AUBURN, Ala. -- The news hit Auburn linebacker LaDarius Owens like a ton of bricks, the kind of grief no 19-year-old should have to bear.
His former Jess Lanier High teammate and long-time friend Nick Bell, a Mississippi State defensive end, died after a brief battle with a rare form of cancer last November.
Owens, understandably, was a mess, but started to pull himself through it when he saw a message his friend left in his obituary: “Don’t cry because I’m not gonna; I’m with you every step of the way.”
“I keep that with me every day,” Owens said. “I take advantage of that every day. I try to get better every day and try to be the best player I can be. I play for him in a way.”
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Owens, a redshirt freshman, has taken that attitude into this spring, when for the first time since stepping onto the Plains he’s working with the regular defense at weak-side linebacker.
At 6-foot-2, 242 pounds, Owens was a disruptive force on the defensive line at Jess Lanier High in Bessemer, Ala., finishing his senior season with 80 tackles and 20.5 sacks.
But he projected as an outside linebacker in college, taking a redshirt year to get accustomed to the position switch while working with the scout team. He described himself as a “deer in headlights.”
“Everything was new to him about the position,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “Now he has at least heard it for a year. Now he’s getting it, he’s absorbing the information, and I’m able to see improvement day by day.”
Owens’ biggest concern last season came off the field, though. Bell, a buddy who was two years ahead of him in school, began experiencing headaches in September. It was cancer. He had surgery to remove a mass from his brain in October. Despite initial optimism, news broke Nov. 1 that the cancer had spread.
Bell, who played in four games in 2010 and started against Auburn less than two months earlier, died Nov. 2 at age 20.
“It was so sudden,” Owens said. “I didn’t see any of that coming. I took it hard.”
Owens shut himself off, holed up in his room when Bell’s situation became dire. He didn’t come out until Roof paid him a visit, then spent the day with the coaching staff before returning home to be with family and friends.
“We’re not just coaches; we’re dads too,” Roof said. “When people lose people, that’s tough. Especially when it’s somebody close to you, somebody that there was no reason for it. Just bad luck.
“Maybe that’s your first experience with it. It’s not just a part-time job. We coach them on the field, watch tape, and we’re involved in their lives and they’re involved in our lives. It’s a family.”
Over time, Owens healed emotionally. He’s since thrown himself into the position, working on the weak-side behind projected starter Jonathan Evans.
Owens watches film whenever possible and has a daily routine to hammer home technique. He asked the equipment manager to set up the chute cage in the indoor facility so he could work on staying low to the ground.
When he hits a wall, all he has to do is think of Bell.
“When I’m in the weight room and I get tired or hurting, and I feel like stopping or skipping a rep, I say, ‘Nah. I’m going do it for Nick,’” he said.
“He’d kill to be here and to do another rep or play ball. I keep going strong for him. There’s two players on the field when I’m on the field.”