A column by former Auburn Tiger and All-SEC safety Rob Pate.
Young people are incredibly resilient. I see it every day in what I do for a living. They have an innate ability to conform, to adapt, to adjust to circumstances that many times knowing their circumstances make me cringe and thankful for the blessings in my life. The older we get, the less malleable we become. We lose flexibility and become rigid, predictable, unwilling to change.
I played with many a teammate whose resilience sparked a team to prominence.
The greatest teammates I had at Auburn were guys that were first destroyed, torn down, cast away by a staff, their teammates, and a fan base only to rise back up better people, more confident players, more humble individuals because of the low points.
Ben Leard was ridiculed and written off. He persevered and set records. Heath Evans was moved to nosetackle. He overcame and became dominant. Roderick Hood was recruited by no one and began as an outside linebacker. He defied the odds to become a NFL starter. Rodney Crayton brutally injured his knee early in his career. He battled back to win All-Conference honors as a superb corner.
Why bring up these teammates? Because they all played on teams similar to our current squad. They all overcame poor starts only to finish on a remarkably high note. They all believed in themselves when no one else would and Auburn Tiger football was better for it because of their willingness to fight, to endure, to believe.
Some on this current team are walking through that very same valley. For the first time in their lives they are questioning themselves, their abilities, their work ethic, their desire to compete. For almost everyone wearing a blue jersey on Saturdays, their athletic life has always come easy. Learning to deal with adversity is brand new to them. Learning to deal with adversity of the current magnitude is an inexplicable task.
I will try to explain it, as I have lived it.
As a player, you're shielded to a degree. Granted, I played before cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, and message boards were the rage. But we were insulated from the negativity flowing from sports talk radio and leading opinion makers. That didn't prevent negativity and contempt from breeding within our locker room and spreading like a cancer to everyone associated with our team. I even use the word team lightly. We were so fractured in 1998 we were essentially two teams…an offense (we resented) and a defense (we felt laying our guts on the line each week for nothing).
We felt the enormity of the situation, the pain of a fan base coming to our support only to disappoint repeatedly. The pressure our coaches were under to produce victories or pay with their jobs, uprooting their families from their homes, their children from their schools and friends. We knew losing at Auburn was unacceptable, wouldn't be tolerated, shouldn't be tolerated, yet we simply weren't talented enough to overcome our deficiencies. Leadership was slim, because in truth, true leadership comes from the quarterback position. In 1998, Ben wasn't successful enough on the field to be regarded a leader by his teammates. I see the same in 2012.
Carrying the weight of the program through adversity wears on you.
It strains you.
It causes you to become resentful, disillusioned, weary.
You step on the field on Saturdays hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. You're defeated before you ever play. You're beat before the game begins because you're more concerned with the program in totality than you are the opponent of the day. You still prepare, and lift, and go through the motions, but you feel like a shell of yourself, somewhere between embarrassed and incredulous. You know deep down major changes are in store, but you cling to familiarity and continuity because you fear what those changes mean for you individually.
Football is no longer fun, it's unending monotony and a constant struggle to devote yourself, have pride in yourself, your teammates, your family to go out and play passionately, the way you know the game is meant to be played, however getting there mentally is an immense hurdle.
For us, the alumni/fans, our tailgating is dampened, our ability to revel and jeer our friends from other universities is thwarted, our fall is diminished when Auburn football is down. For these players, they live with it every single day. They see winter mat drills, spring football, summer conditioning, hours in the weight room, film study, preparation, only to seldom experience the joy winning and question if the commitment is worth it.
They go to class and feel like they've cheated their classmates. They see their families sacrifice and struggle to get to each game only to watch them blow another lead, throw another interception, miss another tackle, lose another game. Some say it's lonely at the top. In college football, there's no lonelier place than at the bottom.
But I also know if we hadn't of experienced the pain and the torment of what we endured, we wouldn't have hungered for success nor appreciated the view from the mountaintop. This team has a Ben Leard. It has a Heath Evans. It has a Roderick Hood and Rodney Crayton. There are individuals going through the fire now that will come out on the other side shaper, refined, better human beings, better Auburn men.
As I said earlier in the week on my blog, we're all pissed, frustrated, and embarrassed by the first half of this season. I assure you no one is more upset than the guys wearing the jerseys. The devotion it takes to just don the jersey is beyond explanation...most of you wouldn't want or allow your children to be pushed to those extremes. Kids come to school at Auburn because of the way Auburn makes them feel -- supported, loved, united, passionate, devoted, important. Not a single guy ever thought it possible to struggle as much as this team has during their Auburn careers.
Make them remember and forever appreciate your level of support in the lean years. Reward their effort with unwavering support regardless of the outcome. You can scold them, yell at them through your TV, abhor them, pray for their early graduation, but on Saturdays you love them, you appreciate them, you root for them, even when they make doing so nearly impossible. I remember those days well, in fact I treasure those days.
I hope we win Saturday. I hope we compete four quarters and play mistake free football. For the players, I hope they get to taste the satisfaction of winning on the road. For the fan base, I hope we remember what makes Auburn so special.