Nov. 24, 2010
By Jack Smith
Lee Ziemba was a sophomore at Rogers High School in Arkansas when he faced the biggest test of his football career.
Buke Mardanlou was a 6-3, 290 pound senior defensive end for rival Van Buren High School. He was big. He was fast. He was the fiercest player Ziemba had ever faced. For the first time in his career, Ziemba's size and strength alone would not be enough to dominate his opponent.
"I got challenged that week," Ziemba said. "All week long, my coach told me I was going to be challenged like I had never been challenged before. I remember putting a picture of Buke on the background of my computer. I saw that all week. I knew Buke was going to be on me every snap."
Ziemba more than held his own--limiting the biggest and most physical player he had ever faced to a handful of tackles.
"Basically, that was the most physical high school game I ever played in and the toughest challenge for me," Ziemba said. "I ended up kicking his tail."
It was a turning point for Ziemba, who had relied on his sheer size to dominate opponents ever since he played peewee football in Arkansas. Lee's father, Mike, remembers that game well.
"They battled that whole night," Mike said. "They were clawing and scratching and fighting. That' s when the light came on for Lee about how physical you had to be. You couldn't just be bigger. That kid didn't make but a couple of tackles all night. When the game was over, I had to help Lee get from the car to the house. He was done. He had nothing left. He left everything he had out there."
That night put Ziemba on a path to stardom and made him a prized recruit. After six visits to top schools across the country, Ziemba ended up at Auburn, where his father graduated and his mother, Dawn, played in the band.
Six years removed from that Friday night in Arkansas when Ziemba first realized just how bright his football future could be, Ziemba is on the cusp of setting a new school record for durability and consistency at Auburn. He will start his 50th game at left tackle when the Tigers face Alabama on Friday. With two more games beyond the Iron Bowl, Ziemba will go down in the history books as Auburn's all-time Iron Man--at one of the most physically demanding positions on the field.
Even though his coach marvels at his durability, Ziemba dismisses the significance of the streak. He's more interested in goals not yet attained for Auburn's undefeated team. He desperately wants to beat Alabama for the first time since his sophomore season, his toughest as a Tiger.
After a stellar first year at Auburn, when he was named a First Team Freshman All-American by several media outlets, Ziemba hit a sophomore slump. It all started with a knee injury during two-a-days prior to the season. He elected to tough it out with a torn meniscus and have surgery after the season, which unraveled into a miserable campaign that ended with a losing record and a bitter season-ending loss to Alabama. The devastating loss in Tuscaloosa was followed by knee surgery and the resignation of the coach that recruited him to Auburn.
"I was on crutches when all of that happened," Ziemba said. "It was a low, low time in my life. Everything was uncertain."
Ziemba's fortunes, and his outlook, changed when Gene Chizik was hired as head coach.
"Coach Chizik was honest and up front from that very first meeting," Ziemba said. "He came in and said that he was going to hire the best coaching staff in America, which he did. He told us that we were in this together even though we didn't know him and he didn't know us. He was a great leader from the start, and he hasn't changed at all. He really helped us all get our confidence back."
Another turning point for Ziemba came when Chizik hired Jeff Grimes to coach the offensive line. Grimes, a cerebral teacher of the game who quickly gained the respect of his players, pushed Ziemba from the start. It didn't take long for Ziemba to earn the respect of his new position coach.
"I pushed him as a person and a player from the moment we got here," Grimes said. "There is always some resistance when a new staff comes in and there is a new way of doing things, and there was a little bit of that initially with Lee. But I quickly found that Lee was a great kid and a great person who comes from a great family."
Grimes said it didn't take Ziemba long to buy into the Chizik way--a no-nonsense approach to football balanced out by the family atmosphere that he and his staff fostered from the start. Chizik, who often tells his players that Auburn is a special place, turned out to be the perfect fit for Ziemba.
"One of the things I have always noticed about Lee is how much he cares about Auburn," Grimes said. "He has a deep love for Auburn. The Auburn Family means something to him. I think that was a big part of him coming back for his senior year. He wanted to give more to Auburn."
Ziemba and his close-knit teammates on the offensive line have been a huge reason for Auburn's rise to national prominence and a key cog in Gus Malzahn's explosive offense.
Grimes says Ziemba has always had what can't be coached--sheer size, good feet and a big frame, but he's been most impressed by Ziemba's intelligence and his insatiable desire to get better at his trade.
"I think intelligence is more important for an offensive lineman than for any other position, save the quarterback," Grimes said. "You have to think while you are playing and you have to know what you are doing. You have to recognize defensive fronts and blitz looks and that sort of thing. One thing I have always enjoyed about Lee is that he is a very inquisitive person. He's interested in things that some offensive linemen don't care about it. He has a lot of questions about the game. I appreciate that because I try to teach the guys about the big picture rather than just what they do on specific plays."
Grimes notes that Ziemba, who came into the 2010 season as one of the most reliable and experienced players on the team, was named one of the two most improved players following spring drills.
"The fact that he received that award as a senior says a lot about him as a player and a person," Grimes said. "Last spring and summer, if he wasn't in class or working out, he was in the building watching film to learn more football. That helped him become a much more technical player who really understands the game and what we're trying to do."
That has never been more evident than this season, when Auburn's offense has at times been unstoppable behind Ziemba and a veteran offensive line. Whether blocking on a reverse, protecting his quarterback in the pocket or knocking defenders off the ball for an inside run, Ziemba has been a model of consistency.
"We run more reverses than most people do, and on 90 percent of our reverses, Lee is at the point of attack," Grimes said. "That's something that a lot people probably don't see. The other thing that sets him apart from a lot of other left tackles is his ability to knock people off the football. With us running the football as much as we have this year, he has been a big part of that. His ability to be a great run blocker has been a big part of our success this year."
While his collegiate career is quickly winding down and big goals are still within reach for his team, Ziemba already has his sights set far into the future--even beyond a career in the NFL. He dreams of one day returning to the place he calls home.
"I definitely want to have a successful professional career. I've been blessed with a body to do this and I want to do this as long as I can. I think it is a good platform to reach people for Christ, and a good platform to impact kids and get them going the right way. But when I'm done, I'm coming back to Auburn. I love this place too much. I want to live in Auburn, maybe do a little coaching, teach and drive a school bus in the morning. It's hard to imagine a better life than that."