AUBURN – Sometimes, when the crowd is loud and the pressure of the moment is heavy, Nick Fairley remembers. He remembers it all.
Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley/Phillip Marshall photo
He remembers the little boy back in Mobile who didn’t always have enough to eat. He remembers watching his parents work long and hard in a never-ending effort to get from one day to the next. He remembers the grandfather who died when he was 14, who loved watching football television and dreamed of one day watching one of his own. And it drives him on through fatigue, through pain.
“Growing up without that much stuff, without a silver spoon, keeps you hungry,” Fairley says. “I was there at one point in time and don’t want to go back.”
Herbert and Paula Rogers raised 10 children. The ninth was a boy. To the college football world, he is Nick Fairley, the 6-foot-5, 298-pound Auburn defensive tackle with uncanny quickness who plays the game with such ferocity that he can see fear in the eyes of quarterbacks who try to escape and the offensive linemen who try to block him. To his parents, he’s still Nicholas, the bright-eyed little boy who took to the game the first time he played it when he was 5 years old.
“He was tough then,” Herbert Rogers says, remembering. “The coach would put him at nose guard and tell him what to do. I’ll never forget the coach running out on the field and saying ‘Where is Nicholas? Where is Nicholas?’ Nicholas was running along behind him the whole time. The coach told him ‘You line up on the center and find the ball.’ He tackled the quarterback as soon as he got the ball, caused a fumble and recovered the fumble.”
Last Saturday, in the biggest football game of his life, Fairley almost single-handedly brought down LSU’s offense in a 24-17 Auburn victory. By the time it was over, quarterback Jarrett Lee would run out of bounds on LSU’s final offensive play instead of encountering Fairley’s wrath again.
“When you play football, it’s either me or you,” Fairley says. “I go out there and try to win every play. Hopefully, by the fourth quarter, you are worn down and I have you where I want you.”
So it was against LSU. And his father cheered.
“I can’t believe that where he is, with the caliber of people he is around, he is still that dominant,” Rogers says. “It’s amazing to watch.”
MSU quarterback Chris Relf can't escape/Todd Van Emst photo
Almost from the time he was born, Fairley was bigger than other children his age. But he was faster, too. When others got tired and quit, he kept going. And so it still is today.
Life wasn’t easy. Herbert Rogers worked at the DuPont chemical plant in Mobile. Paula Rogers worked as a custodian. They worked hard and long. By the time young Nicholas was born, four of his siblings had moved on. For the three boys and three girls at home, there were times that even food was in short supply.
“Sometimes you’d have to take less and let them get more and then the next day they’d take less and you get more,” Fairley says. “It was tough on us, but everybody goes through their struggles. That’s why I’m where I am today. It helps me stay humble, knowing where I came from.”
In those days, Fairley was close to his grandfather, Chester Fairley. They would sit together on Saturdays and watch football games on television. Fairley smiles at the memory.
“My granddaddy, what I’m doing was one of his dreams,” Fairley says. “He wanted to see that. We’d sit down and watch football. He’d say ‘I wish one of my kids was out there.’ I wish he was here to see it. He would love it.”
Fairley was still in the eighth grade when Williamson High School football coach Bobby Parrish came to know him. Even then, Parrish knew the affable young man who wanted to please was different than most.
"When he came over from the eighth grade, everything we asked him to do -- 'Nick, we need you to go to the shed and get some dummies' - he would sprint over there," Parrish said told the Press-Register in Mobile. We knew whatever side of the ball he was on, he just had that mentality that he was going to dominate."
For his first three high school seasons, Fairley played mostly on the offensive line. He moved to defense fulltime as a senior. He was a standout on the basketball court, too, and helped Williamson win a state championship. But basketball was for fun. Football was serious business.
Fairley celebrates another tackle for loss against LSU/AuburnUndercover.com photo
And, as his coach predicted, Fairley dominated. He signed with Auburn and went to work on qualifying. He thought he’d done it, only to have his ACT score thrown out. Copiah-Lincoln Community College in the little Mississippi of Wesson would be his next stop.
And it would prove to be as much of a challenge as any offensive lineman.
“There were plenty of times. I went home from juco when we had a break and didn’t want to go back,” Fairley says. “It worked out for the best for me.”
His father worried that he wouldn’t stay, that being in a tiny town far from family and friends would be too much. Almost every weekend during the offseason, he’d make the long trip to bring him home.
“I would pull up at the gas pump and giving them a $100 bill,” Rogers says with a chuckle. “That was during the gasoline crunch, and the tank still wouldn’t be full.”
Fairley, who redshirted as a freshman, was ready to sign with Auburn again in December 2008, but he didn’t have quite enough hours. Finally, in the summer of 2009, he arrived. By then, things had changed. Gene Chizik had replaced Tommy Tuberville as head coach. He’d brought in former Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award winner Tracy Rocker to coach the defensive line.
For Fairley, it was the start of the best time of his life.
“I have great coaching in Coach Rocker,” Fairley says. “He’s working with me every day, working on my moves, keeping my pad level down, my footwork. Coach Rocker has helped me a lot, for real. Nothing he says goes unnoticed. Every time he says something, someone on the defensive line is benefitting from it.”
As a sophomore in 2009, Fairley showed flashes of dominance. But there were times of struggle, times when he would seemingly disappear. He vowed this season would be different. He sat down with graduate assistant Travis Williams before the season and made a list of goals.
Fairley wrote that he wanted to be one of the nation’s more dominant defensive linemen. He wanted to be a leader on Auburn’s defense. He wanted to win the SEC championship and national championship.
As the Tigers prepare for Saturday’s game at Ole Miss, all those goals are still in reach. Fairley leads the SEC in tackles for loss. He’s second in sacks. He’s a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award, presented annually to the nation’s top lineman. And his team is 8-0 overall, 5-0 in the Southeastern Conference and on top of the Bowl Championship Series standings.
Fairley could be in his final Auburn season. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper predicts he will be a top 10 pick in the NFL draft, a position worth millions of dollars.
“I have to look at it,” Fairley says.
When it happens, when Fairley hears his name called on the big stage, he says he’ll think all those who were there along the way. He’ll think about his hard-working parents, about the brothers and sisters with whom he shares a special bond, about the little nieces who waited for him with hugs and kisses when he returned to his apartment after LSU had been beaten.
“They were there when I was down,” Fairley says, “so I want them to be there when I’m up.”
But first there is a season to finish, a championship to be pursued. And, for now, that championship is what Fairley wants more than anything.
“You always have to keep a level head going into every game,” Fairley says. “Every week we believe that ‘if we play Auburn football, we are going to win this game.’ That’s the kind of confidence we have. Knowing that you have won a game, celebrating with your teammates in the locker room, having fun, it puts warmth in your heart.”