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2021 Iron Bowl preview: Conversation with local legends

Jonah Karp and Naomi Grey sit down with former Auburn Linebacker Steve Wilson, former Alabama Center Wes Neighbors, and former Auburn Running Back Kyle Collins.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — JONAH: So, I think this is a good place to start. We'll do a quick game of word association. When I say 'Iron Bowl' what does that two-word phrase conjure up?

STEVE: I don't think you have much of a choice. You're either Alabama or Auburn from the time they change your diaper. So, you know everybody. It's a small state. You know the history, you know the coaches. You're recruited by both schools. There's nothing like it.

WES: To me, it's the greatest rivalry ever. It means something to everybody. But there are more fights in the stands than are on the field. I guess it's a respect that you played in the game. Because until you really play in it, you really don't understand the intensity of it.

NAOMI: Everybody who played in these games, everybody who played for Alabama and Auburn in this area knows each other. How much of an honor is it to be part of this quote, unquote fraternity?

WES: I mean, yeah. That goes without saying. Just playing the game, you're representing everybody you ever played for or with. You know, every player in high school, little league, they're all pointing at the TV saying 'I used to play with that guy.' So, you're repping a bunch of other people. Your family, everybody else. And so, you understand that these guys are no different than you. And it takes Auburn to make Alabama and Alabama to make Auburn.

STEVE: Wes is right. If you start playing first organized football when you're like 85 pounds, from that day on, you want to play in the Alabama-Auburn game. And when you come out on Legion Field it's the only thing close to your first game at Auburn. The first time you come out the tunnel with your blue jersey on and there's 80 thousand people hollering and your feet just barely touch the ground. And the only time that matches that is when you play Alabama.

JONAH: I'm very curious, Kyle. You shared a backfield with Bo Jackson. I mean, that's like taking an art class with Van Gogh, right?

KYLE: Very well said, yes.

JONAH: Was that motivating? Was that intimidating? What was that like?

KYLE: First, let's state the obvious, he's a genetic freak of nature, alright? Second, probably the greatest athlete I've ever been around in my life. Was it intimidating, no, because on a football team...

WES: You didn't have to tackle him.

KYLE: That's true, that's true.

WES: Well, that's why you weren't intimidated.

KYLE: But I'm competing with him. I'm trying to get on the field. I'll tell you a story about Bo. After we had reeled off six or seven games that we had won. We were playing somebody. Of course he's back. He's going to start. And Bo goes to Coach Dye and says 'hey, it's really not fair. Kyle needs to start. He's been here all year. It's not fair for me to just pop back in.' This is Bo Jackson we're talking about. I expected him to start, right? I never knew that until much much later until after I had played that he had made that request and sure enough it surprised me we started. But, Wes and I both played with phenomenal athletes that ended up in the NFL. But they were, like you said, just your running buddies. He was the one guy that every once in a while, you nudge your buddy and go 'did you just see that?' And that's what kind of athlete he was.

JONAH: Wes, what would you say is the greatest Iron Bowl game ever played?

WES: Oh, '85 there's no doubt about it. Whoever had the ball last was going to score. Both defenses were gassed. And you go over who was on the defense, I think everybody who was on that defense played in the NFL. And I'm pretty sure most of the Auburn guys who played on that defense played in the NFL. Because everybody left it on the field. There's no doubt about that.

KYLE: And I'll speak to that. I'd probably have the same answer, because I played in it and watched it unfold. We didn't run into the locker room because four or five of my best friends played for Alabama. They came over and we just hugged and the exhaustion of both teams that night. It was a relief that it was over. Sorry we had lost. I think they were a little sad also, in a different kind of way.

WES: It was just that we knew they played their tails off but somebody has to lose and we didn't want it to be us but you still have to respect that.

JONAH: Steve, do you have a different answer to that question?

STEVE: What was the question?

JONAH: Greatest Iron Bowl game ever played?

STEVE: Well, if you're an Auburn person it's probably 1972. '72 it was 17-16. And it was 16-3 with four minutes left in the game. And Newton, my roommate blocks two punts. Gardner Jett kicks the extra point. It's 17-16. You guys weren't even born back then were you?

JONAH: I mean, I was a thought.

NAOMI: And what advice do you guys have to the younger guys playing the games now, preparing for the game next week. Sometimes you don't appreciate what you have until you look back at it. So, what advice would you give them right now as they're about to enter this game?

STEVE: Make sure you have a lot of good health insurance. Make sure you paid your premium.

WES: Well, for Alabama. They need to go relax and play their game. You can't make it special. It just is special.

KYLE: Part of the journey is, try to absorb it. Try to let it soak in. Try to realize the greatful-ness of the opportunity that you have to be in this special atmosphere. And that's hard to do when you're there. When you get our age you realize 'I wish I had smelled the grass a little bit more and looked in the stands a little bit more.' But, you're so focused you don't do that. And that's what would be the advice I would say to these young kids is enjoy the moment. I think Coach Saban has a saying, be where your feet are. I've heard him say it a thousand times. Well, a part of that goes to our life. I think we rush to the next thing all the time. And so, this Saturday when they line up and they're down there and they're playing, that's what I would say. Look around a little bit. Soak a little bit of it in because it's gone quick.

JONAH: Well, we can't end this discussion without getting your predictions for this Saturday's game. So, we'll go down the line starting with Steve. Prediction, final score. Who wins?

STEVE: Two weeks ago, I thought we were in good shape. I have no idea now. I just don't see a high scoring game. Not like that 56-55 a couple of years ago. 

WES: 55-45.

STEVE: But I think the bookies have Alabama, what, 18.5.

WES: Is it really?

STEVE: Yeah. If our defensive coordinator can come up with the plan. And if they give the ball to Bigsby, to Tank, I think we're in it.

JONAH: That's a very diplomatic answer from you, Steve.

WES: I'm just glad he didn't mention chicken feet or anything. I think Alabama has the best team. I agree with him. But I think Bo Nix, if he doesn't get hurt against Mississippi State, I think they win that game. I just think that Alabama is too good defensively, rushing the passer. I think Auburn will challenge them with the run, but in the end, Bryce Young is hard to beat.

JONAH: You have a final score prediction?

WES: I don't have a final score. I think Alabama doesn't cover. I don't see them covering 18.5. Not down there anyway.

JONAH: Kyle?

KYLE: Well, I hope everything I'm about to say does not come true. But, I would probably say at the juncture we're at right now, the home field advantage will help. You got to hope that it messes up their signals or their snap counts, but they're very dynamic. And we're not very good at covering dynamic players. So, I feel like the home field will keep it closer. I'm with him. I don't think it will be a 20 point spread, but my heart says, 'man we're going to figure out a way to pull it out.' And if we pull it out it will be a weird way. But if it is a straight up game, I gotta figure that Alabama is probably going to win.

JONAH: Well, I'm starving. I think we should eat.

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