The Iron's Family...

Angry Pope

All Raider
Feb 2, 2006
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Long hours on field are about to pay off for AU's star family

Sunday, August 06, 2006
Times Sports Staff [email protected]

AUBURN - Kenny and David Irons are on the cusp of what could be a history-making season.

If Kenny, Auburn's senior tailback, and David, a senior cornerback, do what is expected, they will become the first brothers from the same team to make first-team All-Southeastern Conference in the same season. They could become the first brothers selected in the first round of the same NFL draft.

It's the way David Irons Sr. meant it to be as he raised his children in the New Jersey city of Camden.

That David and Kenny were born with exceptional athletic ability came as no surprise. Two of Irons Sr.'s uncles - Gerald and Leroy Irons - played in the NFL. His father, Charlie, played in the Chicago Cubs farm system. Two cousins play in the NFL today. Grant Irons is with the Oakland Raiders and Paul Irons with the Cleveland Browns.

Irons Sr. is proud of his extended family. He was a father at 18, and he was determined his children would have what he didn't have, a father's presence in their lives.

"My father never really had a relationship with me," Irons Sr. says. "My uncles were always there for me, but no matter how much they loved me, it wasn't the same."

Irons Sr. is proud his daughter, Latoya, is successful in business, that David will graduate Monday and Kenny in December, that none of his children drink or smoke, that they are the kind of people that make a father proud.

"None of my kids are in jail or on drugs," Irons Sr. says. "My daughter wasn't a teenage mother. My two boys are about to graduate. I'm proud to have raised some good kids."

The Irons children were taught lessons of hard work, respect and loyalty. And for the two brothers, there was always football.

An early start

From the time they were born, Irons Sr. was determined his sons would excel in the game he loved. He'd been a star running back at North Carolina A&T and played two seasons with the Detroit Lions before a knee injury cut his career short. He pushed his sons hard from the time they were old enough to hold a football.

"Those were rough days," David says. "My dad was like an NFL coach. He just knew everything about football. People would come in from working late at night and see these two little guys in the park catching balls and catching balls."

David took to the game from an early age. Kenny resisted, wanting to do other things.

"I was never into waking up and watching ESPN or playing the video games," Kenny says. "David was always into it. People see me now and see how I love this game. They don't know there was a time in my life when I didn't want any part of it. My dad started us out so young. You are 7 or 8 years old and you're out in full shoulder pads in the heat when other people are at the pool having a good time."

As he looks back, Irons Sr. sometimes wonders if he asked too much.

"Early on, I told them if they were going to do it, I wanted them to be the best at it," Irons Sr. says. "I was teaching these kids from an NFL program when they were in pee-wee football."

But neither he nor his sons have any regrets today.

"He worked us hard, like we were in the military," David says. "Some kids would probably have called the cops on their dad. He threw a football at me once that bloodied my nose. He would wrestle with us. He'd say, 'When you are done, you are going to look back and thank me.'

"He'd bite his bottom lip and throw the ball real hard at us. Then, he'd give us a hug and take us for some ice cream. I look back on it and, gosh, I do thank him for that. Now we have a chance to win a national championship."

Today, David and Kenny are key players on a team ranked No. 6 in the preseason coaches' poll. David is a suffocating defender who Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville says "is as talented as any cornerback I've ever been around." Kenny led the SEC in rushing in 2005. They'll start their final college season on Sept. 2 when Auburn plays Washington State at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Both are unanimous preseason All-SEC selections. Tuberville says both are potential first-round draft picks.

"I don't know if it's going to happen and they don't know if it's going to happen, but the potential is there," Tuberville says. "My statement is based on what good kids they are, their attitudes and their work ethic.

"You add that to their athletic ability and there is potential that they could be not just first-rounders, but very high first-rounders. A lot of water has to go under the bridge between now and then, but I like their chances."

An impressive team

Andre Taliaferro likes their chances, too.

