I'm not really sure when it started, maybe 10 years or so ago. Every summer, I would venture down to the Auburn weight room and sit down with Kevin Yoxall.
And every one of those visits was memorable.
Yoxall is a unique man. He is the epitome of toughness. His gaze can wither a 300-pound lineman. But just as much as he is tough, he is compassionate. He cares. When he talks about those who have come and gone, those who have come as boys and left as men, he fights back the tears. Sometimes the tears win.
For 13 years, Yoxall dedicated himself to the young men who play football for Auburn. He pushed them further than they thought they could be pushed, demanded they give more than they thought they could and loved them like his own every step of the way.
He was at work every morning before the sun came up and still there long after dark. As much as he demanded of the players, he demanded more of himself. And even as the years went by and his hair became grayer, he could outwork any of them. And they knew it.
Yoxall, affectionately known to almost everyone as "Coach Yox," loved Auburn. He loved the people with whom he worked. He left an indelible print on the school and the football program. More importantly, he made an lasting impact on the young men who came his way.
In 1999, Yoxall moved from UCLA to work on the first staff of Tommy Tuberville, a man he hardly knew. And he became an Auburn man as much as anyone who has an Auburn degree hanging on the wall.
“I see myself being here until retirement age,” Yoxall told me last year. “I’ve been very, very blessed.”
But in the cruel world that is college athletics it wasn't to be. Thursday was Yoxall's last day as Auburn's strength and conditioning coach. He got the word from new head coach Gus Malzahn that he would not be retained.
It wasn't what he expected. He was hurt. And, yes, he was angry. He was angry not so much because he no longer had a job but because of what he felt was a bum rap for his players. They didn't quit during a 3-9 season, he said. They didn't give up.
But even through his anger, he thought of all those who were there along the way.
"I want to thank Jay Jacobs, Coach Tuberville, Coach Chizik, Tim Jackson and the rest of the administration for their support," Yoxall said. "And I want to thank the players for their hard work and their diligence."
When Yoxall started to talk about the players, the tears started to come again. The players the ones he will miss most. And they will miss him.
“Coach Yox is a gruesome dude,” former offensive lineman A.J. Greene said one day with a laugh. “I say that in the best way possible. He’s one of the most real, down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet. He keeps it real with you. He’s not going to sugarcoat anything. He’s going to tell you how it is. He’s not going to ever feed you any bull.
“His workouts are crazy, ridiculous. But at the end of the day, they’ve made you what you are. “At the end of the day, it’s going to help us in our lives. The things we go through with Coach Yox are going to help you being a man, period. I respect him to the utmost.”
So many players came back to see him - NFL players, former walk-ons, all of them. They brought their wives and heir children. They came to see the man who, as Greene said, made them what they are. He loved them all.
Former players took to Twitter on Thursday to express their appreciation for what he's done and their frustration with the way it ended.
For me, I'll miss those summer visits. I'll miss the smile that would creep across his stern face when I'd joke with him on the rare days we got to watch a little of practice. But I'm grateful I got to know him.
Yoxall's credentials are unquestioned. He's a giant in his profession. But most of all he's a man of strength, a man of character and humility.
I'm not sure where the term "a man's man" originated. But if it ever fit anyone, it fits Kevin Yoxall.
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