| FTBL Ross Pierschbacher's dad drives to every game - from Cedar Park, Iowa (~1700 miles to TTown)


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Impressed, that's alot of miles to put on the road, not to mention time. 12+ hours / 830 miles each way between home and Tuscaloosa.

The Iron Bowl has taken on a new meaning for Alabama's Ross Pierschbacher



Photo | Alabama Athletics

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is now heard from the speakers before sporting events in Cedar Falls, Iowa — a tribute to one of its favorite sons. This weekend, as Alabama and Auburn square off, there will be pockets of Crimson-clad fans cheering on hometown hero Ross Pierschbacher as he suits up for Alabama in his final Iron Bowl.

However, the Crimson Tide hasn’t totally swept over the midwestern town. The majority of Cedar Falls residents already took in their biggest rivalry when Iowa defeated Iowa State 13-3 in the second week of the season. Those searching for a must-see matchup on Saturday are more apt to tune in for Michigan versus Ohio State or pull for Notre Dame as it takes on Southern California.

Pierschbacher didn’t grow up watching the Crimson Tide either. The offensive lineman was hardly familiar with the Iron Bowl rivalry until ESPN released its “Roll Tide/War Eagle” film in 2011. While intrigued, he still didn’t fully grasp the hype.

Seven years can change a man, especially when five of them were spent in the Deep South amidst the nation’s most fervent rivalry. Saturday, Pierschbacher will take the field inside Bryant-Denny Stadium for a final time in his college career. It’s only fitting it should come in the game that helped teach him what Alabama football is all about.

“I realized I just didn’t like Auburn”

It started in a basement during Pierschbacher’s senior year of high school in 2013. The former four-star recruit had previously committed to Iowa following his junior season but flipped to Alabama seven months later to be a part of the dynasty head coach Nick Saban was building in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Alabama had won the past two national championships and appeared destined to claim a third straight title, much to the delight of Pierschbacher who was now watching his new team religiously from afar. By the time the Iron Bowl rolled around, the former Iowa fan was “all-in” on the Crimson Tide.

Hunkered down with his then-girlfriend he watched as No. 1 Alabama took on No. 4 Auburn for the SEC West title. Even those unfamiliar with the rivalry remember what happened next.

After battling back and forth over four frantic quarters, the two teams found themselves deadlocked at 28-28 with a single second remaining on the clock. Lining up for a 57-yard field goal attempt, Alabama kicker Adam Griffith came on to win the game for the Crimson Tide. Instead, the kick fell short, setting up Chris Davis’ infamous Kick-6 return as the Auburn cornerback jetted 109 yards down the left sideline to seal the upset for the Tigers.

Like many Alabama fans, Pierschbacher stared helplessly in disbelief.

“My girlfriend didn’t say a word, and I was screaming,” Pierschbacher said. “I was in awe at the time. There was no way that happened. There had to be a flag. It’s got to be coming back. This isn’t happening. I was ticked off from there.”

Pierschbacher wasn’t fully acquainted with the rivalry until the following fall. Participating in his first Fan Day, the then-freshman offensive lineman began to notice a trend among Alabama fans who approached him.

“It seemed like multiple times little kids would be coming up and parents, too — the only thing they were asking was ‘Are we going to beat Auburn this year?’” Pierschbacher said. “That’s all they were saying. I was like, ‘Well, I hope so.’”

Pierschbacher redshirted his first season on campus and watched from the sideline as Alabama beat Auburn in a wild, 55-44 shootout in Bryant-Denny Stadium. He listened as a certain four-letter word accompanied Auburn during the pauses of ‘Dixieland Delight’ and again as the crowd chanted ‘Rammer Jammer’ at the end of the game.

“That first year when we played them, I realized I just didn’t like Auburn,” Pierschbacher said. “I’m not even playing, and I’m like this is why Alabama people don’t like Auburn. It was an awesome atmosphere. It felt like the whole state was here.”

