As the Lombardi Award finalists lined up on the platform in the back of the theater, waiting to be introduced, one man was definitely the most relaxed of all.
"Why be nervous?" Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley asked his fellow competitors, chomping on his gum, giving the royal blue tie underneath his blue suit vest one last pull, not that he had any doubt it was already perfect.
Why be nervous indeed. When you're a top player on Auburn, it turns out you really have no worries. Everything works out in the end. Whether you're down 24-0 to Alabama or waiting for what was inarguably the most showy, theatrical award night in the Lombardi Award's 41-year Houston history.
Fairley took the pink block of granite trophy Wednesday night at the George R. Brown Convention Center, just like his quarterback Cam Newton is favored to win the Heisman (in a much more controversial manner) on Saturday. Just like the 13-0 Tigers are favored in the national title game against Oregon that will happen sometime this century.
It's that type of year for Auburn. Victory is expected. On the field. Or the stage. When Fairley was announced as the Lombardi winner — joining the ranks of recent NFL forces like Warren Sapp, Julius Peppers and Ndamukong Suh — his head coach Gene Chizik simply gave him a thumbs up.
That's how they (suddenly) roll at Auburn.
"I wasn't sure I was going to win," Fairley insisted. "If you look at, (Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers) had better stats than me (a nation-leading 15 sacks compared to Fairley's 10 and 1/2)."
But Fairley was the dominant defensive force on a much better team. Clemson finished 6-6.
Any advance for Auburn was matched by the leap the Rotary Club of Houston — which has maintained Houston's college football award for more than four decades with little fanfare — took into the future with its trophy presentation. With some help from Elias Events, the Rotary Club scraped the traditional dinner format, turned to a theater setting and the George R. Brown for the first time and the result was enough to leave longtime Lombardi Award observers wowed.
While the cancer fighting spirit of the night (and the four finalists' trips to visit kids at Texas Children's Hospital and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center during the day stayed), the Lombardi went 21st century with a huge projection of a giant Lombardi Award trophy on a mammoth video screen behind a stage with cushy white chairs for all the finalists and their coaches (it's easier to give that cool Chizik thumbs up when you're comfortable). Stairs down to long aisle walkways and up to the stage made for more dramatic introductions as well.
1560 The Game's John Granato kept things moving, while adding just enough laughs as master of ceremonies, and Rudy Ruettiger — the Notre Dame Rudy — served as the most wacky, loopy, bizarre inspirational speaker you'll ever hear to give this Lombardi night more chuckles than you'll find in 50 Heisman events.
"I don't care who wins the award," Rudy crowed at one point. "I'm just glad you're here." What he meant, no one quite knows.
But it somehow fit in with the night. The George R. Brown was transformed into something of a rollicking pregame party atmosphere. Booming sounds from a live marching band hit attendees even before they snaked their way up the convention center’s circuit of elevators.
Popcorn and souvenir stands (official Lombardi Award merchandise, a first this year too) stood out in the lobby.
Only, all the people milling about were in suits, ties and dresses rather than jerseys and T-shirts. The contrast made the scene even more striking.
"The setup was really cool," said Fairley, who selected his royal blue suit vest only Wednesday afternoon (Auburn won in fashion too).
If the Lombardi Award has long yearned to be an event — after having been largely ignored during its first 40 years in Houston — it would happen this night.
Named after the legendary Green Bay Packers coach who happened to also be a renowned college football offensive lineman and given the blessing of his widow when the Rotary Club agreed to give the net proceeds to the American Cancer Society, the Lombardi Award just might be ready for a higher profile.
Fairley certainly is. He recorded a school-record 21 tackles for loss this season. He was quite simply the most dominant defensive player on the nation’s No. 1 team, no matter how often he was overshadowed by Newton.
He beat out Clemson’s Bowers, Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn and TCU’s Jake Kirkpatrick — after spending two days in Houston hanging out with them. Of course, the last time one team dominated the major postseason awards as thoroughly as Auburn appears poised to this December, that USC team would be shocked in the title game by Texas and Vince Young.
Be careful what you wish for?
"I don't believe in jinxes," Fairley shrugged.
Of course not. Why be nervous?