite. Part two reveals the player's persona and on the field heroics that led his high school coach to observe that Takeo Spikes playing high school football amounted to child abuse.

In his speech in 1910 at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, "Citizenship in a Republic", Teddy Roosevelt denounced critics who sit safely on the sideline, and he extolled the man "in the arena". The man ". . . whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, and who at best, knows the triumph of high achievement, and at worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

Auburn defensive legend and two time NFL pro-bowler Takeo Spikes lives fearlessly "in the arena". His style is open, direct, refreshingly blunt, unambiguous, and imminently likeable in a politically correct world - a man's man if ever there was one. On the field, from his exploits as an Auburn linebacker and through his remarkable fifteen year NFL career, Takeo Spikes' intensity and imposing size 22 neck has brand equity with a lasting effect.

If you are a lead blocker on an inside running play, the effect is to be dreaded and survived. But if you are a loyal Auburn fan, the effect of his PG-13 "War Eagle" to his intended audience on the ESPN film, "War Eagle / Roll Tide" was a glorious right uppercut to the chins of Harvey Updyke and Paul Finebaum.

Spikes wasted no time entering the arena at Auburn University, earning the middle linebacker starting spot by midseason, which still did not sit well with the highly recruited linebacker. "I ended up starting by the 6th game in my freshman year," recalls Spikes, "but even that pissed me off because I felt like I was ready to start even earlier. Still, I owe a great debt of gratitude to three coaches - Kurt Crain, Rodney Garner, and Wayne Hall for my early development."

Spikes' first Iron Bowl as a starter in 1995 would be a wild one, a high scoring game that Auburn hung on to win at the end as Bama quarterback Freddy Kitchens had several shots at the Auburn end zone.

"I remember it well," says Spikes. "The Georgia game was huge to me because I was from that state, and it meant a lot to me to win that game in Athens. But the Iron Bowl was amazing because I experienced for the first time how important it was to the Auburn people, and the intensity with which the game was played.

"That game was going back and forth, back and forth, and at the end, I was thinking, 'Damn, let's get off the field!' I've always believed it's dangerous to keep giving a quarterback more chances, because usually, he'll find a way to burn you. But once the Curtis Brown pass was ruled out of bounds, followed by another incomplete pass in the end zone, I was both relieved and thrilled."

Spikes' three years from 1995 through 1997 as the mike linebacker at Auburn were marked by toughness, reliable defensive leadership and fierce tackling.

Spikes' directness, even as a college junior, is revealed in a funny vignette which Takeo confirms as accurate.

In 1996, when Bill Oliver was first brought to Auburn to replace Wayne Hall, Bowden told him he needed to go talk to some of the young players, as they were upset and confused about coaches being let go, and what the new direction would mean.

Oliver met with some of the defensive players, including Takeo Spikes. Oliver went on about how the players had to trust them, that they'd coach them up to make it to the next level.

And then after a long plea for support, Oliver pauses. "Now, I've been talking all the time," said Oliver, "what questions do y'all have?"

Takeo wasted no time speaking up. "Yeah, I've got a question," Takeo asked. And with his patented stare of death, shouted, "When you gonna get you a new watch?"

It seems Oliver showed up with a wrist watch sporting a bright crimson colored Bama logo on it.

Takeo does not miss a trick. Oliver, on the other hand, showed why perhaps his career "ceiling" was defensive coordinator.

It would be in 1997 in two crucial SEC West games that Spikes would come up huge, adding credence to the axiom that big time players make huge plays in big time games.

On the night of September 20th, 1997, unbeatens Auburn and LSU would clash in Death Valley in a game that fifteen years later lingers in the minds of Auburn faithful as one of the all timers.

After Auburn grabbed an early lead off Dameyune Craig touchdown passes to Fred Beasley and Hicks Poor, LSU's Cecil "the Diesel" Collins started ripping off huge chunks of yardage to pull LSU even, 21-21 at the half. For the game, Collins would amass 232 yards on 27 carries.

But Collins' exploits were matched defensively by Takeo Spikes that night, as number 55 made plays all over the field, with an unofficial 18 tackles, an interception and a critical blocked field goal that iced the game at the end.

Spikes' performance prompted defensive coordinator Bill "Brother" Oliver to say post-game, "If Takeo Spikes had not been on the field, Cecil Collins would have run for 500 yards!"

There is a special joy afforded to those brave Auburn souls who sojourn to Red Stick for an Auburn road game against LSU, and my memory is vivid on two scores. There was the attractive LSU coed who ran up cheerfully to me as we entered Death Valley, yelling, "Auburn . . . SUCKS". This could be good, I thought - the women are as vile as the LSU men.

The second vivid memory is of Takeo Spikes and Cecil Collins from that night. At key junctures in the game, it played out as an Ali-Frazier fight between Collins and Spikes, and it is only appropriate that in the end, the TKO decision went to the Auburn defender.

Spikes shares the lasting memories, as well he should. "God do I ever remember that game," says Spikes. "I had double digit tackles, an interception, and a blocked a field goal kick. What's funny is that even today, I still get grief from former LSU players like Robert Royal. They always talk about that game and how they ran over us, but I say to them, 'At the end of the day, baby, who carried the W, and who carried the L?'"

Preach, TKO, preach.

And not unlike the contestants from the Thrilla in Manila, Spikes was medically spent after the '97 LSU game. "I remember after that game," recalls Spikes, "Dr. Goodlett had to give me IV fluids and a muscle relaxer to keep me from cramping up."

