Many Tests to Come for Football Freshmen

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at the 2002 Auburn football freshmen.

It was a special day. It was the beginning of a long-awaited journey, the adventure of a lifetime.

The freshman football players who took to the field Monday morning will laugh at the memory in the years ahead. They will see others where they were, and they will chuckle at the anxiety in their eyes, the frequent calls home.

Some of those who went eagerly to practice Monday morning will become outstanding players, some maybe even great. Some may become icons to be remembered by generations of Auburn football fans. They'll play in the arenas they've seen only on television, celebrating together as only teammates can when their labor pays off with one of those victories that feels good deep inside. They'll hurt together as only teammates can when a big game that seemed surely won is lost.

Even as they went to practice Monday morning, thousands of boys dreamed of being where they are, of doing what they are doing. As they walked off the field after their first practice, a few of those boys waited to seek autographs. Already, the players are heroes in those eyes.

I hope those players remember those boys. I hope they understand they have taken on a responsibility far greater than playing football and using their athletic ability. It's a big load for an 18- or 19-year-old kid, but it's part of the package. If you are an Auburn football player, you can't be like the student who sits beside you in class. He can go out, get into trouble and nobody other than those close to him will ever know. A football player who does the same thing will make headlines. He will not only embarrass himself and his family, but his teammates, his coaches and his school.

Florida safety Todd Johnson said it best during an interview in Gainesville earlier this summer. "Kids are going to look up to you whether you are a good person or bad person," Johnson said. "They are going to follow what we do. You can change so many lives just by the way you act."

Yes, it's a big responsibility. It's an even bigger opportunity. Some, like former offensive lineman Kendall Simmons, take advantage of it to do good. Some go the other direction and fall by the wayside, the opportunity wasted.

For 35 Auburn freshmen, the future beckoned on a hot summer morning. On this day, their dreams were still intact. They came as big as walk-on offensive lineman Juan Garnier, who checked in at 6-4 and 367 pounds. They came as small as wide receiver Lee Guess, who checked in at 5-10 and 162 pounds. Some were on scholarship. Some walked on, paying their own way.

On the day it all begins, everybody is an All-American, every team is a contender and all is right with the world. Reality is that they have taken on a challenge of immense difficulty. Freshman eyes will be opened a little wider when the varsity joins the workouts Thursday. They'll be fully open when the action goes live next week.

Quarterback Brandon Cox, one of the more highly regarded members of Auburn's signing class, figured it out in two months of informal workouts.

"You think you can go in and play your first year, but once you see the size of the players, the speed of the game and all there is to learn, you want a year or two," Cox said. "I think a redshirt year will definitely help."

Barring an injury to Daniel Cobb or Jason Campbell, Cox is virtually certain to get that redshirt year. Others will be called on to play a football game on national television in the Los Angeles Coliseum just days after attending their first college classes. Any or all of six freshman wide receivers could get thrown into the fire early. Same for a handful of offensive linemen and defensive linemen.

At Auburn and other places, the young men who reported for the first college football season had one thing in common: They all had big dreams. The real tests, on and off the field, are yet to come.

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