By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - When Andy Fuller cheered for his alma mater at last year’s Birmingham Bowl, some Auburn fans at Legion Field recognized him as the Tigers’ former All-SEC tight end from the early ‘90s.
Nearly a year later, the friends he made that day texted Fuller with a tailgating invitation when Fuller returns to Auburn Saturday at 6:30 p.m. as the assistant head coach at Alabama A&M.
“That just shows everybody the love that Auburn fans have, regardless of what side you’re on,” Fuller said. “If you played at Auburn, they’re still going to love you. They didn’t have to do that. They reached out to me, telling me to tell my parents and family to come tailgate with them.”
Fuller will not have time to join in the pregame festivities. He’s preparing A&M’s tackles and tight ends to compete against Auburn’s defense, which he compares to Auburn’s unbeaten SEC Champions in 2004 and 2010.
“You have to go back to the old days, the teams that I was on, the ’93 and ’94 defenses. They could fly around,” Fuller said. “They’ve got great speed up front. Their front 7 will most definitely be the best we’ve seen all year. It’s just amazing how those guys can move. We’re going to have our hands full. A lot of these guys have never been to Auburn, and I talk about Auburn all the time. So it’s good to get back home.”
An assistant coach at A&M for the past decade after a playing career that included NFL Europe and arena football, Fuller will be a visitor at Jordan-Hare Stadium for the second time. Auburn beat A&M 51-7 in 2012.
“It’s always different when you’re on the visiting side of a stadium where you spent four years of your college football playing career being on the other side, winning a lot of games there,” he said. “It’s going to feel different now, people not cheering for you, but cheering against you. But I love it, because Auburn’s the best place to be. I tell everybody I love Auburn. That’s home for me. I still have a lot of coaches on the staff who I know.”
One of those coaches, Auburn associate head coach Rodney Garner, recruited Fuller out of high school in Huntsville and was his position coach on the Plains from 1993-95.
“I call him my daddy, my big brother,” Fuller said. “When I was there he stressed to his guys to always work hard and outwork your opponent. So that’s what I try to do with my tight ends in my room. Just try and teach them what I learned from him because he taught me a lot about football and life after football.”
“Andy is a tremendous young man from a great family,” Garner said. “A tough, hard-nosed guy. There was something that was always different about him. He came in here with tremendous leadership skills. Definitely one of my all-time favorites.”
Garner’s influence redirected Fuller’s career plans.
“He’s one of the reasons I got into coaching,” Fuller said. “Because that wasn’t in my plans. My plans were to play, and then after playing get in the work force and get a real job. Coaching is a great opportunity to help young men grow. And that’s what Coach did for me my four years there. He helped me mature as a man, on the football field and off the football field. So I love him to death. I’m going to cherish that for the rest of my life.”
“That’s the reason I got into coaching,” Garner said. “I wanted to have an impact on young men’s lives. I think back to the coaches I had. The things those guys poured into my life. I want to able to give something back to these young men like was given to me. You hope that you are making a difference.
“I’m proud of them if they become good men, good husbands and fathers, productive in society. Those are the things I hope I’m showing them by the life I live. Not just by words. That’s why I have them around my family at my house. I want them to see me interact with my girls. What it’s like to be a daddy, be a husband. We’ve got to be able to fight and go through things. We’re just not going to be quitters. That’s the good thing about this sport. It teaches you how to fight and how to stay the course.”
Fuller says when he reminisces with Auburn fans, their go-to memory is his performance in the Tigers’ 36-33 upset of No. 1 Florida in ’94.
“I had 7 catches for about 120 yards, a touchdown,” Fuller recalled. “I guess they didn’t think we had a tight end. They kept throwing me the ball. We were able to upset Florida with Frank Sanders catching the winning touchdown. That’s the game a lot of people talk about, the ’94 Florida game in the Swamp.”
He caught his last pass more than two decades ago, but neither Auburn fans, nor Fuller, have forgotten.
“I’m just excited about coming home. Being on that field. Seeing 85,000 just screaming because that’s what I love about Auburn. The fans are great,” Fuller said. “That’s just the love I have for Auburn, and I’m going to love them till the day I die.”
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer