From “punt-Bama-punt” to “kick six,” Columbus-area athletes have represented the region in the Iron Bowl through the years on both sidelines.
The allure of playing for two of the most storied programs in the country has consistently drawn top talent from the Chattahoochee Valley.
While local athletes grew up in close proximity to the schools, it did little to prepare players on either side of the Alabama border for the enormity of a rivalry fans spend 365 days a year bickering over.
“There was unbelievable hatred (between the fans),” former Auburn defensive back Chris Shelling said. “You are either ‘Roll Tide’ or ‘War Eagle.’ There’s no in between. I didn’t totally understand it until game day.”
Coming out of Baker High school (now closed) in Columbus, Shelling went on to earn All-American honors as a senior for the Tigers in 1994.
The former Cincinnati Bengals defender played in four Iron Bowls — starting in three — including the 1993 game not shown on television due to the program’s two-year probation for recruiting violations, which included a bowl ban.
“Those were basically our bowl games,” Shelling said. “Our only way to put a stamp on the season (in 1993-94) were those games. It was our only way to show Auburn was relevant.”
Fans across the country may debate what makes a successful season, but that doesn’t happen at Auburn or Alabama where the meaning of success is measured by the outcome of one game.
“It’s the litmus test of where we are at as a program,” former Auburn defensive end Sammy Oates said.
Oates, who played quarterback for Columbus High School in the late 1960ss, assumed growing up the Deep South’s Oldest rivalry would be similar to the Iron Bowl.
He was wrong.
“I think the Georgia rivalry might be a little healthier,” Oates said jokingly. “The first day you get on campus it’s like an indoctrination.”
Alabama’s loss in the “punt-Bama-punt” game in 1972 impacted the program for years.
“All of us learned you don’t lose to Auburn,” former Alabama linebacker Woodrow Lowe said. “You never know what’s going to happen when it comes to Auburn and Alabama. Those games are all even ball. We came out of it with something prove.”
After losing to Auburn as a freshman, Lowe was a central figure in establishing the Crimson Tide’s decade of dominance as one of two players in the program’s history to be named a three-time All-American.
“We didn’t lose very many times after that,” Lowe said.
The proliferation of college football coverage did little to prepare former Carver standout Gabe Wright for the first time he faced Alabama. Wright played in his first of four Iron Bowls as a freshman at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2011.
“The intensity is 10 times over anything, I’m talking Auburn-Georgia, Auburn-LSU,” Wright said this week. “It’s the showdown of all showdowns.”
The Cleveland Browns defensive tackle was 1-3 against Alabama, but the lone win happened to be one of the more famous games in college football history.
Wright was an active participant in the “kick six,” blocking Alabama freshman kicker Adam Griffith to help clear a path for teammate Chris Davis on the 109-yard run that helped send Auburn to the national title game.
Griffith, a freshman at the time, is starting for the Crimson Tide Saturday.
“I’m sure he still remembers it,” Wright said with a laugh.
The Columbus area pipeline to Auburn and Alabama remains open. This year’s game features a pair of alums from local high schools on opposite sides of the field.
Carver alum Mekhi Brown is a redshirt freshman linebacker for Alabama, while former Central defensive back John Broussard is a part of Auburn’s secondary.
Broussard’s former Red Devils teammate Markail Benton could join the fray next year. The 4-star senior linebacker verbally committed to Alabama over the summer.
Central has a long history of sending talent into the rivalry from Woodrow Lowe in the early 1970s to former Auburn quarterback Jonathan Wallace, who started the 2012 Iron Bowl for the Tigers.
“The expectations can be overwhelming,” former Central running back James Joseph said.
Joseph ended up at Auburn after being recruited by both schools. He faced off against former Red Devils teammates in the Iron Bowl most notably in 1989 when the rivalry game was played at Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time.
“The first two touchdowns of that game were both scored by Central guys,” Joseph said. “My high school quarterback (Marco Battle) scored the first touchdown for Alabama at wide receiver and I scored the first touchdown for Auburn.”
It’s just a matter of time before the next Columbus area athlete makes his mark on the one of college football’s greatest rivalries.
Notable Columbus-area athletes in the Iron Bowl
Some of the notable former Columbus area standout athletes who played in the Iron Bowl for Auburn or Alabama.
Jeremiah Castille (Central), DB, 1979-82
Marco Battle (Central), WR, 1986-89
Bill Davis (Columbus), K, 1971-73
Marlon Davis (Carver), OL, 2005-08
Billy Jackson (Central), RB, 1978-80
Eddie Lowe (Central), LB, 1980-82
Woodrow Lowe (Central), LB, 1972-75
Brian Vogler (Brookstone), TE, 2010-14
DeMarcus Curry (Kendrick), OL, 1995-98
Roderick Hood (Carver), DB, 1999-02
James Joseph (Central), RB, 1986-90
Dell McGee (Kendrick), DB, 1992-95
Sammy Oates (Columbus), QB, 1969-71
Chris Shelling (Backer), DB, 1992-94
Jonathan Wallace (Central), QB, 2012-15
Antarrious Williams (Shaw), LB, 2002-05
Gabe Wright (Carver), DL, 2011-14