Players Emory Blake, Philip Lutzenkirchen and Corey Lemonier did their 7 a.m. workouts in Auburn, cleaned up nicely then hopped on a plane with head coach Gene Chizik, bound for Hoover and the SEC’s annual rite of hype.
It was the first of many days to talk about the coming football season.
But this is a new normal for Auburn’s camp and has been since June 9, when offensive lineman Eric Mack was among six people shot at a pool party in Auburn. Ladarious Phillips and Ed Christian, who had left the team but remained close to many of their former teamamtes, were among three men killed.
So, when Chizik got up to speak to the record 1,100-plus media members Wednesday, football was not subject No. 1.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to start out to thank — first opportunity I’ve had to publicly thank — so many people for their outpouring of love and prayers and emails and phone calls to the Auburn family since that tragic night,” Chizik said in his opening remarks.
More than a month has passed, not nearly enough time to work through it all and join the rest of the world they know in pure focus on football.
There was plenty of football talk on this day. Chizik and his three players talked about everything from the motivation derived from last season’s five losses to the football acumen brought by two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian Van Gorder.
They talked about Lemonier’s weight gain, up to 250 pounds, and focus on becoming a run stopper, not just a
They talked about Blake’s frustrating battles through injuries in 2011 and mention on the preseason Biletnikoff Award watch list.
They talked about Lutzenkirchen’s role in Loeffler’s pro-style system, Kiehl Frazier and Auburn’s unresolved quarterback battle, the dimensions brought by transfer fullback Jay Prosch, 16 returning starters and Auburn’s recruiting surge up to No. 7 in the Rivals.com rankings for the 2013 class.
Chizik got his chance to weigh in on the SEC’s two new members, Texas A&M and Missouri, and college football’s recent course change toward a four-team playoff.
All of those topics were discussed, but there was no avoiding the all-too-fresh wound of this summer’s tragedy.
“We’re still working through some tough times,” Chizik said. “… As a whole, it was a very devastating event. We still have some roads to travel on that.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our team. We’ve got to keep plowing through it.”
Most affected was Mack, a sophomore who suffered non-life-threatening wounds. He’s fine, physically, and working back into football shape, Chizik said, but still working through the emotional issues.
As for the rest, the degree of difficulty depends on the player or coach and their closeness to the victims.
“I try not to think about it, just try to block it off,” Lemonier said.
Blocking it off is harder than it sounds.
“It’s nice to talk about football, but it was tragic for us, and it hit us hard,” Blake said. “A lot of guys are really distraught about the situation, and Coach Chizik did a great job of providing counselors, pastors or whatever to try to get guys feeling better.”
Lutzenkirchen, who was among players who attended Phillips’ funeral on June 15, said he and his teammates have fought through a “wild” summer.
“To lose two brothers — even though they weren’t with the program, playing with us — we are all really close with them,” he said. “If anything, it’s made our team a lot closer.”
But even a positive comes with regret.
“It stinks that you have to have something like that happen for us all to get together and realize how blessed we are and realize the situation that we’re in and how much we have going for us,” Lutzenkirchen said.
He said he’s not aware of plans to honor Phillips and Christian in a visible way, like their jersey numbers on helmets or a black band on Auburn’s jerseys. Then again, there’s one sure way.
“To see something like that,” Lutzenkirchen said, “ … made us want to work harder and honor them on the field this year.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.