She was there every Saturday, proudly wearing that blue jersey bearing the number 37. Gwendolyn Walker was that kind of mom.
It wasn't just her son, Rashaud Walker, she came to see. She reached out to everyone with love and caring.
Monday morning, long before her time, Mrs. Walker died when her car was struck by a train in DeKalb County, Ga. Now it is her family and those whose lives who touched who lose so much. The sadness was deep in the eyes of linebacker Dontarrious Thomas as he talked about Mrs. Walker after Tuesday's practice. "It's a tragedy for the whole team," Thomas said. "His mom was real close to the whole team. When they told me, it was devastating. She saw me last weekend. She would always give all the players hugs. She was like a second mom to all of us. If you didn't have anywhere to go, she'd cook out for you on the little grill she had, things like that."
As Thomas talked, Walker was still at home in Decatur, Ga., with his family. Told he might return in time for Wednesday's practice, Thomas expressed amazement. "If he comes back, that would be a big inspiration to go out there and play that much harder for him," Thomas said. "If he does that, that takes a lot of courage."
He did just that. Walker returned to practice Wednesday and plans to play when Auburn goes to Arkansas on Saturday. He told coaches and teammates that he believed that's what his mother would want.
Sometimes, in the face of tragedy, games seem so unimportant. But for Walker, it's not about tackles or interceptions today. Football is about teammates and friends and coaches who care. The emptiness and the pain won't go away today or tomorrow. They can't be washed away by a victory on the football field. Walker will, no doubt, play this game and this season with his mother in his heart. His teammates will be there with him, every step of the way. And that's why football, indeed, does matter a great deal.
There's been much said this week about Tommy Tuberville's lack of success at Arkansas. Tuberville, Auburn's head coach, has taken three teams into his home state. He lost twice as head coach at Ole Miss and once at Auburn.
Saturday's game could get hairy, too, but the circumstances have changed. Arkansas isn't nearly as talented now as it was even two years ago. If Auburn can avoid turnovers and mistakes, it should win the game and take another step toward winning a second consecutive SEC West Division championship.
At the same time, if Daniel Cobb repeats his four-interception performance of last week, chances are the Tigers will come home with yet another loss at the league's western outpost.
Arkansas' offense, ranked next to last in the national statistics, isn't likely to generate enough points to win. Given free points, though, the Arkansas defense is good enough to hold on.
Whatever happens, don't look for Tuberville to cry like South Carolina coach Lou Holtz did. After losing 10-7 to Arkansas two weeks ago in Little Rock, Holtz said the Gamecocks' offense was hurt by crowd noise. He said he would instruct his team not to snap the ball if it couldn't hear this Saturday at Tennessee. I don't think Holtz is going to get much satisfaction. SEC officials haven't stopped play for crowd noise in years. It's part of the game.
There are big games all around the SEC this weekend. Florida, which has had a week off to stew about its loss to Auburn, will play Georgia in Jacksonville. South Carolina will play at Tennessee. The winners of those two games will emerge as the challengers for the East Division championship.
Ole Miss plays at LSU in a game that will produce the main challenger to Auburn in the West. Vanderbilt goes to Duke in a game that could be the last chance for the Commodores (1-5) or the Blue Devils (0-7) to win.