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'Incredibly special' - Auburn legend inspires elementary students
Feb. 4, 2016

By Jeff Shearer

Once again, Thom Gossom moved across the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium wearing No. 49, just like he did more than four decades earlier.

Gossom, who in 1975 became Auburn's first African-American student-athlete to graduate, was surrounded by fifth-graders from his hometown of Birmingham, each wearing their own No. 49 jerseys.

Minutes earlier, the Auburn Athletics department surprised Gossom and the students during a tour of the locker room.

"The jersey blew me away," Gossom said. "That was incredibly special. And all the jerseys for the kids."

The students from C.J. Donald Elementary school visited Auburn University at Gossom's invitation as part of Better Basics, a literacy program based in Birmingham.

Their tour began at the Athletic Complex with cheerleaders greeting them when the students got off their bus.

"We wanted them to have a day that would be locked in their memory and I think we're doing that," Gossom said.

Director of athletics Jay Jacobs taught the students about Gossom's unique place in Auburn history, hoping his example might inspire them.

"Maybe you're the first one who reads the most books in elementary school," Jacobs told the students in the same auditorium used by the Tigers football team. "Maybe you'll be the first child in your family to graduate from high school, or to go to college.

"Whatever it may be, just know this. Just because nobody's ever done it before, that doesn't mean you can't. Mr. Gossom is a testimony to that," Jacobs said.

From there, the students toured Auburn's indoor practice facility, where graduate assistant coach Jonathan Wallace encouraged them to work hard and make wise choices.

"Each and every one of you has to believe in yourself," Wallace said from the 50-yard line. "You're going to have people who tell you, 'You can't do this. You can't do that.' But as long as you believe in yourself, none of that matters."

Wallace's pep talk inspired A-B honor roll student Amiyah McClease.

"What stood out is that y'all don't just let us do something, we have to work for what we get.

"When we do stuff, we have to push ourselves. We just can't stop," she said. "If we do want to stop, you aren't going to let us."

The Athletics department also presented each student with a book titled, "The Spirit Tree at Toomer's Corner," about the history of Auburn's famous oaks.

Then it was on to the stadium, where one more surprise awaited.

Seeing his jersey hanging from the locker moved Gossom to tears.

He told the students that when he was an Auburn student the library was one of his favorite places to visit.

"I'm here now because of my love for reading and what it did for me. Growing up in Birmingham in the 1960's, you could have easily thought the world was narrow and there were a lot of narrow-minded people in it."

Gossom's mom nurtured his love of reading with frequent visits to their neighborhood library.

Throughout his successful career as an actor and writer, he has sought to pass it on.

"It's a gift that I should share. Just to see the looks on the kids' faces, it just means so much," he said.

Three members of Auburn's swimming and diving team, Sarah Reynolds, Jillian Vitarius and Annie Lazor, served as hosts for the visitors.

After taking a picture at the stadium, the students toured the rest of campus.

Like their guide, they were still wearing their No. 49 jerseys.

"We always say Auburn's a special place," Gossom said. "And this is an incredibly special day for these kids."

Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter:

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