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Champions in blue

It seems appropriate on Christmas Day to look back at perhaps the most glorious day in Auburn football history, Following is an excerpt from a book, scheduled for release next summer, on Auburn's championship football teams. The story of Auburn's 2010 national champions:

Quarterback Cam Newton celebrates the BCS championship

Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there's always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs
That you won't let show

You just call on me brother, when you need a hand (Chorus)
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you'd understand
We all need somebody to lean on

- Bill Withers

On the field at University of Phoenix Stadium, Wes Byrum was alone with his thoughts.

Just a few feet in front of him was Neil Caudle, his close friend who had come to Auburn to be a star quarterback. That didn’t happen, but Caudle returned for his senior year anyway to do his part as the holder of kicks. Down near the goal line, Byrum could see all the teammates with whom he’d been through so much for four seasons. Their jerseys were wet with the perspiration from the battle they’d fought.

On Jan. 10, 2011, Auburn and Oregon had fought each other with passion and determination in the BCS Championship Game. And now it would be up to Byrum to win it.

Nick Fairley hoists the crystal football

On the sideline, head coach Gene Chizik thought about his late father, about his wife and children, about the remarkable journey of the previous two years.

Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who had refused to be brought down by those who attacked first and asked questions later, stood apart from his teammates, his helmet off. Mike Dyer, the freshman running back who had made the run of a lifetime, wasn’t far away. Nick Fairley, the Lombardi Award-winning defensive tackle, prayed silently. So did Kodi Burns, who in the summer of 2009 became the epitome of unselfishness, suffering bitter disappointment when he didn’t win the starting quarterback job but throwing his support behind Chris Todd.

Gus Malzahn, the offensive coordinator who had introduced the hurryup, no-huddle to Auburn with record-breaking results and had talked Chizik into signing Newton, had no more plays to call.

For all of them, it had come to this.

Two seconds were left on the clock. If Byrum made the last field goal of his college career, Auburn would be the 2010 national champion. If he didn’t, there would be overtime. The kick was just 19 yards, less than an extra point. The ball was in the middle of the field.

“It was short,” Byrum would say when it was over. “We’ve done that a thousand times. I knew we would make it.”

Sure enough, Josh Harris’ snap to Caudle was straight and true. Caudle put it down, Byrum kicked and the noise from more than 50,000 Auburn fans who made the pilgrimage across the country to Glendale, Ariz., could surely be heard all the way to Toomer’s Corner.

As the confetti fell and the celebration commenced, the scoreboard told the story: Auburn 22, Oregon 19.

Kodi Burns heads for the end zone against Oregon with his first touchdown pass of the season

The Auburn Tigers were BCS national champions. Within hours, they would be the consensus national champions.

Chizik thrust his arms into the air as the ball went through. All around him, players leaped for joy. Some screamed. Some cried. The assistant coaches who had followed Chizik to Auburn offered hugs and handshakes. Some of them, too, had tears in their eyes.

“It’s almost one of those flashbacks where you see 100 pictures going through your mind,” Chizik said later. “It’s the journey and all the things you overcame and you did and were able to accomplish. Just being able to kind of envision the Auburn people and how many years they had waited. Just imagining what was happening on campus and in so many households that couldn’t be there.”

In the locker room, away from the cheering throng, Auburn players sang the Bill Withers song that had been their theme since they sang it after a harrowing 17-14 escape at Mississippi State.

“Lean on me when you’re not strong …”

By the time the season was over, when Auburn players had overcome challenges like few teams before them, the words of that song had more significance than ever. For the men who were part of the national championship of 2010, it will always tell the story of a team that wouldn’t give up and wouldn’t give in.

“It’s really unexplainable,” Byron Isom, a senior offensive guard in 2010, said. “You lean on each other and fight for each other, knowing the other guy is fighting just as hard as you are.”

Newton and Fairley, two of the more dominant players in SEC history, were the faces of the 2010 Auburn football team. But they were far from alone.

Middle linebacker Josh Bynes was the heart of Auburn's defense

Safety Zach Etheridge returned from a horrifying neck injury to start every game. Lee Ziemba was an All-America left tackle. Ryan Pugh was an All-SEC center. Adams was a receiver who was at his best when it mattered most. Dyer was the most prolific freshman running back in Auburn history. Tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen had a nose for the end zone. T’Sharvan Bell became one of the SEC’s top cornerbacks. Burns was a leader supreme.

