HERE HE COMES, MR. ALL-AMERICA STRIDING THROUGH the marble-floored lobby of the Hilton in downtown Houston, smiling luminously. It's an early-December evening, and Nick Fairley, wearing a tailored dark suit and blue tie, is carrying in his right hand the 40-pound Lombardi Award that he was given two hours earlier for being the top lineman in college football in 2010. As the 6' 5", 298-pound junior defensive tackle lumbers toward the elevator, he pauses to pose for a picture with an admiring fan—"You are just amazing, and so darn big!" gushes Miss Texas USA, Ana Rodriguez, who attended the ceremony—then rides up to the 11th floor. He enters suite 11071, where he hugs his mother and father. Then, up here in the quiet, with darkness falling outside the window, the three dream of approaching opportunities. "I definitely feel like I can be the difference maker in the national title game," Fairley says softly. "It's all about being a disruptive force, getting in the backfield and wreaking havoc on what Oregon is going to try to do. I don't care how fast they snap the ball. If I can get to that quarterback, good things will happen for us." Indeed, good things did.
WHEN THE OREGON OFFENSIVE LINE GATHERED TO WATCH TAPE of Fairley in mid-December, there was a palpable sense of awe in the room. At times this season Fairley, who led the SEC in 2010 with 10½ sacks and 21 tackles for loss after starting only two games the year before, was more unblockable than any defensive lineman in the nation. "He does things that not a whole lot of guys in the country can," says Oregon senior center Jordan Holmes. "He's the total package."
Ever since his first down of organized football as a six-year-old in Mobile, Fairley has been creating chaos on the field. "His very first game, Nick didn't know what to do and where he should go," says Fairley's father, Herbert Rogers, a retired processing technician for DuPont. "So we just put him over the center and said, 'Get the ball.' On his first play he tackles the quarterback, forces a fumble and recovers the fumble. The very first play! Ain't nothing changed since then. Just tell him to go get the ball, and trust me, he will go get the ball."
Coming out of Williamson High in Mobile, Fairley committed to Auburn but failed to qualify academically, so he spent two years at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss. "We dropped him off there, and 30 minutes later my phone rings and Nick says, 'Mama, I want to come home,' " says Fairley's mother, Paula Rogers, a custodian for the Mobile public schools. (Fairley is Paula's maiden name.) "I told him to hang in there and stay focused. He did. The whole experience was eye opening. It changed his life."
Fairley redshirted his first year at Copiah-Lincoln but got through it thanks to the emotional support and frequent physical presence of his parents, who made the 200-mile drive from Mobile to visit him nearly every weekend. "That probably saved my football career right there," Fairley says. "They kept after me and made me keep working. One thing they've always done my whole life was teach me the value of hard work."
Fairley trotted onto the field the following season and immediately became Copiah-Lincoln's most dominating player. In seven games in 2008 he had 63 tackles and seven sacks, despite facing constant double and triple teams. What made Fairley so special? His explosiveness after the snap—it often looked as if he knew the count better than the offensive lineman he faced—and his ability to manhandle blockers at the point of attack. "You can't teach what he does," says Kendrick Cleveland, who was Fairley's basketball coach at Williamson High, where he averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds as a senior. "I saw that explosiveness on the court. After his redshirt season I told him, 'We'll let the SEC have one more year without you, then you'll go and rip it up.' He really grew up in juco, both on and off the field."
Shortly after his final game in Wesson, Fairley told his parents that he was leaning toward recommitting to Auburn. But according to his father, in late December 2008 Alabama linebackers coach James Willis called Herbert and suggested that Fairley visit Tuscaloosa. As soon as new Auburn coach Gene Chizik heard of the Tide's rising interest in Fairley, he immediately took a private jet to Mobile, where he met Fairley and his father at a local airport. "Nick can be a part of something special at Auburn," Chizik told them. "He can be a piece of the foundation that we're building for our program." A few days later Fairley became one of Chizik's first committed recruits.
YET THERE WAS A KNOCK AGAINST FAIRLEY WHEN he arrived on the Plains. "You could tell he was a very instinctive player, but he also took some plays off," says Ted Roof, Auburn's defensive coordinator. "For him to be truly special, he needed to have that motor going on every play."