A self-made man in every sense

Jay G. Tate, Publisher
Auburn Sports

The two-time Auburn signee will not participate in the 2017 NFL season due to a heart condition, but he's already cemented his legacy as a massive success.

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Jake Roth/USA TODAY Sports

Nick Fairley often coasted as a youngster.

The Mobile native played basketball and football in high school, but wasn't awesome at either one. He was big. He was quick. He was a friendly dude who liked to be liked. Yet he never put one ounce of thought into playing sports beyond high school until Tommy Tuberville talked Fairley into accepting a sign-and-place agreement.

"He wasn't going to college," Tuberville said.

That's the guy who signed with Auburn in 2007 — a three-star guard whose academic shortcomings guaranteed a trip to junior college and whose desire to complete two years of junior college wasn't particularly strong.

Over the course of the next three years, however, Fairley re-tooled himself. He became a defensive tackle because that's what he grew to want. He became a savage on the field because that's what he grew to need. He played with more passion because that's what felt right.

Fairley turned himself into a first-round draft pick and a multimillionaire through hard work and realizing that football was something that seized his interest and never let go. He willed his way to success.

That says a lot about a person. It's a statement that cannot be erased.

Fairley's life changed Monday when several national news outlets reported that his heart condition, which was identified before the Detroit Lions drafted him 13th overall in 2011, is expected to keep him off the field this season. His playing career may be over.

The next few months will be difficult for Fairley because, well, everything was trending in the right direction. After a so-so season with the Lions in 2014 and again with the St. Louis Rams in 2015, the defensive tackle set career highs in tackles (43) and sacks (6.5) last year with the New Orleans Saints.

His play with the Saints compelled the team to sign Fairley to a four-year, $30 million extension just a few months ago. Though the new deal doesn't include much guaranteed money, Fairley already has earned approximately $17 million playing professional football.

If money is the barometer, Fairley is a success.

Yet that's not the real story here. Fairley wasn't destined to be a great player. He enrolled at Copiah-Lincoln Community College without any understanding of time management and redshirted his first season, which allowed him to focus on academics. He made it through to Auburn, though, because he learned to enjoy football and wanted to see how far he could go.

His first season at Auburn was average — starting two games and finishing with 28 tackles as a reserve. His second season couldn't have unfolded much better as Fairley won the Lombardi Award as college football's best interior lineman and set school records for tackles for loss and sacks in a season.

A star was born.

Fairley was overshadowed in 2010 by Cam Newton, which was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because Fairley entered the season almost anonymously and that minimized pressure to perform. A curse because, well, Newton is the guy with the Heisman Trophy and the bronze statue outside Jordan-Hare Stadium. Fairley is more of a thinking man's hero; the man behind The Man.

Though Newton deserves all the adulation he's received — the quarterback is, by any measure, one hell of a football player — Fairley is at least equally inspiring. He was forced to make wholesale changes to his world view, his day-to-day life, every decision that crossed his path during the course of a regular day. All of those adjustments were made without an ounce of preparation; he hadn't been groomed to become a star. He was going to be just another kid out of Williamson High School without a long-range plan.

He instead became one of the greatest players ever to wear the Auburn uniform.

If Fairley's career ends here, he's still one of the biggest success stories I've ever encountered, that you've ever encountered. He worked his way to stardom.

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