From there, Pierschbacher would have his own say in the rivalry.


Photo | Getty Images

"Finishing it on your own terms”
When asked about his first Iron Bowl moment earlier this week, Saban responded, “I don’t think you really and fully understand and appreciate the tradition that’s involved in this rivalry until you play in the game.” As a player, that initial moment isn’t always welcoming.

Pierschbacher was introduced to the physicality of the Iron Bowl early during his first game against Auburn in 2015. On Alabama’s second possession, 6-foot-3, 242-pound running back Derrick Henry barreled into him from behind while Auburn defensive tackle Dontavius Russell continued to drive him down to the ground the other way.

“Nothing like when a running back runs in the back of your leg while a defensive lineman bends you over,” Pierschbacher said shaking his head. “That wasn’t fun.”
It was the first of several chippy encounters as Auburn’s physical defensive line went after the first-year starter, often extending hits beyond the whistle.

“I remember going into that game, they had a good defensive front, and Ross got got a couple of times, if you know what I mean,” former Alabama offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman said. “They were physical, playing dirty, trying to bend people over piles. I think that game kind of showed Ross what this game was really about. You have to turn up your game from there, and that’s what Ross did. He started really busting people in the mouth.”

Undeterred by the early setbacks, Pierschbacher put together one of his best performances of the year, recording a season-high four knockdown blocks while grading out at 88 percent without missing an assignment in any of his 78 snaps. He helped clear the way for Henry to rush for a career-high 271 yards, allowing the star back to put the finishing touches on his Heisman campaign.

“He was telling us it’s on us,” Pierschbacher said. “He was like, ‘You guys take over the game and give me the ball. It’s on you guys. Do your jobs, and we’ll go win the game.’”

Alabama did just that, giving Henry the ball on its final 13 offensive plays capped off by a 25-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-1 with 26 seconds remaining to put the final punctuation mark on a 29-13 victory in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

“We took the air out of the game,” Pierschbacher said. “We ran the same play over and over again, put two tight ends in there and ran outside zone. They just couldn’t do anything about it. As an offensive lineman, that’s the best feeling, just kind of feel like you’re taking over the game and just finishing it on your own terms.”

“We still have a sour taste in our mouth”

Pregame warmups left little room for optimism. After suffering a high-ankle sprain against Mississippi State two weeks before last year’s Iron Bowl, Pierschbacher labored gingerly as he took the field inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. A conversation with Saban moments later assured him that the plan was that he would be used in “emergency situations only” and that senior J.C. Hassenauer would start against Auburn.

Hassenauer had replaced Pierschbacher at left guard the previous week, earning SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week while grading out at 91 percent as Alabama piled up 530 yards on FCS opponent Mercer. Meanwhile, Pierschbacher had been held out of contact during practice and had limited movement in his right ankle.

“I tried forcing it because I wanted to get back in time to start against Auburn,” Pierschbacher said. “They were going to see how I felt in warmups, and I felt terrible. After talking to Coach Saban, I was just like ‘OK, I’m not going to play today.’”

However, in a game where almost nothing went according to plan for Alabama, the emergency situation the Crimson Tide was dreading unfolded near the end of the first quarter. Chasing after a fumble near midfield, Hassenaur dove to the ground only to slide head first into linebacker Tre’ Williams whose cowboy-collar neck pad sliced through the offensive lineman’s facemask, catching him in the eye.

“I was bleeding really bad, and I honestly thought my eye was messed up,” Hassenauer said. “All I’m thinking is ‘Shoot, I got to get this figured out because I’ve got to get back in the game.”

Following the freak play, Pierschbacher turned sheepishly toward his coaches before receiving the nod to go in.

“They looked to me, and I’m like, ‘Is he going to be all right?’ They were like, ‘You better get on the bike and start warming up,” Pierschbacher said. “I was like, ‘Oh, God.’ It’s loud, and things aren’t going well for us. I hadn’t practiced, I couldn’t even move my ankle, and now I have to play against Auburn.”

