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Junior Nebraska center Brett Byford (59) made the All-Big 12 honorable mention team this year. He is a native of Hartselle.
University of Nebraska courtesy photo
Junior Nebraska center Brett Byford (59) made the All-Big 12 honorable mention team this year. He is a native of Hartselle.

From Hartselle
to Cornhuskers

Byford admits 'it's definitely
cool' playing AU in Cotton Bowl

By Bradley Handwerger 340-2462

DALLAS — Brett Byford recalls a Halloween years ago, back in his hometown of Hartselle.

Not old enough necessarily to remember the days of Bo Jackson at Auburn, that didn't really matter when it came time to pick his costume for the late October holiday.

Byford dressed as Jackson, decked out in burnt orange and navy blue and wearing No. 34.

Shortly after, his idea of where he would play on the football field changed. No longer would he be a running back.

"Those dreams were kind of crushed when I looked in the mirror," said Byford, now 6-foot-3, 300 pounds. "I don't think I was born to run the ball much."

Years later, that's not such a bad thing.

As No. 10 Auburn (10-2) readies itself for Monday's 10:40 a.m. Cotton Bowl kickoff against No. 22 Nebraska (9-4), Byford will prepare as well.

However, he won't be playing for his home-state Tigers. Byford, a junior, has started at center for Nebraska since the second game of the season. He made honorable mention all-Big 12 and has helped guide an offense that averages 428 yards a game.

Ask him about playing Auburn, and, well, it's tough for him to hide his excitement.

"It's definitely cool," said Byford, a large, toothy smile plastered on his face. "It's a team I grew up watching. It's a team I paid attention to growing up. It's an awesome opportunity that I didn't think I'd ever get a chance to do."

And to think, that back in August, when Nebraska went through two-a-day practices, Byford wasn't even the starter.

Kurt Mann, an all-Big 12 center as a junior, had returned for his senior year. He played in 28 games, starting 23 of them before 2006.

But in September, he came down with mononucleosis, losing 20 pounds, and eventually his job.

Byford, who is called "Bama" by his teammates, took over against Nicholls State in the second game of the year, though he will gladly tell you that wasn't his most nerve-wracking start.

"That one was a little nervous," Byford recalls. "But I was a lot more nervous starting the next game with USC in the Coliseum."

His nerves didn't show.

"Bama came in and did the best you could possibly
hope for," said Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor, the Big 12's offensive player of the year this season.

"He was the player of the game against USC. He really stepped up."

Byford is one of two players from Alabama on the Cornhusker roster. Ryan Ford, a redshirt freshman from Winfield, is the other.

In Byford's four football seasons in Lincoln, Neb., which includes a redshirt year, he has gained the respect of his teammates and coaches.

The boy Auburn or Alabama barely recruited from Hartselle has become an integral part of Nebraska's resurrection from its unfamiliar spot in the middle of the Big 12.

"One of the things Brett did is not only did he get an opportunity to play, but when he played, he improved," Nebraska offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said.

"When he played, we functioned very well offensively."

Added Taylor: "He's the best person you could ask for. You can just tell he's a class act. He's always a high-spirited guy and never lets anything get him down. He's definitely one of the guys you want to be around."

In fact, Byford has even gained the respect of the players he will have to go against Monday. And they've only watched him on film.

"He gives great effort," Auburn nose guard Josh Thompson said. "He finishes every play. I think he's got a lot of drive. He's a hard-nosed football player."

To think, Nicholls State was his first full-time game. He played in only one other game before this season, appearing as a reserve in a win over Western Illinois in 2004.

"It has been a good year," Byford said. "Going into it, I didn't have a whole lot of game experience. I played pretty good when I got in there. They got a whole little more comfortable with me and my communication."

One thing is sure, however. Byford realizes how special this year has been.

"I can honestly say I think God has written this story because this is too sweet for me to get the opportunity to start the whole season, then come to a bowl game and play the team you grew up watching," he

"It really doesn't get a whole lot better than this."

Cotton Bowl: Auburn vs. Nebraska

10:30 a.m.

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