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BRADLEY SOWELL WASN'T HARD TO RECRUIT. THE OLE MISS OFFENSIVE TACKLE GREW UP 45 minutes from Oxford in Hernando, Miss., and his family has had season tickets for so long that Sowell has been to every Rebels home game since he was nine. "We beat Memphis 30--10," he says of that first game in 1998. "I don't remember a whole lot about it. I just remember the atmosphere and stuff. It just felt like a good place to be."
As a fan and then a player, Sowell has been to 86 Ole Miss home games in a row. But moving from the stands to the field proved rough. Sowell was redshirted in 2007, then shuttled between tackle and tight end in '08 (career stats: one reception, one yard, one TD). In '09 he moved to left tackle full time to replace Michael Oher, who by then was famous not only as an All-America player and first-round NFL pick but also as the subject of the movie The Blind Side. In the Rebels' third game that year—a Thursday night at South Carolina—the Gamecocks' Eric Norwood (now with the Carolina Panthers) spent half the night on the blind side of Sowell. Norwood had 10 tackles and two sacks, Ole Miss lost 16--10, and Sowell had a painful trip home. "It hurt me," he says, "because I hurt the school I love."
But Sowell improved from that game on, peaking in a win over LSU in which he held end Rahim Alem to a single tackle. Then last season Sowell gave up just two sacks, making second-team All-SEC and leading a line that allowed the fewest sacks in the conference.
Sowell still talks to Oher—"He's always giving me little tips, teaching me where to put my hands, that sort of thing"—and adds the techniques he gets from the Ravens' tackle to buttress his natural ability. "He's probably one of the best athletes on our team," says Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt of Sowell. "He's strong, he can really run—he does the shuttle run better than pretty much any lineman—and then he can go out and hit a golf ball 300 yards. He has really grown up here."
Nutt means that in terms of Sowell's play on the field, but it's also true in the bigger picture. Sowell has absorbed so much Ole Miss football history that his teammates tease him about it. He knows every former player who walks through the door. His family tailgates in the same spot they've had since he was in elementary school. He used to watch the players' Walk of Champions before every game, and now he gets to be in it. He always stops to hug his mama.
Sowell knows to treasure those football moments at Ole Miss: He's just one class shy of his degree in business, and he hopes to play in the NFL, where no team is likely to let him sneak back to Oxford on Saturday afternoons. The offensive line looks to be Ole Miss's strength this year, and Sowell looks to be the strength of the offensive line. He's intent on creating more lasting memories. There's one more shot at Alabama, one more game with LSU, one more Egg Bowl against Mississippi State. Sowell gets a few more walks in uniform through the Grove, a few more afternoons when his family gets to watch him play from their seats at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
"It's been just like I thought it would be, you know?" he says. "I mean, I've had times when I struggled. I'm always working hard to get better. But the experience ... that's been everything I hoped for."