In 1992-94, Taliaferro coached the Voorhees (N.J.) Vikings, a team of 10-12-year-olds. The Vikings not only went through three seasons undefeated, they never had anything resembling a close game. Taliaferro's son, Adam, went on to Penn State, where he inspired all who watched as he fought back from a life-threatening and paralyzing injury. Five other Vikings went on to play Division I-A college football.

Two of them were the Irons boys.

Unhappy with the coaching his sons were receiving in Camden, Irons Sr. began to look elsewhere. The Vikings and Taliaferro, he decided, were the answer. Adam and David were the speedy tailbacks and Kenny was a hard-hitting linebacker on a team that couldn't lose.

"It kind of amazes me as I look back and see all the kids that came out of that program at the same time," Andre Taliaferro says. "It was competitive. I think they gained from that."

Irons Sr. was an assistant coach. He, Taliaferro and their families formed a friendship that is still strong today.

"We talk every couple of weeks," Taliaferro says. "When they were last up here, we took a picture with the boys and Adam. It was really neat."

As the Irons brothers head toward their final Auburn season, Taliaferro watches from afar with pride as they do what his son was not able to do.

Adam Taliaferro was a freshman cornerback at Penn State in 2000. Early in the season at Ohio State, he went down after making a tackle, and he didn't get up. He'd suffered a broken neck and a bruised spinal cord.

Two days later, he underwent spinal fusion surgery. Doctors told his family he would never walk again and would probably not be able to care for himself. His chance of recovery was less than 5 percent.

A year later, wearing his No. 43 jersey, Adam led the Penn State team onto the field for its season opener, running in front of his teammates as the crowd roared and millions watched on television. Among those watching on television and shedding tears was the Irons family.

"Adam, that's my man," Irons Sr. says.

Today, Adam is a healthy second-year law student at Rutgers University. But the fateful tackle against Ohio State was his last play as a football player.

Taliaferro says he looks forward to watching Kenny and David complete the journey fate denied for his son.

"Adam would have played in the (NFL)," Taliaferro says. "I don't have any doubt about that. He didn't get to do it, but it's like somebody else in your family getting there. I've watched them have their struggles, overcome their struggles. Now you just pray they stay healthy."


A strong family

When David and Kenny were young, their father and their mother, Linda Irons, were divorced. Later, Irons Sr., who worked for UPS and had remarried, was transferred to Atlanta. His sons stayed in Camden, but they soon joined their father and stepmother, Tee.

Irons Sr. became a successful sports agent. Today, he is co-owner of American Sportsplex, a bustling gymnasium in Duluth, Ga. He and his partners also own the Georgia Training Alliance, which trains hundreds of high school and college players each year.

When David was in the ninth grade and Kenny was in the eighth, Irons Sr. moved his family to Dacula, Ga, where their journey to football stardom began in earnest. David was the star tailback and Kenny the fullback. After David graduated, Kenny played tailback and rushed for almost 2,000 yards as a senior. For both, college offers came by the dozens.

Kevin Maloof is going into his 16th season as Dacula High School coach. He says coaching the Irons brothers was one of the highlights of his career.

"They are both great kids with good personalities, fun to be around," Maloof says. "On the field, they were competitors, buddy!

"David was a gifted athlete. He was probably the quickest kid from Place A to Place B I've ever been around. You see that on the college level with him breaking on balls and blanketing people. Kenny was a momentum-changer."

As David and then Kenny left Dacula, neither could have anticipated the challenges that lay ahead. Their determination and their character would be tested in very different ways.

A test of wills

When David was 18 months old, his father says, he had an allergic reaction to soy milk. He spent three days in intensive care. His heart stopped and doctors feared he wouldn't live. Though doctors told his family there could be brain damage, he seemed to fully recover.

But in the second grade, teachers noticed David couldn't remember what he read. Tests showed he was perceptually impaired. Though he was an athlete with uncommon quickness and speed, David's learning disability would put hurdles in his path for years to come.

