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SOUTHERN FOOTBALL FRIDAYS: Ace Atkins Leads Auburn Upset over Florida

Ace Atkins is now the guy who writes the Spenser series for the late Robert B. Parker’s estate as well as his own Quinn Colson series. But the best-selling author also holds a special part of Auburn football lore as the guy who came out of nowhere to lead the Tigers to a 38-35 upset over Florida.

Terry Bowden coached No. 19 Auburn and Steve Spurrier No. 4 Florida when the teams met at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Oct. 16, 1993. Both were undefeated. By the time this rivalry game came to a close, everyone on the Plains knew the anonymous defensive end’s name after he made two critical sacks.

Atkins’ late father, Billy Atkins, had played at Auburn, but Ace grew disenchanted with Auburn in his early years at the school.

“I was going to transfer to North Carolina State, then I had a change of heart,” Atkins said. “After a few months I came back to Auburn. I had to walk on to get my scholarship back.

SI Undefeated issue Ace Atkins“So I got my scholarship back, but I was somewhat persona non grata when I came back. And it was not good. It was like escaping from prison and coming back. They had also changed the defense. To a 4-3. [The linebacker position he played] became a defensive end position and I’ll tell you what guys were a lot bigger than me and I could not gain weight to save my life.”

Atkins chuckled about his inability to gain weight.

“These days I can gain weight from now until 5 o’clock,” said Atkins who stands 6-foot-3 and weighed just 213 pounds during his playing days.

“So I was the guy they put in on third and long,” he said.

The most amazing thing about Atkins recording those sacks was the fact he was even on the field.

“I didn’t have a very good relationship with my coach,” Atkins said. “When I returned to Auburn after leaving and coming back, my position coach and I really didn’t get along. I still stay in touch with Terry Bowden, I thought he was a really sharp guy and I thought the world of him. But my position coach was a holdover from [former Auburn coach Pat Dye’s staff]. Was not a good relationship at all. He basically told me ‘You’re not going to play.’”

So how did he find the field against Florida? Atkins credits a graduate assistant friend, who pointed out to Atkins’ position coach that Atkins would be the perfect guy chase quarterback Danny Wuerfell in the Gators’ backfield.

“I went into that game and I think it was one of the best things that could have happened to me because I wasn’t expecting to play,” Atkins said. “So I was as loose as you possibly can be. I even half-assed my tape that day. So I get into the game and I don’t leave because they’re passing. It’s Danny Wuerfel and he’s in his prime airing it out for the Gators.

“So it was great. It was a fun game. But it was funny, because after that, I didn’t play that much. I was SEC Player of the Week, then it was like, ‘we’re not going to let that happen again.’ When the season was over, I was like I did my time. Though I hadn’t been happy at Auburn, I ended up leaving in the best possible way. It was an 11-0 season.”

Auburn finished No. 4 in the AP Poll, but was banned from TV and post-season play due to NCAA probation. That meant they could not play in the SEC Championship. However, the War Damn Eagles did finish as the only undefeated major college football team.

Atkins ended up on the cover of an issue of Sports Illustrated commemorating Auburn’s perfect season and his name has ended up on the front of many book covers since.

bchastain19@gmail.com

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©2020 by Bill Chastain. Photo credits: Jill Doty Photography