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Family of champions

AUBURN – As the celebration went on around him on the evening of Dec. 4, Bart Eddins looked for his mother. Nancy Eddins had worked her way down the steps, close to the field at the Georgia Dome. And it was there that she gave her youngest son a joyful hug.

Left to right, Bret, Bart and Blake Eddins

Bart, the youngest of Liston and Nancy Eddins’ three sons, had completed an unlikely triple play. Like Blake and Bret before him, he’d won a Southeastern Conference championship ring. And, like his brothers before him, he’d done it at the Georgia Dome.

Bret was a senior defensive end in 2004 when Auburn beat Tennessee 38-28 in the SEC Championship Game. He was part of Tommy Tuberville’s first full Auburn recruiting class in 2000.

Blake, who dreamed of playing basketball for Auburn, was a freshman starter at Arkansas in 2000 when the Razorbacks beat Auburn 75-67 to win the SEC Tournament. A year earlier, when Auburn had not offered a scholarship, Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson had.

Bart was a highly recruited defensive lineman who signed with Tuberville in 2006. He moved to offense, battled debilitating knee injuries, went through the change from Tuberville to Gene Chizik and never backed down.

Liston was the first Eddins to play at Auburn, where he was an All-SEC defensive end. He was part 10-win teams in 1972 and 1974, but there would be no championship celebration for him. The Eddins’ run will end on Jan. 10 with the BCS National Championship Game.

After Auburn had crushed South Carolina to win the 2010 SEC championship, Blake, Bret and Bart stood together outside the Auburn locker room, surely the only three brothers who could share championship memories in the Georgia Dome.

“They’ve left all the hardware at our house on the bookcase,” Liston says. “It’s real pretty to look at. It looks like a jewelry story. It’s just hard to believe they all got to do it, and they all did it at the Georgia Dome. That’s really a neat thing.”

And in every case, the entire family was there to be part of it. Liston and Nancy are Auburn supporters to the core, but when Blake played against Auburn, they wore Arkansas red. Blake, now a businessman in Little Rock, is an Arkansas man through and through, but when his brothers played against the Razorbacks, he wore Auburn blue.

Bart Eddins with Liston, left, and Nancy

It was not always easy

“Heck yes, it’s hard,” Blake says. “I love Arkansas. Arkansas gave me a chance when nobody else would and I love it out here. I’m raising my family here, but my brothers and my family come first. There have been games at Arkansas that it’s been challenged. I’ve had ice thrown at me and been called a traitor and that kind of stuff. It disappoints you.

“Bart and Bret went through the same thing. Bret had just signed with Auburn before my first basketball game at Auburn. He had on an Arkansas shirt, and Coach Tuberville was sitting right behind him. Tuberville looked at Bret and said ‘You can do this one time every year.”

Family comes first. Always. That’s the way it’s been since Liston and Nancy graduated from Auburn, moved to Montgomery and started their family.

“I think Nancy and I getting to experience seeing the boys do it is a lot more fun than if I had done it,” says Liston, a prominent Montgomery realtor. “Blake won the first one at the Georgia Dome and won it against Auburn. To see several of Blake’s closest friends, guys who went to Auburn, down in front shaking those Arkansas shakers, to see his brothers cheering him on was kind of neat.

“Brett and Bart both were both down there hollering. When Brett won his, Blake and Bart were there yelling and hollering. This year, Blake and Brett were up there for Bart. The one steady thing is that all the family was always there together.”

It was that way when they played at Trinity Presbyterian in Montgomery, even when they played youth sports.

Nancy, fiercely competitive in her own right, has always been at the center of it all. She was the mom driving her boys to practice, even helping them practice. She’s seen them sweat and bleed, celebrate and deal with disappointment.

Blake Eddins during his playing days at Arkansas

“It means a lot because I know what they gave up to work toward it,” Nancy says. “Everybody else went to the lake, and they’d go to a camp. When Blake tore his ankle up, I sat outside while he shot free throws. It took that extra little bit of luck and a lot of prayer and the good Lord smiling down on them. You have to be in the right place at the right time and be on the right team.”

As his sons grew, Liston knew better than most how difficult it is to play college athletics. He’d been there, having signed with Auburn out of the little town of Bratt, Fla. He became known at Auburn as “The Big Cat from Bratt.”

There was no pressure on the Eddins boys to play football or any sport. Liston says he couldn’t have gone to college without football. He was driven to make sure that wouldn’t be the case for his sons. But what was expected was they would give their best to whatever they did.

“The thing we’ve tried to get the boys to do is just make sure you give your very best effort,” Liston says. “Keep your poise. You can’t win the game by yourself. You have to try to make everybody better around you.

