June 19, 2013
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN - It didn't take long for Jay Prosch's Auburn teammates to know he wasn't an ordinary football player. They saw it first in the weightroom after he arrived to play fullback in January 2012. They saw even more when they put on the pads and went to practice, and yet more when it was time to play.
"He just likes to knock people over," running back Corey Grant said during Prosch's first spring. "It's fun to run behind him."
Even before he thought about playing football, Prosch approached life with the same desire to play harder and longer and tougher.
"I always liked to play hard," Prosch says. "When I was a kid, I'd fall out of trees every day, wreck my dirt bike. I was the kind of kid that would try to do a backflip off a hill or jump into the pool from the roof. I was just kind of a wild child. That made me tough, because a lot of times it didn't end well."
It was the kind of passion for life that Iris Prosch, who had been a talented softball player and gymnast in her own right, wanted for her only son and his three older sisters - play hard and work hard, but live every day with kindness and compassion.
Loren Prosch, the youngest of Prosch's three older sisters, remembers how it was.
"Jay and I went to school every day from kindergarten to middle school, and we would come home and go straight to the back yard," she says, laughing happily at the memory. "We would just go straight to the back yard. We would get in trouble for making our school uniforms dirty."
Naturally strong and athletic, Prosch didn't care about watching sports on television. He was too busy building ramps for his beloved dirt bike, climbing trees, building forts, building treehouses and tearing holes in his pants. Only darkness would send him into the house.
"People would talk about players and I would have no idea who they were," Prosch says. "To be honest, it's still kind of like that."
Even then, Prosch liked to test himself, to test his own limits.
"Before I decided I wanted to be a football player, I wanted to be a motocross racer," Prosch says. "The thing I looked forward to more than anything was getting on my dirt bike and riding, building ramps and stuff. I was always an outdoorsy kid, just running around like a heathen pretty much."
Little did Prosch know the adventures that awaited him. He started playing football as a fourth-grader because his friends told him it was fun. At UMS-Wright Middle School, he became fascinated with weight training. Encouraged by strength coach Phil Lazenby, now the head coach at Bayside High School, he developed a work ethic that would border on legendary in high school and beyond.
Prosch went on to have memorable career at UMS-Wright High School, first as an All-State offensive lineman and then as an All-State linebacker with 199 tackles as a senior. He became a physical force at 6-feet tall and 250-plus pounds with remarkable strength and a 4.6 time in the 40-yard dash.
"He was a very dominant player," UMS-Wright head coach Terry Curtis says. "He's a really good kid. He was a great player for us and a key to us winning the state championship."
When Prosch got few big-time scholarship offers, he signed with Illinois, where he became an All-American fullback. He finally returned to Auburn, where he wanted to go all along. At every stop, he earned respect for his work ethic, for the ferocity with which he played the game and as a loyal teammate and friend.
Along the way, Prosch would deal with adversity, pain and grief. But through it all he would remain, at heart, the little boy who couldn't wait to get home from school and climb the nearest tree.
It was during his sophomore season at Illinois that Prosch got the numbing news that his mother had been diagnosed with brain cancer. With their father out of their lives, he and his sisters - Loren Prosch, Amy Hagler and Julia Haupt - pulled together to support the mother that meant so much to them all.
"The hardest thing was really not knowing," Prosch says. "For a long time, we didn't really know what was going on or how serious it was. That was hard. Once we figured out it was brain cancer and it was real serious, we started thinking about how much time she had. You always hope you can beat it, and we did for a long time. She was really strong."
After Illinois' 2011 season ended with six consecutive losses and head coach Ron Zook was fired, Prosch wanted to be closer to his mother. Auburn was switching to a pro-style offense in Gene Chizik's fourth season. Prosch transferred and, because of his mother's illness, received an NCAA waiver and was eligible immediately. He enrolled at Auburn in January, and he and Loren made frequents trips to Mobile to visit their mother.
Hours before Auburn's season-opener against Clemson on Sept. 1, Iris Prosch slipped into a coma. On the morning of Sept. 3, surrounded by her children, she died peacefully. Her children moved forward together, just as she would have wanted it.
"This situation that has happened to our family is very tragic and very strange," Loren says. "I can't imagine how it would be if we didn't have each other. I do know for certain that us having each other is just unreal. We are lucky people. We have always been close. It's how our mom raised us ever since we were kids. We've stayed close forever, and it's really due to how she raised us."
Prosch returned to Auburn after his mother's Thursday funeral and played on Saturday at Mississippi State. Amy says his mother wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
"He doesn't complain and he doesn't get down," Amy says. "When he didn't get many offers, he said `Illinois wants me and I will go there.' He had a little bit of trouble not being where his friends were. All his family was so far away, but he never let it get him down. He didn't focus on it."
When the news came that Prosch would transfer to Auburn, his family celebrated.
"I thought he was just going to come into Auburn for a visit," says Loren, who graduated in May with a degree in architecture. "Then he said `I have to get my truck down there somehow.' It was so amazing to drive up to the dorm and he was standing out there."
Scot Loeffler, Auburn's offensive coordinator last season and now the offensive coordinator at Virginia Tech, says Prosch is a player and person he will not forget.
"That kid is a great football player," Loeffler says, "but more than that, he's just a remarkable kid. He's the kind of player and kind of kid - no, the kind of man - you want to be around."
As the football season of 2009 neared its end, college recruiters weren't beating a path to Prosch's door. Auburn, where Loren was a sophomore, was interested but balked at an offer. Meanwhile, Zook was impressed by the powerful, tough senior linebacker, but he didn't see a linebacker. He saw a fullback.
"With Auburn, I was thinking there was a chance," Prosch says. "With Illinois, they said `We need an answer.' I decided to go with what I had. It was a great decision."
Prosch was a starter as a true freshman and an All-American as a sophomore, dominating defenders throughout the Big Ten.
"When I met him, I just fell in love with the kid," Zook says. "He's a winner. He's just the kind of guy you want on your football team."
That point was driven home even after Zook had left Illinois. He got a text message from a staff member in the Illinois football office.
"Tears are running down my face," the message read. "J.P. just came in to say goodbye."
When last season fell apart at Auburn and ended with a 3-9 record, Prosch dealt with another coaching change. Gone were Chizik and the pro-style attack that had attracted Prosch to Auburn. Gus Malzahn, the offensive coordinator from 2009-2011, was back with his hurryup, no-huddle attack.
Prosch wasn't sure what to expect, but his concerns were quickly alleviated. He's an H-back now, and he's not complaining.
"I'd never met Coach Malzahn and didn't know anything about him," Prosch says. "I knew he kind of had a spread-type offense. I really didn't know much, because I really don't keep up with college football. I talked to (Philip) Lutzenkirchen a lot. After spring, I'm really happy with the position I'll be playing. A lot of my strengths are in that position."
Malzahn and his coaches saw the same things in the spring the previous staff saw and the Illinois staff saw.
"Jay may have been the MVP of the spring," Malzahn says. "He has a chance to be one of the better H-backs we've ever had."
Prosch says he has put the misery of last season's on-field woes behind him, though he might never totally understand it.
"When you start losing, you just develop a different sense about yourself," Prosch says. "Everybody kind of separates a little bit. It's just a natural thing, I think. We stopped playing together. It's definitely easier when you are winning to play as a team and play together. Once you do it, it's easier to do it again, and we never did it."
But the Tigers emerged from spring practice energized and confident, ready to move forward.
"People get excited about change," Prosch says. "It's a fresh start for us now. We are all putting in everything we have into having a great season. There's not a game that we can't win."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: