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Auburn’s Rocker: Gentle Giant Is a Star

Times Staff Writer

Tracy Rocker, the three-time All-American from Auburn who was named the best lineman in college football this season, began his sports career a dozen years ago in Atlanta.

There, in his hometown, he cried most of the way through the first half of his first pee-wee football game.

As his parents, David and Mary, watched nervously from the stands, Rocker made 5 unassisted tackles and burst into tears each time.

His mother remembers that this was more than she could take. She got up, walked down to the field and told him: “Let’s go home, baby. You don’t have to play this awful game if it hurts so much.”

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Tracy answered back: “It doesn’t hurt, Mama. I just don’t like to hit people. It bothers me a lot.”

And all these years later, it still does.

“I call him my gentle giant,” said Mary Rocker, who is here with her husband to see Tracy play his final college game Monday night against favored Florida State in the Sugar Bowl.

The player they’ll be watching, a 270-pound defensive tackle, has become the most-honored lineman in America.

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Although he’d rather play touch football, or even basketball, fate had a different role for gentle, sensitive Tracy Rocker, the reluctant killer, who was the only finalist this year in the voting for both the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award.

The Outland goes to the nation’s top lineman--offensive or defensive. The Lombardi is for the nation’s top linebacker or lineman--offensive or defensive.

And Rocker won both .

“It was humbling,” Rocker said. “I’m a team player first of all, and when a team player wins these kinds of trophies, well, I feel I earned them both.”

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Some players would have headed for the bright lights of Peachtree Street to celebrate. Rocker headed for Atlanta, all right, but pointed his 1984 American-made car home, where, smiling, he climbed out with both trophies and ran into a barrage of flashbulbs.

“It was really flattering,” he said.

He reveled in it because the photographers were all relatives of his. There were uncles, aunts, great-uncles and cousins, first and second.

“I called them up as soon as I heard the news, and told them to hurry over,” Mary Rocker said. “I knew that Tracy would come straight home.”

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She fixed a celebration dinner for the whole crowd--Tracy’s favorite dinner, fresh South Florida seafood.

Plainly, Rocker’s numerous relatives are his biggest fans.

But not his only fans.

Among those cheering for Rocker this year--and for the Lombardi and Outland voters as well--were coaches and athletes from as far away as Knoxville, Tenn.

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Earlier in the season, there had been a day when the powerful Auburn Tigers, after getting the best of injured and outmanned Tennessee, 38-6, were driving for another touchdown in the fourth quarter.

At Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, a capacity crowd was on its feet and urging the Tigers forward.

But on a far corner of the Auburn bench, college football’s best lineman sat quietly, his head in his hands.

Asked afterward what he was thinking, Rocker said: “Those Tennessee people are nice folks. I was praying we wouldn’t score that touchdown.”

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As a defensive lineman, how good is Rocker? Is the reluctant killer so sensitive that Florida State needn’t worry about him Monday night?

Hardly.

“Tracy is a tough act,” said Auburn’s defensive coordinator, Wayne Hall. “He comes so hard, and he’s so intense, that you have to double-team him most of the time. Or triple him. Otherwise he’ll tear your offense apart.”

Said Dick Steinberg, New England Patriots personnel coordinator: “Rocker is a very tough, very quick, very intense player.”

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The other defensive star of the week in New Orleans, Florida State’s flamboyant Deion Sanders, concedes all this, but dismisses it as entirely irrelevant.

“Rocker doesn’t have any style,” Sanders said. “You never see him in a $600 suit. I don’t know if they even have $600 suits at Auburn.”

What they do have is a lot of defense. And in the Southeastern Conference, T.W. (Wayne) Hall gets most of the credit for building Auburn into the defensive powerhouse that Coach Pat Dye wants. Asked how he built Rocker into an Outland-Lombardi winner, the veteran defensive coordinator said: “I got out of his way.”

That was after Hall had shown him the ropes, Rocker commented one day. Then he said: “I think the best part of my game is that I am fundamentally sound.”

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What else?

“As a defensive lineman, the other important thing is that you have to anticipate,” Rocker said. “The way I do it, I put myself in the offensive player’s shoes. I study as much film as I can get.”

The gentle giant has been studying film and tapes and televised football games since he was a baby, his family said. At age 6, when his best friends were out front playing with the kids, Tracy sat contentedly in the living room on Saturdays and Sundays and watched football games with his father, a General Motors plant supervisor, who used to be a football coach himself.

One Sunday when Tracy was 7, his mother recalls, she was in the kitchen when she heard the boy and his father arguing quietly about a big play that they had just seen in a pro game.

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“Then the instant replay came on,” Mary Rocker said. “And Tracy was right. He’d won the argument--imagine that. Him 7 years old, and his father a football nut.”

Tracy is one of the family’s three sons. The younger two, Tracy, 22, and David, 19, are both on the Auburn team, both as defensive linemen.

“David plays about 20% of the time when we rest the two starters,” Hall said. “He’s a sophomore. Thank goodness, we’ve got him two more years.”

Tracy only plays left tackle. The Tigers never move him around, Hall said, because, “Offensive teams always put their best blockers on that side.”

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Furthermore, Auburn has so much strength in the adjoining positions that it would be pointless to move him. On the nation’s top-ranked defensive team, Rocker and the two other seniors in the line, nose guard Benji Roland and right tackle Ron Stallworth, all made all-conference this season.

They’re part of a long Tiger tale. In the 8 years that Dye and Hall have been at Auburn, every starter in the defensive line except two has been named all-conference.

One of those made the second team, and the other was all-academic.

Auburn’s defensive tradition goes back to the 1950s, when a lineman named Zeke Smith became the school’s first and only other Outland Trophy winner.

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Smith, like Rocker later, was surrounded by top players. In his two peak years, 1957-58--as in Rocker’s peak year, 1988--Auburn led the nation in three categories: total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense.

A legend from Uniontown, Ala., Smith was Auburn’s first football hero. Locally he was so famous and so good that another local hero, it is said, couldn’t stand him. This was Bear Bryant.

The longtime Alabama coach counted the days that he would have to put up with the Tiger terror.

And the week that Smith took his college diploma, Bryant took notice. Gratefully, he sent him a graduation present.

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Smith, who still ranks as one of Auburn’s five favorite sons, along with Rocker, Pat Sullivan, Terry Beasley and Bo Jackson, played a couple of NFL years with the Baltimore Colts.

As it happens, the Colts, now in Indianapolis, are one of Rocker’s five favorite pro clubs.

Asked for his druthers in the draft, he said: “I’d like to play for one of the five that are on the verge of becoming great teams--Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Houston and Indianapolis.

“But I’ll take any club with a good offense. I honestly feel that any club I’m on will have a good defense--so I’d like to play for the offensive team of the ‘90s.”

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The pro athletes he watches are Bruce Smith, Howie Long, Richard Dent and Reggie White.

“I’d like to be in Reggie White’s class,” he said.

First, though, there’s one more weekend of college games. And Rocker recommends the Sugar Bowl.

“The two most interesting teams are right here,” he said. “Florida State has the most exciting offense and (Auburn) the most exciting defense.”

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Take that, Deion.

Times researcher Jim Cady contributed to this story.


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