So much hardware has accumulated over the years for Alabama football, especially in the past decade of unprecedented success.
Heisman Trophies. National championship rings. Thorpe Awards. All-SEC and All-America accolades. Some players could fill a Brinks Truck with trophies and still not get the entire haul.
But there is another honor that comes, not from being spectacular but from being steady, dedicated and resilient. There is only one way to receive that honor whether you are a superstar or a walk-on whose contribution to success was a part of a practice squad.
It is a handshake from the head coach, Nick Saban, before the final home game of the season. And the only players who get one of those are the ones who completed a full four years of eligibility, whether consecutively or with a redshirt year included.
It is Senior Day for a reason.
“We’re excited about what the senior group we have here has been able to accomplish,” Saban said at his Wednesday night press conference. “They’ve won (50) games so far over four years, 64 games over five years, which is a pretty significant accomplishment.”
Saban wasn’t downplaying the efforts of the growing number of players who move on to the NFL after three years. Without speculating on any individual decision, Alabama could have somewhere from six to 10 early exits this year. That quick attrition has become so common at Alabama in recent seasons that today’s ceremony prior to the game against Western Carolina will include just one senior — offensive lineman Matt Womack — from the entire Alabama offense.
“If a guy is here for three years, he’s obviously done a really good job and we appreciate that’” Saban said. “We just hope that they make good business decisions about what they do in their future. But the guys that have been here, the ones who stay here and value education, who want to get a degree and continue to develop by the way they play, they become leaders. They’re more mature. They have a great impact and set a great example for some of the younger players. I have a great regard for some of those guys.
“Most of the guys that have been here for four or five years, they’ve had to overcome a lot of adversity. Like Anfernee Jennings, who has a really tough injury a few years ago and really worked hard to get back. He wanted to come back this year because he didn’t think he was quite as good as he could be last year. He’s done a fantastic job for us this year. He’s one of the top production guys (on the Alabama defense) and I think he has created value for himself.
“I don’t think there are enough guys that look long-term at the value of being here over an extended period of time, graduating and trying to improve as a player.”
There is also more time to develop a sense of team brotherhood — in many cases, as Saban noted, through shared adversity. Jennings is not the only player who has battled through injury, sometimes more than once. Terrell Lewis has had to come back from two surgeries to become one of the nation’s best pass rushers this season. Womack has had chronic foot injuries. Defensive back Trevon Diggs suffered a season-ending foot injury in the 2018 Arkansas game. Defensive tackle Raekwon Davis could be out of action for the home finale due to an ankle injury.
“I broke my foot, had surgery, started to come back and re-broke it,” Womack said. “It was really frustrating but it helped me grow as a person, grow as a football player. It was humbling. I kind of got to see the other side but it made me want to come back, to contribute.”
“You need to have role models, guys who overcome adversity like that in your program,” Saban said.
The Crimson Tide head coach has also spoken frequently this season about the value that seniors have as teachers. His veteran players share that vision, and see themselves as part of a Crimson Tide future beyond 2019.
“I feel like it’s just because me and Anfernee have a real strong bond,” Lewis said earlier this season. “Coming in as a freshman, he kind of took me under his wing. And so did Christian Miller (now with the NFL Carolina Panthers) and Jamey Mosley (a former walk-on now with the New York Jets.) That bond we built just being behind guys like Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams made us grow together. We saw how they bonded and we knew that at one point it would be our time to be those edge guys.”
Jennings echoed those sentiments his week.
“I just go out there and do as much as I can and try to give that experience to the younger guys,” he said. “I look at it as giving back, just like the seniors did when I was a freshman.”
“With an Alabama defense, it took me every bit of two-and-a-half or three years to get it,” defensive back Jared Mayden said. “Once you realize you can really play with everybody in the league, you get to the thinking part. We had a lot of freshmen this year and at times, they could get overwhelmed, so we try to keep that from happening as much as we can.”
Eight of the 18 players being honored on Saturday are scholarship players: defensive backs Shyheim Carter, Diggs and Mayden, defensive linemen Davis, Tevita Musika; linebackers Jennings and Lewis and the sole offensive player, Womack.
The 10 walk-ons, with hometowns listed, are:
• Defensive back Connor Adams (Sugar Land, Texas)
• Linebacker William Cooper (Huntsville)
• Wide receiver Mac Hereford (Birmingham)
• Wide receiver Jalen Jackson (Waldorf, Md.)
• Defensive back Sean Kelly (Cary, N.C.)
• Running back DeMarquis Lockridge (Columbia, Tenn.)
• Wide receiver John Parker (Huntsville)
• Tight end Daniel Powell (Aliceville)
• Defensive back Loren Ugheoke (Huntsville)
• Defensive lineman Taylor Wilson (Huntington Beach, Callif.)
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