TAMPA, Fla. — A wide smile crept across Walt McFadden’s face when a few Auburn beat writers informed the cornerback that he was the first recipient of the “Good Guy” award, an honor meant to recognize a player who is consistently congenial with the media.
His response stopped just short of wishing for world peace.
“I want to thank the world,” he said, stammering a bit. “I want to thank everybody who’s been listening to and reading my comments. I just want to thank everybody.
“I feel like I’m at an awards show.”
It might have been the first time this season the senior struggled to find the right words. McFadden, who will play his final college game Friday in the Outback Bowl against Northwestern, fully embraces his role as a team leader.
He earned second-team All-SEC by intercepting four passes, one of which he returned for a touchdown, but, more importantly, he emerged as a much-needed vocal presence on the defense, rallying the Tigers through their rough patches while taking younger players under his wing.
“His positive nature is infectious,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “As a senior on this team, it’s really been good to watch through the year, certainly in times when we struggled. I’m really proud of Walt, and it’s really good to see him assume that role as the upbeat guy all the time. He needs to be that.”
Considering where he started out, it’s a remarkable transformation. A Pompano Beach, Fla., native, McFadden snubbed Florida by signing with Auburn in 2005, when Chizik was defensive coordinator, convinced he would follow in Thorpe Award winner Carlos Rogers’ footsteps.
But Chizik left for the same position at Texas before McFadden even got to campus. Enter defensive coordinator David Gibbs, with whom McFadden didn’t see eye-to-eye.
“Coming in as a freshman, you think you’re going to get playing time,” said McFadden, who was buried on a depth chart packed with future NFLers David Irons, Jonathan Wilhite, Pat Lee and Jerraud Powers. “Everybody has the NFL dream. If you’re not playing, you’ve got to go do something. Something ain’t right. It was just frustration plus thinking the coach is not liking you.”
But Gibbs only lasted one year before Auburn replaced him with Will Muschamp, a seminal moment in McFadden’s career. Suddenly, his defensive coordinator spoke his language, exuding what McFadden called a “big, bad-boy attitude,” while vowing not to play the cornerback until he fell in line.
“I kind of realized I wasn’t getting my way; I had to go his way,” McFadden said.
He found another mentor in Phillip Lolley, who has spent portions of his career working with Auburn’s secondary.
“I came in with an attitude, and coach Lolley had to really put his foot in me to get me right,” McFadden said. “I thank him every day for helping me become the man I am.”
McFadden bought in completely, shedding his gripes and getting to work. He emerged as the nickelback in 2006 and ’07 and seized a starting spot in 2008. He has started all 24 games since.
But the fifth-year senior didn’t completely come out of his shell until Chizik returned last December, fulfilling his original promise of coaching the cornerback.
McFadden’s voice stands out in part out of necessity. With Powers now playing for the Indianapolis Colts, McFadden is the old man in a secondary comprising a true sophomore, a true freshman and a junior college transfer in his first season.
“He was telling someone how smart Jerraud Powers was the other day, and I looked up at him and said, ‘You’re no dummy yourself; you’re a very intelligent football player,’” Lolley said. “I would say he’s more vocal because he is the senior out there with the most game experience and the whole bit. He’s taken more of a role in the leadership direction.”
Lolley has no doubt that McFadden will play in the NFL, following in the footsteps of his older brother Bryant, a cornerback who won a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers and is now with the Arizona Cardinals.
“All the corners I’ve coached or had the opportunity to coach that’s there now, he can play with them,” Lolley said. “He’s right on track.
“The thing that’s going to allow him to do so with the limited guys on the roster is he is able to learn three positions. That’s real big. He can play the corner, he can play the nickel and play the dime and equally know them. That’s real huge and gives him a great opportunity.”
It’s one McFadden doesn’t think he would have if not for his time on the Plains.
“I can tell you that by me coming to Auburn,” he said, “it really made me a better person.”w