Looking back, Pierschbacher estimates he was about 60 or 70 percent when he took the field against the Tigers. Even worse, he can’t recall another game in his career in which he was rolled up as many times on his ankle as that day. Still, the offensive lineman’s gritty performance was one of the lone bright spots on an otherwise forgettable afternoon for the Crimson Tide. Fighting through the pain, Pierschbacher earned player of the week honors from Alabama coaches, not allowing a sack or committing a penalty after entering the game.

The accolade did little to make up for Alabama’s 26-14 defeat. Even though the Crimson Tide went on to win the national championship later that season, the blemish still haunts Pierschbacher to this day.

“We still have sort of a sour taste in our mouth,” he said. "Being from Alabama, or just being in the state you hear about that game. (Not) having those bragging rights for 365 days is something that we don’t appreciate.”

"It’s been a tremendous ride”

The 12-and-a-half-hour trek from Cedar Falls to Tuscaloosa seems a lot less daunting now than it did five years ago. Despite falling in love with Alabama during his multiple recruiting visits, Pierschbacher struggled with the idea of playing his college ball so far away home. He worried that his friends and family wouldn’t be able to watch him play and contemplated whether attending Iowa — an hour and a half away from his house — made more sense logistically.

Those concerns were eventually eased by a simple promise.

“We talked about it, and I told him, ‘Wherever you go, I’ll be at every game,’” Pierschbacher’s father Brad said. “I told him not to worry about the distance, that I’d make sure people would come and see him.”

True to his word, Brad has attended each of his son’s games, including trips to Baton Rouge, La., and College Station, Texas, which add a couple hours to the ride. The average trip puts about 1,700 miles on his car and has resulted in a couple of trade-ins. However, the determined father has braved through icy roads and the occasional flat tire to keep his perfect attendance record intact.

For Brad, who teaches and coaches football at Holmes Jr. High, the journey begins at 3:30 p.m., shortly after the final school bell rings. From there, he hits the road down I-55 South. If he’s lucky, Ross’ game is at night, affording him a few extra hours of sleep once he pulls into Tuscaloosa around 4:30 a.m. During last week’s 11 a.m. kickoff against The Citadel, he wasn’t as fortunate.

Once he’s had a chance to rest up, Brad makes his way to Bryant-Denny Stadium, making sure he arrives early enough to cheer on Ross as he gets off the bus and participates in “The Walk of Champions,” roughly two hours before the game. At that point, the grueling drive and lack of sleep are well worth it.

“I still get a big thrill when they introduce the offensive line on the Jumbotron,” Brad said. “Just seeing him warm up and hearing the crowd cheering for him —that’s always a special moment.”

This year’s trip will be bittersweet as its the last Brad will make to Tuscaloosa to see his son play. There’s bound to be a few tears as he joins Ross at halftime on the field where he’s watched him play the past four years.

“It’ll be very tough,” Brad said, choking back a few premature tears. “But it’s going to be good because it’s been a tremendous ride, and I couldn’t ask for anything more. I’m just super happy for him. Alabama’s been a special place for him and for us.”

The perfect ending

You won’t catch any tears from Ross on Saturday. The offensive lineman says he’s been too focused on game planning for the game to get nostalgic about it being his last in Bryant-Denny. If anything, he jokes that he’s jealous of last year’s seniors, who spent the second half of their Senior Day soaking in the atmosphere on the sideline during a 56-0 victory over Mercer.

“You can take it all in more,” he said before stopping himself. “But at the same time, you don’t get the same atmosphere with all the fans into it.”

After all, Saturday is the only fitting ending to Ross’ time in Tuscaloosa. One final game in front of his home fans and one final chapter in a rivalry that now feels familiar.
“It’s kind of surreal,” he said. “It hasn’t really set in yet that this is really it. I think it will that day with everything leading up to it. It’ll be pretty fun for us to go out there and have fun with each other one last time in this game in our home stadium.”
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