BATON ROUGE, La. – Nobody expected him to stand up and say anything Friday night. He was just the kicker. He wasn't even the field-goal kicker. Just the kickoff guy.
But by the time James Hairston was done speaking, done baring his soul, done talking about the loss of his mother when he was 13 and the effect this team has had on his life, there were tears coming down the faces of much bigger men.
And the Tigers were ready to be national championship contenders again.
"This is a family," said linebacker Lamin Barrow, who admitted he cried listening to Hairston speak. "If there was any doubt this is a family, it was over after that."
Yes, there were other motivating factors in LSU's come-from-behind 23-21 win Saturday. There was the bitterness of losing at Florida and falling apart down the stretch a week before. It was the embarrassment of seeming like a shadow of last year's national runner-up team. And it was the sound of some of the South Carolina players yapping during pregame warm-ups and crossing midfield to do so. A couple Tigers even believed they saw Gamecocks stomping on the Tiger eye in the middle of the field. Really? After one home win, they come in and do this?
"A sign of disrespect," said Barrow. The Tigers marched into the locker room after that perceived injustice and the yelling bounced off the locker-room walls. They took the field angry and intent. It showed.
"If you're a Tiger and your back's against the wall," Barrow said, "there's nothing to do but come out scratching."
But it was also Friday night. It was the team meeting held without coaches where several Tigers, including the kicker, spoke up and forced this wayward season back on track.
"It was intense," Barrow said. "We had to get everybody's minds right. We're not used to losing around here."
Most of the attention all week was on South Carolina's sudden supremacy. Were the third-ranked Gamecocks national championship material? Could they beat Georgia, LSU and then Florida, all in a row? Was this the year when Steve Spurrier traded his oft-tossed visor for his old SEC crown?
As for LSU, the questions were mostly negative. Namely, does Les Miles even know what he's doing? The beloved former Saints quarterback, Bobby Hebert, now a radio commentator with the nickname "Cajun Cannon" for his outspokenness about all things LSU, said before the game that Miles should "be a figurehead" and "get out of the way" of the offensive play-calling because he's "in over his head." For much of the game Saturday, Hebert looked prescient. A lot of the offensive play calls were head-scratchers, even leading to boos. A fade pattern on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line early in the fourth quarter that sailed way out of bounds was only one source of aggravation from the home crowd.
Yet there were more powerful forces at play that would save Miles and his Bengals. There was the home field, the Bayou voodoo that always seems to turn losses into wins here.
"Let me tell you," Miles said after the game with a knowing smirk; "that was Death Valley. That was the place where opponent's dreams come to die. It was spectacular. It started early, and it went late. It was with us the whole night. It was spectacular. I recognize the advantage that this team had in this stadium."
There were more tangible reasons too. Like John Chavis' defense. A lot of LSU fans don't think Miles has any north pole on offense, but absolutely zero people think Chavis is lost. "He knows," said Karnell Hatcher, who finished his career last year as a linebacker and watched from the stands tonight. "He knows what plays to call when. He knows."
And this game did swing on defensive plays. South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw made one big mistake, and that was a throw picked off by safety Eric Reid at the LSU 49 late in the fourth quarter. Reid ran the ball back to the Carolina 22, and that set up the go-ahead field goal. Then came the true foot-stomp, as South Carolina native Sam Montgomery bolted off the end on third-and-long and bulldozed Shaw in a sack that sent the entire home crowd into an earth-shaking frenzy. Montgomery waved his arms and trounced on the turf like Godzilla, screaming into the night air in defiance. That was LSU football in its rawest, nastiest form. South Carolina hustled down the field to make it close again, but all the uncertainty of the week was gone by then. LSU was back, and only the clock truly stood in the Tigers' way.
It was as if some order was restored. LSU is still LSU, and South Carolina is still South Carolina. At least for one pivotal night. After the game, Spurrier threw his quarterback under the bus, saying, ''I don't know if he got hit in the head tonight or not. Some of his decision-making was a little off." But the OBC should know better. This is Tiger Stadium. Everyone gets rattled. Everyone who walks on this field in anything other than LSU colors is a little off. Always.
The only debate now is why. Montgomery was a huge part of it, and Reid was a huge part of it, and the patchwork but proud offensive line was a huge part of it, and Jeremy Hill, with his 50-yard touchdown run in the second half, was a huge part of it.
Yet the true game-changer may have come the night before the game even started. It was the LSU players standing up and testifying to their love of this team. It was Hairston, just a kicker, saying that he could have been depressed after his mother died but he turned to football instead. He said it was a dream to come here and play in this place, with these men. And then he started naming them, looking them in the eye, pointing to them, calling on each of them to come together.
"He reminded us of who we are," Montgomery said. "He was the quiet sniper who came to the front lines."
A lot of people will follow Miles' lead and credit the football gods who hover over Tiger Stadium and make eerie things happen. But the players know another reason for this season-saving win. It's the mammoth defensive end bearing down, and it's the no-name kicker standing up.
It's the home of the Tigers, yes. But it's the heart of the Tigers, too.
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