Nov. 25, 2010
By Jack Smith
Just days before his final Iron Bowl in 1988, Tracy Rocker made a promise to his brother, David.
They were sitting in Tracy's Sewell Hall dorm room, talking about what it would take to beat Alabama.
"I told him that it was my last one, and that I had to do something special," Rocker recalls.
His little brother pressed him for an answer.
"What do you mean you have to do something special?" David asked. "We just have to win."
"No," Tracy answered. "I've got to do something special. You watch. I'm going to sack the quarterback on the first play."
Auburn's Lombardi and Outland winner made good on his prediction.
"Sure enough, I don't even remember who it was playing quarterback, but I sacked him on the first play. When I ran off the field, David was standing over there on the sidelines, tears running down his face. He was screaming, `you did it! You did it."
Rocker doesn't relish reliving his glory days, but that sweet memory put a smile on his face.
"I sacked `em on the first play, and that set the tone for the rest of the game," he said. "That was a classic."
Rocker is one of five current Auburn Athletics Department employees who truly understand what's at stake when Auburn and Alabama meet. They all played in the greatest rivalry in college football. Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs, Team Chaplain Chette Williams and Ben Thomas were all part of what was arguably the biggest Auburn win over Alabama in the modern era--Auburn's 23-22 win over Alabama that snapped a nine-game losing streak against the Tide in 1982. Travis Williams, who currently works on Coach Gene Chizik's staff as a graduate assistant, can boast that he never lost to Alabama in his four years at Auburn from 2002-2005.
The former players say it is hard to understand what playing in the biggest game of the year feels like until you've done it.
Thomas spends time with current players on a daily basis in his role as Director of Player Development. He tells the young men who will play with the weight of an entire state resting on their shoulders that they have to play in it before they can really understand it.
"I tell them that it is an experience that you have to go through to understand," said Thomas, who went 2-2 against Alabama from 1981-1984. "There is nothing else like it. You really don't understand the Auburn-Alabama rivalry until you step out on that field."
Thomas said he thought he had played in big games in front of loud crowds before. Then he made his first trip to Legion Field in 1981.
"When you run out on the field, you feel and hear a cheer that is unlike anything you have ever heard before," Thomas said.
Thomas has simple advice for current players wondering what to expect.
"You have to leave everything you have out there, because you can never get it back. It will never leave you for the rest of your life."
The sweetest memory of Thomas' career was Auburn's 23-22 win over Alabama in 1982, when Bo Jackson went over the top in a single play that changed the dynamic of the rivalry forever.
"When we beat them at Legion Field, I'm telling you it was the most awesome feeling in the world. We went into the locker room and celebrated. Coach Dye talked to us about what we had just done, and then he told us to go back out there and thank the Auburn people. When we back out there, everybody was still in the stands. I was a sophomore and had already been through one (Iron Bowl), but that was the day when it really hit me about how much that game really means."
Thomas said current players and younger generations of Auburn fans might not realize how big that win over Alabama was.
"From then on, they knew we were coming after them," Thomas said. "It told them they weren't just going to have the run of the state anymore. It changed everything."
Auburn won again the following year, a 23-20 game that was closer than it could have been despite a brilliant performance from Bo Jackson, who ran for more than 250 yards. Auburn ran up and down the field against Alabama that day but needed two late interceptions by Victor Beasley to seal Alabama's fate.
Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs, who lettered for two seasons at Auburn as an offensive tackle after walking on Coach Dye's first Auburn team, was a senior in 1983. The hard-fought victory over Alabama gave Auburn the SEC championship outright.
"The difference that year was we knew we were going to win that game," Jacobs said. "There was never any doubt in our minds. We had learned how to win and we expected to win. Because of the way Coach Dye prepared us, we were never intimidated or nervous. We knew that physically we were the toughest team in the league and we knew we were better prepared than anybody else."
Jacobs admits he will be "as wound up as anybody" when Auburn and Alabama kick off at the appointed time on Friday.
"It's much harder to sit and watch it than it is to participate in it," Jacobs said. "It's different when you are able to affect the outcome as a player. I certainly wouldn't want to pay the physical price you have to pay to be a part of it again, but there is no question it is harder to sit and watch the game than it is to play in it. I never liked riding on the back of a motorcycle. If I'm driving it, I'm okay."
Chette Williams concedes that keeping the proper perspective the week of the Iron Bowl even challenges him as Team Chaplain. He experienced four Auburn-Alabama games from 1981-1984.
"After the Georgia game this year, my friend from Georgia said we were like cousins," Williams said with a smile. "If we are like cousins with Georgia, what does that make us with Alabama? Are we in-laws? Are we the Hatfields and the McCoys? I don't even know how to describe that game because the intensity is so much greater than anything else you have ever experienced. This game has the potential to make a man."
Williams said he planned to talk to this year's team about the final steps it needs to take in going from "good to great" when the players gather for chapel on Thanksgiving night at the team hotel.
"That has been our theme this year, going from good to great," Williams said. "To really go from good to great, you have to beat Alabama." Williams says he knows that the outcome of a football game does not define his significance or that of his players. Yet the Alabama game challenges that belief.
"The flesh rises up in this one," Williams said. "It really does. Our significance is not based on what happens in a football game, but the Alabama game challenges that belief and that philosophy."
Whatever the outcome, Jacobs says the game will make players on both teams better men for having played in it. He only hopes fans on both sides will treat each other with as much respect as the players do.
"We respect one another on that field," Jacobs said. "I think that there is a lot of respect for each other as players because they have all been through the same thing to get to that game. They have all paid the price to be a part of it."