TAMPA — Fifty starts.
For Auburn University senior center Reese Dismukes, it’s a prideful milestone. The Outback Bowl represents the finish line, the final chance to line up as a Tiger, the last chapter in a roller-coaster career.
Three days after he moved into Auburn as an early January 2011 enrollee, the Tigers won the national title. He has worked under two head coaches. He has experienced one of the most unforgettable plays in sports history — the “Kick Six’’ to cap the 2013 Iron Bowl.
He had an ill-advised early snap that led to a final-minute fumble and a loss to against Texas A&M, effectively ending Auburn’s shot at reaching the College Football Playoff. He has been winless in the SEC. He came within 13 excruciating seconds of capturing the BCS championship.
Through all the changes, through all the exhilaration and heartbreak, there was a constant.
Thursday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, he makes his 50th start at Auburn, two off the school record of former tackle Lee Ziemba. Dismukes will depart as one of the most decorated linemen in Auburn history. He won the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation’s top center. He was a team captain, a first-team All-American. And he was a four-year starter, a rarity in the SEC.
But for Dismukes, the longevity associated with 50 career starts might be his most meaningful accomplishment.
“The first rule of life is, you’ve got to get out of bed, you’ve got to show up,” said Dismukes, 6-foot-3, 295 pounds, from Spanish Fort, Alabama. “I give my parents a lot of credit. They did a great job of raising me. They made me work for things. So I appreciate that kind of life.”
Dismukes has been nothing but a worker — and a leader — at Auburn. He touches the ball first on every play, a catalyst for coach Gus Malzahn’s fast-paced, organized-chaos approach to offense. He’s the sounding board, a liaison between the players and staff.
“Really, he’s a coach,” Malzahn said. “He’s that important, that intelligent. He’s such a critical part of everything we do.”
Dismukes said he has loved his Auburn experience and appreciates every moment — partially because he nearly threw it all away.
He was arrested for public intoxication prior to the 2012 opener, resulting in a suspension, then a new approach.
“Obviously, I was in a situation where if you screw up again, you’re gone,” Dismukes said. “I was probably about as low as you can go. It was either grow up, or possibly ruin a chance to do great things.
“I think I was able to take the next step. The light came on. It didn’t happen in one day, it took a little work, but in a sense it did (cause an immediate behavior change).”
Those days are far behind Dismukes, who has great respect from his teammates.
“He’s our spokesman,” Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “He can be funny and goofy away from the field, but he’s all business mostly. He’s not real complicated. It’s about hard work, doing the right thing and being accountable to yourself and your teammates. That’s what he stands for.”
Dismukes said he wanted for nothing while growing up. His father owned a plumbing business and his mother was a pharmacist. But he never fell for materialistic trappings. His bliss is hunting and fishing. In the summer, he likes to hang out by the water and play some golf.
“I don’t need a lot to be happy,” Dismukes said. “If I come into some money (in the NFL), I don’t think it will change me. Maybe I can buy some hunting land or a boat, and that would be nice, but I don’t see a lot changing in my life.”
It’s that kind of level-headed approach and consistency that has marked Dismukes’ time as the Auburn center. And those are the qualities that will be greatly missed by Malzahn.
“Not everybody likes being a center, but I love it,” Dismukes said. “When I was a sophomore in high school, they told me I needed to be there if I wanted to go to the next level. I took it and ran with it.
“I wanted to play right away and start as much as I could. To think I’m going to start my 50th game, that’s cool, that’s awesome. You just try to show up and do your job. There have been good times and bad times, but it all led to me being who I am.”
Dismukes never wanted to be the center of attention. But he’s Auburn’s stabilizer, its leader and its constant.
“It’s going to be hard to imagine Auburn football without him,” Uzomah said.