Zach Clayton was a defensive tackle who was a star to his teammates. Terrell Zachery was a big-play wide receiver. Middle linebacker Josh Bynes was the heart and soul of Ted Roof's defense, which was dominant in the biggest games o all. Byrum was a kicker who had the toughness of a linebacker. All in all, 24 seniors played against Oregon.

***

The incredible journey that was Auburn football of 2010 really started on Dec. 13, 2008. That’s when athletics director Jay Jacobs told Chizik, who had gone 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State and was on a personal 10-game losing streak, that he wanted him to be the head coach at Auburn.

The Auburn football team was disjointed and dispirited. The 2008 season had been the epitome of a college football disaster.

At SEC Media Days in July, Auburn was picked to win the SEC West in Tommy Tuberville’s 10th season. Tony Franklin had replaced Al Borges as offensive coordinator the previous December and installed his spread offense. With just nine days of practice, Auburn had beaten Clemson in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Optimism was running high. But instead of winning the West, Auburn went 5-7. Franklin was fired at midseason and Tuberville resigned shortly after a humbling 36-0 loss at Alabama. It was an unhappy group that faced Chizik that first night.

Bart Eddins, then a junior offensive lineman with Auburn in his blood, knew Chizik already. His brother, Bret, had been a defensive end when Chizik was defensive coordinator in 2002-2004. They’d both followed in the footsteps of their father. Liston Eddins wan All-SEC defensive end in 1974.

“Two years ago, I never thought I’d be here,” Eddins said after Oregon had been beaten. “It’s a dream come true. The team grew so much 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.”

Gus Malzahn talked Chizik into signing Cam Newton

Eddins’ Auburn career, like Caudle's, didn’t go as planned. He arrived in 2006 as a 5-star defensive lineman from Trinity School in Montgomery. He moved to the offensive line a year later, but injuries were his constant companion. He returned for his fifth season not to be a star or even a starter, but to be a leader.

In their own way, players like Eddins, Caudle and Burns were as much a part of the fabric of Auburn’s national championship team as Newton, Fairley, Bynes, Adams, Ziemba and the rest.

All of them faced challenges in their championship season that they couldn’t have foreseen. That they overcame those challenges to go 14-0 and win Auburn’s first widely recognized national championship since 1957 was a story that will be told and retold for generations.

On Dec. 31, 2009, as Chizik’s first Auburn football team prepared to play Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, Newton, who’d left Florida after two seasons and had been a junior college All-American at Blinn College in Texas, made his final decision and signed with Auburn. Thus began a year like no other.

Newton would have one of the great seasons in the history of the game, using his legs and his arm to make jaw-dropping plays. He was a force so powerful that, as the season entered the home stretch, there was not even any debate who was the best player in college football.

But on Nov. 4, ESPN.com reported that the NCAA was investigating allegations that Cecil Newton, Cam’s father, had talked with Mississippi State about getting money for his son’s signature. Over the next three months, Newton was vilified like few players before him. Not even NCAA president Mark Emmert’s insistence that there was no evidence Newton or Auburn had done anything wrong slowed the onslaught.

On the field, Newton responded by playing better than ever. And Auburn marched on.

Four times, the Tigers trailed by double digits. They rallied from a 17-0 deficit to beat Clemson, a 20-7 deficit to beat South Carolina and a 21-7 deficit to beat Georgia. But those three paled compared to what happened at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 26.

Gene Chizik celebrates after victory over Oregon

Alabama led 24-0 in the second quarter and was dominating every facet of the game. But when it was over, Auburn had won 28-27. A good team had become great. A week later, the Tigers destroyed South Carolina 56-17 in a rematch in the SEC Championship Game, and it was on to Glendale and the BCS Championship Game.

Chizik's time at Auburn did not end well. Malzahn is the head coach now. His mission is go back to that mountaintop and to stay there for longer..

The story of the Boys of 2010 was one of determination and dedication, of looking adversity in the face without blinking. It was the story of a team that came together, believed and prevailed.

***

Be on the lookout in the months ahead for how to order "Champions in Blue: The Inside Stories of Auburn's Championship Football Teams."

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