Most have gray hair now, at least those that still have hair. Most of them are on the north side of 60 years old. But in their hearts, the Boys of '72 will be forever young, forever the proud Auburn football team that former Birmingham News sports writer Clyde Bolton dubbed The Amazin's.
Senior Editor Phillip Marshall
It was 40 years ago that those Tigers were preparing for Shug Jordan's 22nd season as Auburn's head coach. Expectations were almost universally low. Pat Sullivan and Terry Beasley were gone. Three wins, most said, was about all that could be expected.
Instead, the Tigers won 10. On Dec. 2, 1972, they beat No. 2 Alabama 17-16 in one of the more famous games in college football history. Bill Newton, who had already played a remarkable game at linebacker, blocked two punts in the final minutes and David Langner ran them both in for touchdowns.
It all started in the aftermath of the 1971 season, one that ended in disappointment after nine consecutive victories.
There were no beat writers in those days, no reporters poking around on a daily basis as the Tigers began spring practice. And what a lot of people didn't know was that Jordan was not happy. Sure, Auburn had gone 9-1 in the 1971 regular season. Pat Sullivan had won the Heisman Trophy. But two days after Sullivan was named the winner of college football's highest individual reward, Auburn had lost to Alabama 31-7. Then it had lost 40-22 to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
"Coach Jordan was really angry," says Rusty Deen, a sophomore defensive end in 1972 who is now owner of First Team Construction in Auburn.
Jordan was determined to change course, to abandon the passing attack that won the Heisman Trophy for Sullivan. The Tigers of 1972 would be blood-and-guts, between-the-tackles running team. And there was only one way to make that transformation.
Steve Wilson, now a Huntsville lawyer, was a senior linebacker and remembers it all so clearly.
"There was a room in the coliseum under the home team side," Wilson says. "They had wrestling mats on the floor and they wrapped mattresses around all the ducts. They turned the temperature up to about 105 degrees and put buckets around for everyone to use."
As spring practice neared, workouts moved beneath the north end zone at what was then Cliff Hare Stadium.
"We wore helmets and shoulder pads," Wilson says. "There was a blocker, a tackler and a ballcarrier. You got that sand in your eyes and on your skin. It would get in your lungs and you couldn't breathe.
"The mental part was as tough as the physical, and the physical is something you don't want to think about. People were throwing their stuff in their cars and leaving. People were packing up and getting out of there."
There was no time limit on practices in those days, no orange jerseys for quarterbacks. It was survival of the fittest. Harry Unger, slated to be the starting tailback, went down with a knee injury on the first day. Dave Lyons, whose teammates swear would have been one of the great quarterbacks in Auburn history, went down on the last day and never returned.
Newton remembers it as the toughest time of his life.
"I can't tell you what we actually went through," says Newton, who owns a gas and oil business in his home town of Fayette. "It was nose-to-nose football. They were going to find the men on the field. The spring of 1972 was harder than any football game I ever played in."
Into the places of Unger and Lyons stepped two players who would carve out their niches in Auburn history. Terry Henley, now a highly successful insurance agency owner in Birmingham, was the tailback who never got tired and never fumbled. Randy Walls was the quarterback who did nothing particularly well except win.
"Henley's grit and determination were the epitome of that team, but everybody else was bearing down and working just as hard," Deen says. "We all got beat up just as bad. We all went through the same things. It was a team effort if ever there was a team effort."
Henley followed fullback James Owens, the first African-American to receive an Auburn football scholarship, and a tough and physical offensive line led by tackle Mac Lorendo, guard Jay Casey and center Lee Gross. When the Tigers needed to pass, Thomas Gossom was the receiver of choice. On Paul Davis' defense, Deen and Danny Sanspree were tough-as-nails ends. Ken Bernich, only a sophomore, was a future All-American at linebacker. Dave Beck, Johnny Simmons and Langner were ball hawks in the secondary.
The Tigers, with no player who weighed more than 250 pounds, didn't win many statistical battles. Opponents averaged 30 yards more on offense. Opponents had more first downs. Auburn averaged a paltry 18.5 points per game. The largest margin of victory came in a 27-10 win over Georgia.
But there were hidden numbers. The Tigers had 22 interceptions, led by Langner's eight and Beck's six. They had just 28 penalties for 270 yards, an astonishing average of 2.8 per game for 27 yards.
Walls could not have expected what was to come when he arrived as a freshman in 1971, ineligible to play under the rules of the day. The first time he threw a pass, he thought he might be better off back home in Brundidge.
"My first thought was 'I'm in the wrong place,'" Walls remembers. "And to see Beasley running out there, I was so in awe coming from a little bitty high school down in Brundidge."
But, like all the Boys of '72, Walls was ready when called. They slipped up just once, in a 35-7 loss to LSU. Saturday after Saturday, they found a way. The finished it off with a dominating 17-3 win over Colorado in the Gator Bowl.
Forty years later, the players on that team remain as close as brothers. More than 90 percent of them earned Auburn degrees. Most have had happy and successful lives.
"That's the thing that means the most," Wilson says. "It's the kind of people that were on that team."
After Alabama had been beaten, Jordan met reporters as the celebration went on. He declared the 1972 Auburn team his all-time favorite.
"We just kept knocking people off one-by-one," Newton says. "Except for one bad game, we always found a way."
THE 1972 SEASON
Sept. 9: Auburn 14, Mississippi State 3 (Jackson, Miss.)
Sept. 23: Auburn 14, Chattanooga 7
Sept. 30: Auburn 10, No. 4 Tennessee 6 (Birmingham)
Oct. 7: Auburn 19, No. 18 Ole Miss 13 (Jackson, Miss.)
Oct. 14: LSU 35, Auburn 7 (Baton Rouge, La.)
Oct. 21: Auburn 24, Georgia Tech 14
Oct. 28: Auburn 27, No. 17 Florida State 14
Nov. 4: Auburn 26, Florida 20 (Gainesville, Fla.)
Nov. 18: Auburn 27, Georgia 10
Dec. 2: Auburn 17, Alabama 16 (Birmingham)
Dec. 30: Auburn 17, Colorado 3 (Gator Bowl)