Takeo Spikes is a warrior who respects the opponent, a trait that is in decline in recent years. "There is no question that the opponent I faced the biggest challenge from physically was LSU," says Spikes. "You always knew they were going to be big and physical. I was confident we could beat them, but I knew it was gonna be a war for four quarters. But in a different way, the team that was always a thorn in my ass was Arkansas. I don't care how bad they had played to that point in the season, or what their record was, they were going to give Auburn a game. I don't know if it was because we tended to have a letdown, or that they were motivated to play extremely well against us, but they were a tough out. In '97, they almost ruined our chance to go to Atlanta to play for the SEC Championship game, but we held on to beat them 26-21 in Fayetteville."

The 1997 Iron Bowl, Spikes' final game against the in-state rival, commands equal fan memory, though the game itself was uglier than the classic Auburn vs. LSU game the same year, and lacked some luster from the Tide's miserable 4-6 record coming in.

"We were a little tight in that game," recalls Spikes, because we found out just minutes before the game that Arkansas had beaten Mississippi State, which meant if we just win the Iron Bowl, we were going to Atlanta. That was probably one of the worst games we played offensively."

Big games bring the best - correction, beast - out in big time players.

Trailing 17-15, with just over a minute remaining and the game, Spikes knew that it was desperation time to get the ball back and have any shot.

"On 2nd down before the big 3rd down play," says Spikes, "Bama ran a lead play to Shaun Alexander, and that's one of the plays I always take pride in stuffing. So I took on the fullback lead blocker, and Brad Ware and I hit Alexander at about the same time, taking him down to set up a 3rd down."

Give an assist to then Bama offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who made what was arguably the most horrific play call in Iron Bowl history, calling a swing pass to Ed Scissum.

"I was shocked when Bama called the swing pass to Scissum," recalls Spikes. "And I'll tell you this, some people may not fully appreciate Martavious Houston, because he didn't make it to the League, but he was a big time SEC football player. The hit Martavious made on Ed Scissum will be forever talked about in Auburn history, along with Quentin Reese's recovery."

"There's the snap, spot, kick is away," belted Jim Fyffe, "long enough, high enough, kick is GOOD, it's good, it's good, it's good, a mob scene! Holmes from 39 yards!"

And the elation and relief of 80,000 Tiger fans that night was only equaled by the clinical depression and anger of the departing Tide fans. Such is the Iron Bowl, in which the anguish of losing is often more powerful than the joy of winning.

Takeo Spikes continues in the arena now in his 15th year as an NFL linebacker, defying the gravity of the average 3.5 year NFL career. While claiming back to back NFL All-Pro selections in 2003 and 2004, Takeo's proudest accomplishment was overcoming what is normally a career ending injury - a torn Achilles tendon suffered in 2005 when he was pressuring the Falcons' Michael Vick.

"That's actually my proudest moment," says Spikes, "overcoming that Achilles injury. At the time, few if any had overcome that, and at best it was a two year time period and they were done. I knew I had so much more left in the tank. I worked my balls off, and the next year came back. The first play of the first game, I sacked Tom Brady, knocked the ball out, and London Fletcher picked it up and ran for a touchdown."

In recent times, Takeo Spikes gives generously of his time, bringing a little joy to our troops in Afghanistan on the NFL USO trip, and thrilling Auburn fans with his short but potent appearance in the "War Eagle / Roll Tide" film on ESPN.

"What really stands out in my mind from the trip to Afghanistan," says Spikes, "is that immediately when we arrived, some of the troops asked me, 'Hey, Takeo, how much are they paying you to do this?' I said, "They aren't paying me anything to be here. I came here because I wanted to see you guys, because if it wasn't for you doing what you do, I wouldn't have the privilege of doing what I do on the field. And then their reaction was very warm, and there was an instant bond that was formed with all the troops."

Spikes was also introduced to the firepower of the United States military, which left an impression.

"I will tell you, they've got some heat over there," says Spikes. "I was able to fire a .50 caliber automatic rifle, .40 caliber rifle, and a grenade launcher. Riding on the Black Hawk helicopters was an experience for me. It was scary at times, because as a part of preparation, the pilots were practicing maneuvers as if they were being shot at."

But Spikes' most lasting impression was no surprise to any patriotic American, and that was the character and strength of the men and women.

"One of the things that really stood out to me," says Spikes, "is that you could tell they all had the bunker mentality. They don't care what race you are, what religion you believe in, or where you are from - we're all different, but we're all the same. Under one roof in our military, everybody believes in the same thing, which is having the back of the man or woman next to you."

In the wake of the despicable criminal act by Harvey Updyke at Toomer's Corner in Auburn, Spikes seemed the perfectly cast face of Auburn to say what most, if not all, Auburn fans felt toward their bitter rivals and media detractors. TKO did not disappoint on screen for the ESPN cameras.

"At first, it was cool being in Bristol, Connecticut at the ESPN studios to make the film," says Spikes. "They explained the angle they were taking, the history, and I liked it. But then, what really had my kettle hot and ready to boil was when they told me Harvey Updyke was going to be in the film quite a bit. So I wanted to make sure I sent the message loud and clear not only to Harvey, but to the rest of the Crimson Tiders up there."

Mission accomplished, Mr. Spikes. Bravo.

"I was so sick of Harvey Updyke getting media attention after what he did to our trees," fumed Spikes, "and his crap on the Paul Finebaum Show. Paul is the biggest damn Roll Tide guy I know, but on the ESPN film he tried to come off like he was the neutral guy in the middle in the rivalry."

At Auburn's recent 2012 A-Day game, Takeo's hulking frame could be seen strolling the Auburn campus. And so it was that when he made a gracious stop at our tailgate, there seemed but one, and only one way to greet Takeo, which you need little imagination to guess. So Mom, if you're reading this on Mother's Day weekend, bring on the soap to wash out my mouth - it was well worth it.

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