I had the joy of catching up with Auburn legend Takeo Spikes following his recent trip to visit our troops in Afghanistan, his trip to the annual Playboy Golf Finals in Los Angeles, and for a little tailgating on his recent visit to Auburn's 2012 A-Day game. This is the first in a two-part series on the Auburn and NFL great, whose larger than life passion, commitment and intensity define him as a fan favorite.
On December 17, 1976 in Augusta, Georgia, Jimmie and Lillie Spikes welcomed a baby boy into the world whose future football greatness was all but prophetically assured in the very giving of his name.
As the proud parents sat in their hospital room, they pondered the possibilities in naming their son. A news story on Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Miki caught Lillie's eye, and she quickly researched the name, Takeo, eyes widening with joy to learn that it translated great warrior.
Well done, Mrs. Spikes. When the "all-name" team ballots are cast, hand the top spot to Takeo Spikes without using one of those gamma brain waves that "TKO" has rattled throughout his career. At every level from high school, to Auburn University, and in his yet unfolding NFL career, Takeo has been the warrior anchoring the middle, and a long line of blockers have been trampled under his spikes.
Auburn football history sports an enviable list of linebacking greats, including "Captain Crunch" (Mike Kolen), whose play at Auburn and as a two-time Super Bowl winner at the Miami Dolphins were the stuff of legends. Auburn fans with a little gray hair will be sure to tell you about Ken Bernich, a consensus All-American linebacker in 1974, or about the hard-hitting "Fast Freddie" Smith, whose all time leading tackles record of 528 tackles has to be a misprint.
Gregg Carr, second in total tackles with 453, was a physical, smart team leader who always ended up around the ball. Kurt Crain's ferocity will live long in AU memory as he posted 324 career tackles, including a stunning school record 19 solo stops and 26 tackles in the 1986 Georgia game, and a "lights out" hit on Bama receiver Clay Whitehurst in 1987 that is sealed in Iron Bowl lore.
Quentin Riggins, a Coach Pat Dye favorite, joins the ranks of outstanding Auburn linebackers, as do Karlos Dansby, Dontarrious Thomas, Aundray Bruce, and numerous others.
Believing as did Shakespeare's Falstaff that discretion is the better part of valor, I am unwilling to risk meeting Mike Kolen or Gregg Carr on the streets of Birmingham after declaring Takeo Spikes the greatest Auburn linebacker to wear the blue jersey. But I do so only after mightily resisting the temptation.
Such debates are, after all, fraught with subjectivity to the point of unfairness, and even out of character for a fan base which uniquely loves every man who ever wore the blue jersey.
There is the problem of "recentness" in which younger fans peer only into a 15 or 20 year database of players, having never seen the greats whose feats predate that period. There is also the inexactness of comparisons due to era played, the quality of a player's supporting cast, and the varying quality of opposition during the player's career. And fans will certainly be guilty of the "halo effect" in which players on championship teams tend to be remembered longer, and evaluations inflated in comparison to great players from teams that achieved less.
It matters not - college football fans will defiantly rage on in the "greatest ever" debates by position on their teams. It is, after all, essential content in the fan's sheer survival of drivel season from February to the arrival of Fall football camps in August.
There is, however, one jarring truth on which there shall be no debate, and that is that Takeo Spikes forever belongs in any discussion of "best ever" among Auburn linebackers, even as his career as an NFL great continues in his 15th season at the San Diego Chargers.
It is no coincidence that Spikes' emergence as a legendary high school football player paralleled the rise of Washington County High School in the sleepy town of Sandersville, Georgia under high school coaching legend Rick Tomberlin.
Tomberlin recalls one defining moment in Washington County's undefeated 1994 season - a hit that Spikes laid on Mary Persons running back Quentin Davis. "Takeo meets that young man helmet to helmet and just decimates him," Tomberlin recalls. "It was the single greatest hit that I have ever seen in high school football. The stadium was set underneath the hills. I tell you that hit sounded like a rifle shot from the tree line of those hills. We dominated our opponent from that point in the game. One hit totally changed the tone of that football game."
Washington County's 1994 season - Spikes' senior season - would become the "moon shot" season that established Tomberlin's program as a force, and it set in motion their subsequent 15-0 runs in 1996 and 1997.
Spikes lavishes praise on his high school coaches for laying the foundation for his success at every level. "The discipline that my high school coaches gave me was key," recalls Spikes. "I knew what my goals were in football, but they gave me a blueprint of how to be disciplined, consistent, determined, how to stay committed, and the importance of having faith. And once I put this into play with weight lifting and year-round working out, it made a huge difference."
The Washington County program was a front-runner in developing the strength, speed, and agility of its athletes. "My coaches made me run track," said Spikes, "because they knew it was going to help me become a better football player. And then, being the person I was, I influenced my teammates to make the same commitment. The result was that throughout my high school career I only lost a total of four games, and won the state championship my senior season with a 15-0 record."
Perhaps because it is at such a gloriously impressionable age, even NFL legends like Spikes always seem to indelibly recall that peak moment from their high school playing days. For TKO, it was the intensely hyped 1994 contest between two 8-0 undefeated teams, Washington County and Elbert County.
