Has it really been almost 35 years? That was the question that came to my mind as I chatted with Randy Walls on Wednesday at Jordan-Hare Stadium during the final scrimmage of Auburn's spring practice.
Walls, of course, was the quarterback on the 1972 Auburn teamed dubbed "The Amazin's" by Birmingham News columnist Clyde Bolton. With Pat Sullivan and Terry Beasley gone, it was a team widely expected to win three, maybe four, games. Instead, it won 10, finding a way by hook or crook to win Saturday after Saturday.
I was the young sports editor with a staff of one at the now-defunct Huntsville News, still learning my way. Some of Auburn's players were older than I was. In those days, I covered everything. Often, it would be 1 a.m. on Saturday before I would leave the office. Usually, I'd get a few hours sleep and head off to cover an Auburn or Alabama game the next day.
The weekend Auburn went to LSU and suffered its only loss, I left the office in Huntsville, drove to Baton Rouge, covered the game and drove home without ever going to sleep.
Ah, the days of youth.
Auburn has had better teams than that one, though not a lot of them. It has had many, many more talented teams. But for anyone who was around the men of 1972, that season will always be something special.
The regular season ended with the most famous game in Auburn football history. On Dec. 2, Bill Newton blocked two punts, David Langner took them in for touchdowns and Auburn stunned unbeaten Alabama 17-16.
"Punt Bama Punt"
Even after winning nine of 10 games, Auburn had not convinced everyone. Colorado was a significant favorite in the Gator Bowl. At the bowl's annual banquet, Auburn players arrived in their matching blue blazers. Colorado players were already there, some of them hanging out around the bar and enjoying a few drinks.
During the banquet, Ken Bernich, who would be an All-American linebacker, introduced himself to a Colorado player. "Yeah, you're No. 53, aren't you?" the Colorado player said. Bernich said he was. "I'm looking you up (at the game)," the player told him, pointing his finger. Stunned, Bernich told him "You make sure you do that."
There was more of the same as the evening wore on, even from the Colorado captains who spoke at the banquet.
"I was kind of worried if we were going to be ready for this game," Bernich said later that night. "I'm not worried now."
Auburn dominated the Buffaloes and closed a season to remember in style, winning 17-3.
There were so many heroes on that team. Terry Henley was the tailback who ran and ran and ran. Newton was a great linebacker long before he blocked any punts. But mostly, that was a team of players who came together as one.
Walls fit right in. He didn't have the strongest arm or the greatest speed. He just did what it took to win. Walls, from the little town of Brundidge, was a freshman, ineligible for varsity competition under the rules of the time, when Pat Sullivan won the Heisman Trophy in 1971. The first time he saw Sullivan throw a pass on the practice field, he wondered if he would ever play at Auburn.
"My first thought was ‘I'm in the wrong place,'" Walls said in an interview we did a couple of years ago. "And to see Beasley running out there, I was in awe coming from this little-bitty school down in Brundidge."
Walls wasn't supposed to be the starting quarterback in 1972. But Deiter Brock, Sullivan's heir apparent, left for Jacksonville State when he was demoted to third team. In the spring, Dave Lyons was spectacular. He was going to be a starter, one some say would have been among Auburn's all-time greats. But he was injured on the final day of spring practice and never returned.
If Auburn was going to win, Walls was going to have to get it done at quarterback.
Walls got it done, seldom making mistakes and making big plays at the most crucial times. He's a loyal Auburn man today who plans to move to Opelika in the coming weeks.
You won't find his name on any individual Auburn records, but Walls was the right man at the right time. And his place in Auburn history is secure.