AUBURN - From the time Mike Pelton started his football journey at little Goshen High School, the challenges were daunting.
Mike Pelton got the call he wanted early last March/Phillip Marshall photo
He faced doubters. He was knocked to his knees, his dream seemingly slipping from his grasp. But always, he pushed on, And today he is where he wanted for so long to be.
It's never been easy. Pelton has twice been unemployed, an occupational hazard for a college football coach. He landed at Oak Mountain High School for five months and in college football's hinterlands at Louisiana-Lafayette. Through it all, Pelton never wavered.
"I love doing what I do," Pelton said on a hot June afternoon. "The impact you have on kids, the same impact was there when I was in high school. This is what I was going to do. It was just a matter of where I was going to be doing it. There was never a point where I thought I should be doing something else. It’s the impact you have on these kids’ lives that matters most, and I love doing what I do."
Early last March, Gene Chizik, for whom Pelton worked for two years at Iowa State, called him home. For the Pelton family - wife Staci and daughters Myessa, Tyra and Peyton - it was a day that will always be special.
"I never imagined I’d be where I am," Pelton said on a hot June afternoon. "After all we’ve been through and all I’ve been through to get to this point, I take it one day at a time. I try to enjoy each day like it’s the last day.
"Having moved seven times, having been fired twice, having all those things happen to us, we just take it where the Good Lord leads us."
Pelton's story began in the little country community of Shady Grove, some 20 miles from Troy. It's there he grew up with two older brothers, Derrick and Charles, nurtured by his mother and his grandmothers.
Growing up in the community that is little more than a wide place in the road, there was no youth football. Not until Pelton got to Goshen High School did he wear a helmet and shoulder pads for the first time. But he'd already been toughened up by two brothers and the women in his life who demanded he give his best.
At Goshen, Pelton became a star linebacker and fullback. Not many recruiters took notice, but Auburn, where Pat Dye was winning a third consecutive SEC championship, offered him a scholarship during his senior season.
"I came here with a chip on my shoulder from a small 2A school," Pelton said. "Everybody kind of wrote me off. I’ve taken the attitude ever since I came here that the only person who can stop me is me."
Pelton was redshirted in 1990 and got significant playing time in 1991 as a linebacker tutored by defensive coordinator Wayne Hall. But in 1992, that playing time dwindled. In 1993, Pelton found himself playing a strange new position. Dye had resigned and been replaced by Terry Bowden. Hall had remained, and he wanted Pelton to move to the defensive line.
It was a difficult time, so difficult that he considered packing his bags and going elsewhere to play.
Kurt Crain, a former Auburn All-American who coaches linebackers now at South Alabama, was in his first season as Auburn's defensive line coach. He convinced Pelton he was in the right place at the right time.
"Coach Hall made it very clear that I wasn’t going to be a linebacker with him," Pelton said. "I kind of had to do it that way. If I wanted to play, I had to find a home. I was very fortunate that Coach Crain took me in. I was very fragile at that point, wondering if I was going to play, wondering if I could play. I really didn’t have much confidence.
"Coach Crain took me under his wing and nurtured me into the defensive lineman I became. I never forgot him for it. He took me in when I felt like I wasn’t wanted. We’re great friends to this day."
Crain, too, was learning on the job, coaching the defensive line for the first time. But he saw something special in Pelton.
"He loved Auburn so much he said 'I’ll do whatever it takes.'".Crain said. "We shook hands on that. The guy was a phenomenal football player and a phenomenal person, too. When you coach the d-line, there aren’t many times you have guys that never have loafs. In the two years I coached him, he never had a loaf in practice and never had a loaf in a game.
"You know somebody is going to be successful when he has the core and the guts Mike Pelton has."
In 1993, neither of them could have imagined what was ahead.
"I had to prove I belonged at Auburn.," Pelton said. "Then I had to prove that, being here, I could play here. I wasn’t really happy at all, not really happy with what was going on. To go from not being happy at all and wanting to transfer to winning 20 straight games, making All-SEC and being drafted in the fifth round by the Kansas City Chiefs, it was like a rainbow at the end of the rain."
When his playing days were done, Pelton coached at Valdosta State for a season, then for six seasons at Troy State. He was co-defensive coordinator the final two. He joined Chizik at Iowa State, but wasn't invited to make the move when Chizik went to Auburn. He went to Vanderbilt, only to see head coach Bobby Johnson resign in the summer of 2010 and the entire staff be dismissed when the season was over.
Things changed when Tracy Rocker, who had mentored Pelton on Larry Blakeney's staff at Troy, left for the Tennessee Titans. Pelton, still new on the job at Louisiana-Lafayette, headed back to the school that started it all.
With the 2011 season rushing closer, Pelton coaches a talented defensive line that is short on experience. It's a challenge, he said, that he and his players have to meet together.
"In the SEC, old teams win," Pelton said. "We have a challenge to put a team out there that is very young and has to compete against guys that are seasoned. It’s going to be a challenge. They understand how to win. It’s just a matter of getting them all together. The will to win is there because they did it last year.
"They have to grow up physically. That’s a challenge. But mentally they really have to grow up. I don’t think talent is the issue. It’s the youth."
But Pelton does not want to be misunderstood. He believes his players can win. He remembers a similar situation on a team that never lost.
"I remember the 1993 team," Pelton said. "There wasn’t a lot of experience there. It just takes a couple of big wins, a couple of confidence builders, and there you go."