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November 22, 2012

Whitaker thankful for last trip to UA

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AUBURN -- What are you thankful for?

That question will be asked today in households across America. The scene conjures thoughts of a family, seated at a long rectangular table full of turkey, taking turns discussing their blessings.

Not quite the visitor's locker room in Bryant-Denny Stadium at halftime of the Iron Bowl.

Still, that's where Nick Fairley pondered thankfulness while Auburn was trailing Alabama 24-7 at halftime of the 2010 Iron Bowl.

Jeffrey Whitaker wasn't even supposed to be playing much in that game. Senior defensive lineman Mike Blanc and Michael Goggans had been suspended for the first half of the Iron Bowl for throwing punches the previous week in a fourth-quarter scuffle against Georgia. Whitaker was a true freshman suddenly thrust into a substantial role for the biggest game of the season.

"We came out for warmups, and I've never heard that many words that I can't repeat," Whitaker said. "They were directly at me. As an individual you felt like they pointed you out, and they let you know how they feel. It was awful. As a freshman, I'm going, 'Oh my god.'"

The shock carried over to the first half. Facing a 17-point deficit at halftime, Whitaker wasn't expecting the kind of pep talk Fairley delivered.

"I know some movies (have) all these speeches, but this ain't how it's supposed to be right there," Whitaker recalled.

The 2010 Iron Bowl fell on the Friday after Thanksgiving, so the players spent the holiday with the team instead of their families. Whitaker said the night before the game various coaches and players got up in front of the team and discussed their gratitude.

The thankfulness carried over to the individual position meetings -- and even to the pre-game breakfast that Friday morning. But the defensive line didn't get a chance to finish its meeting.

Twenty-four points later, nothing on the field demanded gratitude. But Fairley's question at halftime created the image that Whitaker remembers first when he thinks about that game.

What are you thankful for?

"Each defensive lineman went around and said what they were thankful for," Whitaker said. "And (Fairley) said let's just go out and fight and let the chips fall where they fall."

At that point, it was bigger than football.

Different players gave different answers. Some were thankful for family -- the look on their daughter's face when she first saw him after a game - while others simply were thankful for the experience of playing college football.

"It was a great moment," Whitaker said. "That's something that I will cherish. That memory will be with me for life."

The second half of that game also will be with any Auburn fan's memory for life.

The Crimson Tide gained only 58 yards in the second half while Auburn roared back to the 28-27 victory that paved the way for a SEC Championship and BCS National Championship.

Those few minutes at halftime are what stick out to Whitaker.

"It isn't like I walked out of here and I had cancer," he said. "It ain't like I walked out of here and heard that someone died who was close to me. Sometimes football is overhyped. But I think it's the greatest life lesson of all-time in these sports. In life, you're going to be 3-8. Things aren't going to go your way all the time, but it's just all about keep swinging.

The trials Whitaker has endured far outweigh the outcome of a game. He lost his mother when he was 12 and said he could have folded in the face of that adversity.

"Look at me now," Whitaker said.

Many people indeed will looking at Whitaker and the rest of the defense Saturday afternoon. And now being one of the veterans of the defensive line instead of a wide-eyed freshman, he'll repeat what Fairley told him two years ago.

"We want to play for each other, and we want to keep swinging for each other," Whitaker said. "Those are my brothers. It's the last game, so we're going to lay it on the line and let them chips fall where they fall."



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