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Auburn's Prosch ready to honor late mother, help Tigers rebound

With renewed focus, Jay Prosch says, 'I can't feel anything but peace' heading into the 2013 season. (USATSI)
With renewed focus, Jay Prosch says, 'I can't feel anything but peace' heading into the 2013 season. (USATSI)

AUBURN, Ala. -- While his Auburn teammates are sweating and groaning and basically just hoping to survive the grind of two-a-days in August, Jay Prosch is feeling something very, very different.

He feels peace.

"When I think about what life was like this time last year I can't feel anything but peace," said Prosch, a rising senior fullback/H-back for the Tigers.

In August 2012, Jay Prosch's body was going through preseason practice, his first at Auburn since transferring from Illinois. But his heart and mind were at home in Mobile, where his mother Iris was losing her battle with brain cancer. She was only 51. Prosch's three older sisters were there. He desperately wanted to join them.

"He struggled so much. He felt like he was letting us down by not being there," said Julia Haupt, Prosch's oldest sister. "We just told him that playing football, which is something he loves, is what mom would want him to do."

That Prosch would want to be home, taking care of his mother, is not a surprise to those who know him. Of Iris Prosch's four children, Jay was the most like her.

"They both have the most agreeable personality," Julia said. "They both felt they should not be the person that everybody would worry about. They felt their job was to make everybody happy and make everybody feel good."

As a young boy, Jay Prosch was a physical prodigy. The pediatrician told Iris that Jay had an unusually high muscle mass for a child that would serve him well should he decide to play sports like football.

"He would wrestle with us and he would wrestle with our boyfriends," Julia said. "They became the big brothers he never had."

It wasn't long before he became a legend in the weight room at UMS-Wright High School in Mobile. He played on the offensive line until his senior year, when he also started playing linebacker. He got some interest from the state schools, but the only offer from a BCS conference came from Illinois. He decided to take it.

"We loved him as a classic fullback," said former Illinois coach Ron Zook, the head coach at Florida from 2002-04. "Incredible strength. Incredible desire. Great kid from a great family. We fell in love with him. My wife still stays in touch with his oldest sister."

Prosch played in all 13 games for Illinois as a freshman in 2010. In the spring of 2011 Prosch was preparing for what he felt would be a big sophomore season in the Big Ten.

Then the call came. Iris Prosch had been diagnosed with brain cancer.

"I told him to go home and stay as long as he needed to," Zook said. "We would figure out the football part later."

Prosch said he went home for about a week. He thought seriously about staying and just forgetting about school and football. Iris Prosch would have none of it.

"She said I had to go back. I had to live my life," Prosch said. "So that's what I did."

Iris Prosch was able to make the trip to Champaign to see some games in 2011, but it was clear that her condition was deteriorating.

After the 2011 season, Jay made the decision to ask for a transfer to Auburn, where he would be immediately eligible under the NCAA's family hardship rules.

In the summer of 2012 the family gathered in Raleigh, N.C., where Julia Haupt was about to give birth to a son, Crawford. It was Jay who got his mother back to Mobile and cared for her in the days leading up to his departure for Auburn training camp. With the massive arms that were developed for blocking 300-pound linemen, Jay Prosch would carry his mother from room to room.

"It was a hard way to send him off to training camp," Julia said.

But to training camp he went while the sisters gathered in Mobile to help their mother. The four of them would group text constantly. At night he would talk to Julia to find out how bad things had gotten. During one of those conversations he learned that his mother had elected to stop her treatment. It would now be just a matter of weeks.

"Football just didn't seem very important anymore," Prosch said. "I just wanted to be at home with them. I was afraid I was going to be here practicing football when it happened."

Gene Chizik was entering what would be his last season as head coach at Auburn. He told Prosch to go home and take as long as he needed. So in the middle of training camp Prosch went home for two days.

"I went and I came back and that was that," he said. "I felt I got my last words in."

"He didn't want to go back," Julia said.

On Sept. 1, the three sisters were driving from Mobile to Atlanta, where Auburn was going to open the 2012 season against Clemson in the Georgia Dome. They were going to be there to support their brother, who would play his first game in an Auburn uniform. During the drive came the call that Iris Prosch had slipped into a coma.

"We decided to keep going to Atlanta so that we could tell Jay in person," Julia said. "We would tell him after the game."

Auburn lost the game 26-19. The sisters delivered the news to their little brother and together they headed back to Mobile.

"The next night we were all together and the pastor was there," Julia said. "He stood over her and said 'Iris, your kids will be OK. They want you to move on. They want you to be whole again.'"

And she was.

Jay Prosch thought about staying in Mobile for a while to help his sisters as they put their mother's affairs in order. That would mean he would miss Auburn's next game at Mississippi State.

The sisters said no.

"Jay knew that mom would want him to play in the game," Julia said. "He was definitely going back."

"They were right," Prosch said. "My mom was the most unselfish person I've ever known. She would have been upset if I had not played in the game."

The 2012 season at Auburn was not a good one. The Tigers finished 3-9 (0-8 in the SEC). Just two years removed from a national championship, Chizik and his staff were fired. Playing fullback, Prosch was primarily a blocker and carried the ball only 12 times.

Enter new coach Guz Malzahn and his run-first spread attack. And he likes what he sees in Prosch.

"I just think he has a chance to be something special in this offense," Malzahn said. "With his size and strength, he really gives us a dimension we haven't had before."

Prosch will be a combination fullback/H-back. He is a devastating blocker but has also proven that he can catch the ball.

"He allows us to do some things we couldn't do when we won the national championship in 2010," said Scott Fountain, who coaches the position.

"I don't want to look too far down the road. I've learned not to do that," Prosch said. "But I'm excited about this season."

And so are his sisters. They have already made plans to attend Auburn's first three games of Jay's senior season and hope to make it to more as a group. It is what their mother would want them to do.

"My mother was an extremely moral person," Prosch said. "She taught me how to be a good person. All the values I have -- how I should live my life -- are because of her. I wouldn't be the person I am without her."

Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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