In 2001, David signed with Auburn. But he graduated from Dacula with a student with disability diploma and didn't qualify academically. He enrolled instead at Butler County (Kan.) Community College, where he first played cornerback.

"One teacher told me that David would never go to college," Irons Sr. says. "I said 'If we have the will to get through this, he'll get a degree.' Now he's going to graduate from Auburn. It's an overwhelming feeling when you think about it."

For David, it is as sweet as the biggest play, the biggest win.

"I was barely making it out of high school," David says. "Getting a degree from a big-time university and one that is up there at the top in academics is a big accomplishment for me. I'm prouder of that than anything in the world."

David had to overcome the disappointment of twice falling short of qualifying at Auburn, play two seasons at Butler, undergo two knee surgeries and successfully petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility.

Finally, more than four years after he signed for the first time, David was a starting cornerback when Auburn opened last season. He started 11 games and was a second-team All-SEC selection, though he didn't intercept a pass.

"I look back and say, 'David, you were a volleyball player,' " David says. "Last year, I wasn't as confident in myself and I was a step slower. I was still worried about my knee. I played horrible last year, in my opinion. I can see a lot of difference now. I'm back to where I used to be."

At the Capital One Bowl last season, David said he was ready to move on and try his luck in the NFL. That was before he sat down to talk with Tuberville.

"He said I could get my degree and have a great chance at winning a national championship," David says. "I told him I was going to think about it. My dad was like, 'Come back.' I said, 'No, I really want to go.'

"The next morning something just hit me. I told Coach Tuberville I was coming back, and I've worked harder than I ever have in my life."

Like his brother, Kenny had plenty of options in the winter of his senior year at Dacula High. He knew only that he wanted to go somewhere other than where David was. He wanted to make his own way.

"Through high school, I was always David Irons' little brother," Kenny says. "I wanted my own identity."

So Kenny chose South Carolina and Coach Lou Holtz, a decision that would eventually cause heartache and disappointment.

Though he expected to redshirt, Kenny got a lot of playing time as a freshman and seemed the likely starter as a sophomore. But Carolina signed top prospect Demetrius Summers and everything changed.

"They promised him he would start," Kenny says. "Coach Holtz admitted that. Everything was just given to him. Now he's nowhere. It's funny how things work."

Eventually, Kenny decided he'd had enough. His departure was contentious, but Holtz finally agreed to release him to transfer anywhere he wanted. He chose Auburn. He and his brother would play together after all.

Kenny sat out the 2004 season as required by NCAA rules. There was excitement in the Irons family as last season neared. But when Auburn lost 23-14 to Georgia Tech in the opener, Kenny hardly played.

Sitting in the stands with numerous family members, Irons Sr. wondered what was going on.

"When Kenny didn't play, I didn't get mad at Coach Tubs," Irons Sr. says. "I said, 'Kenny, what in the hell did you not do?' The whole family was there. Kenny was sitting on the couch and everybody was fussing at him."

Kenny knew why running backs coach Eddie Gran left him on the sideline.

"Coach Gran knew I wasn't ready," Kenny says. "I couldn't pick up the blitzes. I couldn't read the defenses. He wanted to wait until I was ready, and he didn't know when I was going to be ready."

It didn't take long.

By season's end, Kenny had rushed for 1,283 yards, the sixth-highest total in Auburn history, and scored 13 TDs. He goes into this season touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

"It's a great feeling," Kenny says. "When I came here, all I knew was run and run hard. I didn't know how to block or anything. Coach Gran has taught me how to read defenses, pick up blitzes and be a complete running back. I don't feed into the hype or the magazines or anything like that. You do that and you can forget the reason you are here. This team has a chance to do great things. That's what matters."

David and Kenny have made the most of their time at Auburn. They are roommates and friends, known for the good-natured barbs they throw each other's way and for their dedication to the game their father taught them as children.

"If there is one word to define them, it is persistence," Tuberville says. "They know what they want and they work hard to get it.

"They are driven."
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