“They’ve all three been real fortunate. So many of my buddies, their kids either didn’t get that opportunity or they did and it may not have worked out like they hoped it would.”

Each of the Eddins boys was successful in his own way.

Bart's story

As the 2005 football season, Bart’s last one at Trinity, wound down, he had ample options. He was a 5-star defensive lineman with offers from across the country. But there was never really any question what he would do. He would go to play where his father and brother before him had played.

Bret Eddins during 2004 season

Now he’s a senior with an opportunity to do something special. He and his teammates have gone 13-0 and will play Oregon for the national championship. And, again, his parents and his brothers will be there.

“Knowing the fact that my brothers both won a championship, it’ll be good to know 20 years down the road that you won one, too,” Bart says. “It’s special. I’ve always looked up to them since I was a little kid. To do something they did is real special to me.”

Bart’s career didn’t unfold like he hoped or expected. When he suffered yet another knee injury last spring, he wondered if it wasn’t time to move on. But Chizik and offensive line coach Jeff Grimes told him they wanted him to stay, to be a leader even when he wasn’t playing. Strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall designed a workout program that didn’t threaten his knees. And now, two years after suffering through a 5-7 season, he’s one win from earning a national championship ring.

“I’m extremely thrilled I stayed,” Bart says. “I probably wouldn’t have if it weren’t for Coach Grimes and Coach Chizik and them telling me we have these younger guys that need help. I’m still here and I have contributed. It makes that situation that much better.

“People are always asking me ‘Would you change anything that has happened?’ The initial response is I would love to not have had three knee surgeries and have a better chance to play. But the Lord works in mysterious ways. I’ve talked to dad and talked to mom and we are convinced there is a reason for everything.”

That he has an opportunity to experience playing for a national championship, he says, makes it all worthwhile.

“Two years ago, I never thought I’d be doing this,” Bart says. “It’s a dream come true. The team has grown spiritually, individually. We’ve become a closer team, become better friends. This is something we will be able to talk about for the rest of our lives.”

Bret's story

Bret admits being a little jealous at the opportunity that awaits his brother. The 2004 Tigers also went 13-0, but they didn’t get a chance to play for the big prize.

“Heck, yeah, I’m jealous,” Bret says with a laugh, “but it’s in a sense I wish we’d had the opportunity to play for it because I really do believe we would have won. The thing is, you don’t really realize how much fun you are having until it’s over. It’s a tough 2 ½-3 hours a day, but you are doing with people that you genuinely like. You are really going through a special time in your life.”

No time was more special for Bret than 2004.

“If you ask me, I was just blessed to be at Auburn when I was there,” Bret says “I was blessed to have the coaches I had, the teammates I had and the parents I had. I realize how special that team was. I think the way we were raised added to it. We were raised to be part of a team. You do what’s best for the team. You don’t have a me-first attitude. When you get guys on a team that have that same attitude and were raised that way and coached that way, special things happen.”

Bret, also now a Montgomery realtor, has watched his little brother struggle through pain, through frustration and through disappointment. And his admiration for him has grown ever stronger.

“He’s just taken injury after injury and taken bad luck and dealt with it,” Bret says. “He’s getting to be part of the team and getting to play. For the season to go the way it’s gone so far, you see the good side of those life lessons that if you work hard and persevere good things will happen.”

Blake's story

Blake was near the end of his ninth-grade year when he went to talk to his father. He knew what he wanted to say, but he wasn’t sure what kind of response he would get. He wanted to give up football and concentrate on basketball.

“Everybody kind of expected me to play football,” Blake says. “Not only that, they expected me to play linebacker or defensive end. I’d start out doing that, and by the end of practice I’d be a kicker. Eventually, when I gave up football I was scared dad was going to be upset with me. I went to him and told him I loved basketball and wanted to focus on that. There was not a bigger supporter of that than my dad.

“I was a receiver, and I hated playing defense. I hated making tackles. Bret says I was a slinger, that I’d grab them by the jersey and they’d gain 5 yards or lose 5 yards, depending on which way I slung them. At the end of practice, we’d do bull in the ring. They’d put Bret in there with me and he’d kill me. Bret could beat me up, no matter what, but it was embarrassing. To me, it was God’s way of saying you ought to do something else.”

And that’s what he did.
“To have a chance, I knew I had to concentrate just on basketball,” Blake says. “Being from a football family and having a dad known as a football player, it meant a lot for me for my dad not to bat an eye.”

Soon, the family will make the long trip to Glendale, Ariz., to see one of their own on the biggest stage in the college game When it’s over, the great adventure that started more than a decade ago will be over.

At least until the grandkids come along.

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