It’s a jagged sliver of rock in your shoe. A grating speck of sand in the eye.
That’s what it’s like losing to Auburn when you play football for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
“It’s like your dog died,” said former UA defensive back Will Lowery. “It’s a brutal, helpless feeling.”
A feeling that doesn’t go away until it’s removed, forcibly.
Avenging a loss to the Tigers in the Iron Bowl washes away feelings that have festered for a year, sometimes longer for those who have been part of teams that lost twice or more in a row to Alabama’s cross-state nemesis.
“It’s awesome,” said Mike Riley. “In the football world, all things are right again.”
Alabama seeks revenge Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Auburn defeated the top-ranked Crimson Tide to end the regular season a year ago, handing a dominant Alabama team its only blemish. It robbed UA of a chance to win an SEC championship, but Alabama shook it off to win the College Football Playoff to claim another national title.
But that doesn’t mean it has been forgotten.
“I think the players all know what happened last year,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said this week. “I think they don’t feel great about it. They didn’t feel good about last year. They’ve had to live with it for 365 days.”
Losing to Auburn
Rashad Johnson, a safety from Sulligent who went onto an eight-year career in the National Football League, was a part of three losses to the Tigers during a period where they won six in a row, their longest streak in the rivalry.
“It was a tough stretch,” he said.
The Crimson Tide lost 17-10 at Auburn in 2007 when he was a junior.
“It was definitely a game that you carry with you,” he said. You mark the next season to get a win.”
Lowery was a defensive back on Alabama’s 2010 team that lost to Auburn in Tuscaloosa, blowing a 24-0 first-half lead to fall 28-27 when the Tigers rallied behind Cam Newton, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy.
“By far the worst loss of my sporting career – any sport, any age, anything – and I took some hard losses,” he said.
Alabama was coming off a national championship season but had seen its hopes to repeat punctured by losses to South Carolina and LSU. Auburn was on the way to its own national title.
“Just getting up on them so big, so fast and totally dominating them out of the gate, I can remember at one point jogging on the field for punt block and Brad Smelley – my roommate and a really good friend of mine – we were kind of almost laughing to ourselves, almost giddy and shocked at how perfect the game was going at that point,” Lowery said. “And for that to all come crashing down in the second half was just really, really painful.”
As Auburn gained momentum, Lowery could feel the game turn.
“It felt like trying to hold two hands full of water and it seeping out of the edges and the bottom and not being able to do anything about it,” he said.
Riley, who went onto a long coaching career, played on dominant Alabama teams coached by Paul W. “Bear” Bryant. He was part of the team that lost 17-16 to Auburn at Birmingham’s Legion Field in 1972 when the Tigers blocked two punts and returned them for touchdowns.
“Oh my gosh, by the time we got out into the parking lot there were bumper stickers that said ‘Punt Bama Punt.’ You could not forget about it,” he said.
Said Lowery, “I don’t think I cried too many times in football, but that was one of them. I remember the slow walk home from the stadium to our house there behind Publix. It was a long one.”
Living with it
The final whistle is only the beginning of the pain. Nearly everywhere players go, they are reminded.
“Not so much in class or things like that, but sometimes at home you’ve got friends who are for other teams,” Johnson said. “With family and friends you would get the comments.
“Everyone here on campus is in the same boat. You’d rather not talk about it.”
Said Riley, who was born in Idaho, “It’s so important to the people down there that you never stop hearing about it.”
Lowery came up in the earlier years of the Saban dynasty, before piling up national championships was almost an annual rite. He played high school ball in Hoover. With Saban recruiting more and more out-of-state players, Lowery was one of the ones who most valued the Iron Bowl.
“I grew up diehard,” he said. “I know exactly what this rivalry is.
“I thought about it every day in the offseason. I could not wait. Since that day I was looking forward to the Iron Bowl of 2011. I could not wait to get back and right that record. It’s with you every day until you’re able to play the next one and right the wrong.”
Today’s players who lost to Auburn last season understand.
“We still have sort of a sour taste in our mouth,” said center Ross Pierschbacher. “Being from Alabama, or just being in the state, you hear about that game.
“(Not) having those bragging rights for 365 days is something that we don’t appreciate.”
Johnson carried losses to Auburn with him for three full seasons, knowing as a senior he would have one last chance to reverse the trend.
“Everybody knows how important that game is,” he said. “To have lost that many games in a row was definitely tough.
“To turn the ship the right way my senior year was very important. That was something that you definitely wanted to do, to have the opportunity to win that game.”
The only antivenin to the ills that come from losing to Auburn is to beat the Tigers at the next opportunity.
Said Riley, “No matter what kind of year you’ve had and even if you’ve won all the games like we used to – you know, we had an incredible record during that run – if you didn’t beat Auburn there was a hollow feeling about that season. It kind of changed the storyline about how you felt about it.
“Losing to Auburn left kind of a void that is not replaced until the next time you get to go.”
Johnson finally came out on the winning side in 2008 when Alabama ended AU’s streak with a 36-0 victory. Starting with that game, Alabama has won 7 of the last 10.
“It was my last home game in Bryant-Denny, so for it to be Auburn and the way that we were able to win that game in just tremendous, dominating fashion, it felt great,” he said. “It felt like we accomplished a lot that year to end the regular season 12-0, so it was a part of something really special.”
“We came out, took pictures, some of the guys with the scoreboard as the background, things like that.”
Riley was part of a similar bounce-back when Alabama defeated Auburn 35-0 in the 1973 Iron Bowl.
“I think it was a common theme that it certainly couldn’t happen two years in a row and there was no way we were going to let it happen,” he said.
Lowery got his vengeance in 2011 at Auburn with a 42-14 victory. He had knee surgery the week of the game to repair a torn ligament and didn’t get to play, but he was there. Fellow defensive back Dee Milliner wrote Lowery’s No. 29 jersey number on his gloves to represent him on the field.
“It was very gratifying to do that in their house like they had done to us the year before,” he said.
How much of a part does last year’s loss to Auburn play in Alabama’s desire to win this game? If Saban has his way, not too much.
“I don’t necessarily think the revenge factor is the best form of motivation out there,” the coach said, “but I certainly think it plays into a guy that’s a good competitor who wants to do well if he didn’t perform well the last time he played someone. …
“I think everyone understands the importance of this game and I think everyone understands what happened last year and all those things will contribute, I hope, to having the right mind-set so we can play well in this game.”
The sting of last year’s loss was mitigated by UA making the playoff and winning it all. Alabama players would prefer to play for another championship without going that route.
“You try not to look back to last year,” wideout Henry Ruggs III said, “but that kind of just gives you motivation because of the position we were last year after we lost that game, we don’t want to be in that same position this year.
“It just fuels the fire to make us want to play up to our level.”
And, maybe, to remove that stone from their shoe.
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.
Sports Writer Ben Jones contributed to this report.