"The high school game that sticks in my mind to this day was against Elbert County," recalls Spikes. "They were in Elberton, Georgia, and were known for their great athletes, and were loaded with speed. Their stadium was nicknamed the Granite Bowl, because that area was rich with the granite resource. We were the top ranked team going into the Elbert County game, and everyone was saying that we were going down in the Granite Bowl."
Spikes and his team had a different outcome in mind on that November 4, 1994 night.
"I put on a show in that game," says Spikes. "I caught a drag pass over the middle and ran over two defenders, taking it 60 yards for a touchdown. I believe to this day I could still play some tight end. We brought the heat on defense. Their quarterback was supposed to be unstoppable running the option, and on one play, I came from the back side and caught him before he could even turn up field. We also knocked out one of their receivers in that game."
For both Spikes and his teammates, their 42-7 annihilation of Elbert County set the tone for a magical run. Not one of the 15 opponents in 1994 scored more than 14 points, and there were 5 shutouts. By the unblemished season's end, the Golden Hawks had set a record for the most points scored by any Georgia high school team regardless of classification, a whopping 631 total points, but would not have done so without the suffocating defense led by Spikes.
"That game was the shot that was heard around the state," said Spikes, "both because of who we beat, and the way we beat them. As the game progressed, we were saying, 'Is this all you've got? This is what you've got, and you're supposed to be the best?' So for our team, that one game created instant glitz and swag. We wanted whoever was next, we were hungry, and went on to complete a 15 game run, winning the state title."
Years later, Spikes would recall the influence of Tomberlin. "I still hear Coach Tomberlin to this day. He would always shout, 'You're either getting better or getting worse today, you never stay the same,' and that's never left me through all my levels of football."
Tomberlin's admiration for Spikes continues after nearly two decades. "Takeo played for me his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. During that time we were 41-3," says Tomberlin. "In his senior year we were 15-0 and state champs, we were never challenged, and Takeo was our ace that year. Takeo is the most driven athlete and the best leader I have ever coached. He simply would not allow the team to ever have a bad practice. He always came up with a devastating hit or a big offensive play when we needed one."
Spikes also hastens to credit the love and discipline of his parents as critical to the man he became.
"Sandersville was a small place," recalls Spikes, "and very easy to get into trouble if you wanted, because there's not much to do. But I was fortunate to have the parents I did, and I love them for how they taught us, and disciplined us. My parents were always consistent with what they said and did, and that's extremely important. If he ever had to, my Dad used football as leverage to make sure I was studying, making the grades, and staying out of trouble. He knew I loved football, and that if I didn't live up to what was expected, he could take it away from me. And if he needed to embarrass me in front of the rest of the guys, that's how he was going to keep me straight."
As fans will recall, Spikes became one of the most highly recruited defensive recruits out of the state of Georgia in memory as his senior year progressed. In a stroke of fortuitous timing, the incredible undefeated run of the 1993 and 1994 Auburn teams would be a deciding factor in Spikes' giving the Tigers a close look.
"I'll be honest with you," admits Spikes, "going into my junior year, I wasn't even considering Auburn. The first letter I got was from Baylor, and then you typically want to see who is winning championships. Back in the early '90s, Alabama had won a national championship. But when Terry came to Auburn in '93 and went 11-0, it caught my eye. I later got a letter from Auburn, and started watching them closer. And then, in '94, Auburn kept winning, and I said, 'Damn, they're running the table again.'"
Spikes was also among the fans across America whose eyes were glued to the game many consider one of the top 10 most exciting SEC games in history - Auburn vs. Florida, 1994, at The Swamp.
"The game at the Swamp that year was so magical," says Spikes, "knocking off the number one team in the nation. That day, I went back and pulled my letter from Auburn out and looked at it. Defensively, I only knew about the DB's at Auburn, because everyone had heard of the Dillard Five. So as I watched what the '94 team was about, they were my kind of team.
"They were blue collar, they were going to work their balls off every day, and it was a situation that I felt like all their defense really needed was that rock, iron sharpening iron, that guy in the middle who's going to lead the pack. I felt like that was the only thing they were missing, and that I could be that guy to help them win more SEC championships."
On Spikes' official visit to Auburn, he was hosted by Marcellus Mostella, and also hit it off well with linebacker Anthony Harris, and celebrated freshman lineman Willie Anderson. Spikes has kept in touch with both Anthony and Willie to this day.
Spikes arrived at Auburn in 1995 with a bravado that was unusually justified for a true freshman, set on the goal of winning a starting middle linebacker spot.
"I ended up starting by the 6th game my freshman year," recalls Spikes, "but even that pissed me off because I felt like I was ready to start even earlier. But to this day, I love and have deep gratitude for three coaches in particular for my development - Rodney Garner, Wayne Hall, and Kurt Crain. I feel like they were all three very instrumental in my development when I first got to Auburn, and laid a foundation I could build upon."
Watch for the 2nd in a two-part series on Takeo Spikes in a few days. You'll read about Takeo's take on big game moments against LSU and Alabama in 1997, some NFL career highlights, his visit to our troops in Afghanistan, his "in your face" take on the filming of ESPN's "War Eagle / Roll Tide" film, and a moment of hilarity involving Takeo and former Auburn defensive coordinator Bill Oliver.