EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the fourth in a five-day series about individuals from this area who play or coach in the National Football League. The NFL’s regular season began Thursday.
By DAVE HANNEMAN
NASHVILLE — At the age of 42, Craig Aukerman finds himself under the brightest lights on the biggest stage of the most popular sport in America.
But there’s not a day that goes by when — for a minute here, a few seconds there — he doesn’t reminisce about all the little stops and starts along the way.
“I have to say it has been an awesome journey,” said Aukerman, a McComb native who is the special teams coach of the Tennessee Titans and, ironically, one of four men with local and area ties on the same NFL coaching staff.
“It’s been a matter of working hard, going through the process and meeting people. Eventually you get lucky and work your way up to the NFL,” he said.
Aukerman may have been giving “luck” a bit too much credit.
Talented and versatile, Aukerman was the first-team all-Blanchard Valley Conference quarterback his junior year at McComb (1993) and the league’s defensive player of the year as a senior. He twice earned all-Ohio recognition during his prep career at McComb, and NAIA all-American honors (1997, 1998) as a defensive back at the University of Findlay.
Aukerman built his coaching credentials in much the same way, first at the University of Findlay, then at Miami (Ohio), Western Kentucky and Kent State.
He was able to make the jump to the NFL in 2010 with the Denver Broncos, then had stints with Jacksonville (2011-12) and San Diego (2013-16), where he worked his way up from assistant to special teams coordinator.
Aukerman joined the Tennessee Titans staff in 2017. He was one of the few coaches retained by incoming coach Mike Vrabel, and was elevated to special teams coach for the upcoming season.
If it sounds like a “small-town boy makes good” story line, it is.
“Growing up in a small-town farm community, that was great,” Aukerman said.
“I think it all starts with parents and family, growing up in that culture of instilling that idea of hard work and discipline and the community in general watching over you. If you get out of line in a small town, a lot of times it’s not just your parents but maybe your friend’s dad or your coach or your teacher that’s willing to offer some advice to help you along the way.”
While individuals from rural, small-town programs might often be overlooked by big-time programs, Aukerman feels they should never be underestimated.
“It’s fun to prove people wrong sometimes,” he said.
“The tendency is for people to say, oh, that guy came from a small school so they’re not able to compete at a certain level. Then that person ends up going someplace and they realize that the kid’s working really hard, he’s trying to make himself better every single day, he’s developing and suddenly they realize that, hey, that guy’s a pretty good football player.
“I think each and every year there’s someone like that, whether it’s football or basketball or baseball or whatever. It could be a kid from McComb or Arlington or Arcadia or wherever who goes in there, does good things and makes people stand up and say, ‘Wow, that kid can play.'”
More than a player, Aukerman proved to be a student of the game as well. And he credits the men who taught him more than just the Xs and Os of the game with developing in him the foundation he needed to succeed at the college and now the professional level.
“I was fortunate all four years of high school to play under Bill Banning. Kris Alge was an assistant at the time,” Aukerman said of two coaches who, over the past 42 combined seasons, have guided McComb’s program to a 339-122-2 overall record.
“In college I played under Dick Strahm (four NAIA national championships). I learned an awful lot from those men.
“Whether it’s college or the NFL, it’s our job as coaches to teach these players, to develop them and inspire them as much as we can. That’s a big part of coaching, trying to make these guys better each and every day so they can achieve a level they are not capable of taking themselves. I learned a long time ago that is the difference between good coaching and bad coaching.”
Aukerman says he enjoys getting back to his roots.
“I try to get back every summer, to McComb, to the University of Findlay. I think it helps me,” Aukerman said.
“I get to bring my wife, my kids, and tell them all the good old stories.”
Aukerman can now get a dose of those good old stories right in the Tennessee camp with Dean Pees, a Dola native, Hardin Northern graduate and former assistant to Strahm at UF; Pees’ son, Matt; and Arcadia grad Ryan Crow on the Titans’ coaching staff as well.
“With coach Pees, there’s that connection with UF and coach Strahm,” Aukerman said. “Then Ryan (Crow) came on board. We all love telling stories about how much fun it was growing up back there, playing in the BVC. Sometimes I’ll be talking about a game I played in way back when and my wife will say, ‘How do you remember the exact score and every little detail like that?’
“I don’t know. I just do. It’s always fun to reminisce a little bit.”
SATURDAY: Micah Hyde.
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