June 24, 2013
AUBURN - Quarterback Patrick Nix looked at Florida's defensive alignment. He looked at wide receiver Frank Sanders, whose eyes were wide in near disbelief.
It was Oct. 15, 2004, and Auburn was at the Florida 8-yard line. Florida, the nation's No. 1 team, led 33-29 in the feared Swamp as the clock melted away.
"I'll never forget me looking at Frank and Frank looking at me," Nix said. "It was like `I can't believe this. This game is over. We're going to win.'"
And win they did. Nix hit a wide-open Sanders in the end zone and the Tigers celebrated a 36-33 victory, their 18th straight.
It wasn't just Florida's defensive alignment that convinced Nix Auburn was going to score the decisive touchdown. It wasn't just because Sanders was one of the nation's top wide receivers. It was deeper than that.
Sanders, who grew up hard on the streets of Fort Lauderdale and almost left Auburn before his career even started, and Nix, the son of an Alabama high school coach and teacher, were more than a quarterback-receiver combination. They could read each other's thoughts without speaking. They were the closest of friends.
Nix went on to become a coach and, after stints as offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech and Miami, is the head coach at Scottsboro High School. Sanders, after an outstanding NFL career, is a businessman in Birmingham. And they are still close friends.
"There's nothing I wouldn't do for that man," Nix said.
Nix and Sanders almost certainly would never have met had it not been for college football, and might have looked at each other with suspicion even if they had.
It's been more than 45 years since James Owens was the first African-American to receive an Auburn football scholarship, and much has changed. Nowhere is there more diversity, more acceptance of people's differences, than on a college football team.
Gus Malzahn's first Auburn football team, like most others, has players from so many places and so many different backgrounds. It has black players, white players, players from affluent families, players whose families struggle just to get from one week to the next, players who are truly scholars and players who struggle in the classroom, liberals and conservatives.
They all must come together for a common purpose
T.J. Jackson experienced it as an All-SEC defensive tackle less than a decade ago. He's witnessed it as an academic counselor and mentor. And he finds it exhilarating.
"Let's say you have a kid who grew up in a predominantly white community, wasn't around black people and didn't like black people," Jackson said. "The same can be said for a black kid who grows up in a predominantly black neighborhood and doesn't like white people. You bring them in the locker room, and they are going to have to find a common bond. You can't escape this kid.
"The part I love about it is you are thrust into this environment where you have to accept other people. Even if you don't like the way someone says things or does things or even the way he lives, he is your brother now."
Senior Auburn linebacker Jake Holland's father, Jeff, is a successful Pelham businessman. Kicker Cody Parkey's father, Doug, is a bank executive in Jupiter, Fla. Defensive end Corey Lemonier's parents are hard-working Haitian immigrants from Miami. The trio is as close as brothers and shared an apartment last year.
"You learn things about different people," Holland said. "You get to know them and you get close to them. I mean, I'm from Pelham and Corey and Cody are from South Florida. I've been down there. It's a little different lifestyle."
It doesn't take long, Holland said, to learn that old prejudices and biases have no place on a college football team.
"Once everybody gets to know you and who you are, you realize everybody is a good guy," Holland said. "We are all working hard and all trying to do the same thing."
In 2009, Kodi Burns could have been a divisive force. He didn't win the quarterback job he so desperately wanted and many of his teammates thought he deserved. It went to Chris Todd. Instead of being divisive, Burns agreed to move to wide receiver, stood up at a meeting and told his teammates he was behind Todd and they should be, too.
Less than two years later, Burns teammates chose him to stand with President Obama when Auburn's 2010 national championship team was honored at the White House. Burns is back now as a graduate assistant.
"It speaks to the way I was raised," Burns said. "My mother and father did a great job of raising me. I have an amazing family, great brothers, always humble. I think the thing they respect more about me is my character and the way I was raised. People are All-Americans and you might forget them, but you don't forget somebody that stands for something."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: