Because the coaches didn't trust his effort, they limited Fairley to two starts in 2009, a season in which he had 28 tackles and 1½ sacks. But Chizik believed in Fairley's raw talent and last August called him into his office for a heart-to-heart and a special viewing session. As the two watched a video of top NFL defensive tackles blowing up opposing offensive linemen, Chizik told Fairley, "If you want to get to this level, and I think you can, then you simply can't take plays off. Keep fighting even if you're tired. Keep battling. You can be as good as you want to be."
"My attitude changed after that meeting," Fairley says. "I realized that Coach really believed in me. I just needed to want it as bad as he did."
Fairley started this season strong, with three sacks in the Tigers' first two games, but his bad habits soon reappeared, as he added just two more sacks over the next five games. The game tapes showed that once again his intensity level went from white-hot on one play to nonexistent on the next. But an encounter with a member of the coaching staff during LSU's Oct. 23 visit changed things for good.
"In LSU's first possession of that game we got an interception," recalls defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who won the 1988 Outland and Lombardi awards. "Nick didn't come close to the quarterback, but I see him out there celebrating. I got in his face, yelling that he didn't do anything. He wanted to fight me, and he did eventually apologize, but it was like the light suddenly went on. He quit taking plays off. And good things tend to happen for us when he gives great effort. He can be unstoppable." Fairley finished the game with career highs in tackles for loss (3½ for 23 yards) and sacks (2½ for 20 yards).
"That LSU game was just, well, fun," Fairley says with a mischievous grin. "That might have been the key game of our season. It was definitely a key game for me."
With his motor revving, Fairley developed a knack for separating quarterbacks from their senses. This season he sent Arkansas's Ryan Mallett, LSU's Jordan Jefferson and Georgia's Aaron Murray to the sideline with consciousness-rattling hits. The ruthlessness has earned Fairley a reputation among some for being a dirty player—"Nick plays with a definite mean streak, and some of his hits are uncalled for," says Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy—but the big man, projected by one NFL G.M. to be a top 10 draft pick if he forgoes his senior season, has no intention of changing his hard-charging, menacing style of play.
"My mom called me once and asked, 'Why you trying to hurt those quarterbacks?' " Fairley said in that Houston hotel room back in December. "I said, 'I'm not trying to hurt anyone, but this is a man's game, and my job is to get that quarterback.' That's what I try to do on every single play."
A few minutes later Fairley rose from his chair, sweetly kissed his mother on the cheek, then disappeared into the night, his Lombardi Award still in his hands. He believed then with all of his heart that this wouldn't be the last piece of hardware he'd be holding this season—and he was right.