The photo has been passed along and shared through social media. Featured on blogs and message boards. Displayed on the front page of the Auburn athletics official website.
It’s drawn appreciation and instilled admiration. It has actually uplifted spirits.
It’s of Auburn head football coach Gene Chizik, standing at a podium, preparing to speak to the media Tuesday afternoon. Behind Chizik is a large sign, which hangs in the downstairs auditorium inside the Auburn Athletic Complex.
That sign reads: “QUIET STRENGTH.”
The image was captured by Auburn Athletic Department photographer Todd Van Emst, who widened his lens to bring the words into his shot. But he wasn’t the only media member there that noticed the sign.
Everyone at the press conference that day saw it, and read over its quick message at least once. When I made my way in, it was one of the first things I noticed.
The auditorium was filled with media members from across the state, all assembled to hear Chizik’s first public words since the Saturday shooting at the University Heights apartment complex that claimed three lives, including two of his former players’. Writers from print media were all gathered in seats near the podium, while television reporters and their crews stood with their cameras at the top of the auditorium. Everyone looked to the room’s main entrance awaiting Chizik, and to the sign just to its left.
Similar motivational signs hang throughout the room to inspire Auburn football players during team meetings. However, on that day, none stood out like that particular sign.
The press conference was scheduled to start at 2 p.m. Chizik walked through those doors at 2:11 p.m. He started by saying that players weren’t going to speak to the media as previously announced. It wasn’t the right time, he said. They weren’t ready.
Chizik admitted that he wasn’t really ready, either.
Who could blame him? Gene Chizik is a man of faith, family and football, and at Auburn University those three things are intertwined. He regularly affirms the strong bonds shared within his program, and he considers all of his players — past or present — to be a part of his family.
On Saturday, he lost two of his sons.
“I’m not ready to do this,” Chizik said.
“But it’s part of my job.”
His job is to coach X’s and O’s. But since arriving on the Plains in December of 2008, Chizik has assumed several other positions.
Chizik stood before the press that day not only as Auburn’s head football coach, but as a public representative of the university, as a faithful member of the community and, most importantly of all, as a father figure to more than 120 young men.
Those young men were hurting.
Chizik said that he and university officials were helping grieving student-athletes in any way they could — through counseling, through transportation, through prayer. But he didn’t mention the most simple, yet most important way he was uplifting his roster full of sons: through his leadership.
While his players were somewhere else mourning, he was at the podium. He spoke clearly, he spoke thoughtfully, and he never lost his composure. In his darkest days as a football coach, Gene Chizik stood at the front of a brightly lit room before the press — and in an indirect way, the world — so that his boys wouldn’t have to.
That’s not a part of his job description as Auburn’s head football coach. That’s a part of his job description as Gene Chizik.
In a state where college football coaches are more recognized than the governor, Chizik stood in front of the media that day as the face of Auburn — the University and the community. Though weary from days rocked with tragedy and emotion, Gene Chizik embodied the Auburn Spirit.
Before closing, he said he would do anything in his power to help the families of Saturday’s victims, and to help his own extended football family.
Healing would be an uphill battle, he said. And Auburn would fight it.
We all know who’ll be leading the charge.
Tonight, a candlelight prayer vigil will be held on Samford Lawn to honor former Auburn players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips. It will be led by the Auburn University students who first announced the event themselves through social media: Gene Chizik’s football players.
Unlike most other student gatherings at Auburn, there won’t be any cheering. The fight song won’t be sung.
There won’t be a loud celebration, like you’d find at Toomer’s Corner. The band won’t be playing, like they would be at Tiger Walk. You won’t hear any shouting like you would on gameday.
In fact, there won’t be much noise at all.
Photo via Todd Van Emst.
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