The Ole Miss Rebels have a Heisman hopeful at quarterback in Eli Manning. He has passed for 740 yards thus far in three games. One of the men who protect him from being sacked is Dublin’s own Ben Claxton.
“It’s an honor to play with him and it’s been a lot of fun,” Claxton said. “He can change the way a game goes.”
Claxton is in his fifth and final year at Ole Miss. This year he was selected second team preseason All-America by Lindy’s and third team All-America by Athlon’s and Street and Smith’s. He was also selected preseason first team All-SEC by those publications, The Sporting News and The Southeastern Post.
For the 2001 All-SEC center, individual awards are not on the top of his list of priorities. His goals are for the team and the team alone.
“I’m really excited about this year,” Claxton said. “We have a lot of guys back, and there’s a tremendous amount of excitement. I am just going to go out and make the most of it.”
He has definitely done that. This year’s group of 11 fifth-year seniors have a 29-18 record, including a 2-1 record in bowl games. Claxton got the chance to play in the longest football game in NCAA history last year in a seven-overtime loss to Arkansas 58-56.
“That fiasco was tough,” he said. “We were all so tired and drained.”
A 1998 graduate of Dublin, Claxton could not see himself playing college football anywhere else.
“When I visited Ole Miss, I just fell in love with it,” he said. “When I met Todd Wade and Matt Luke, they were the kind of people I would like to play football with. (Todd) Wade and (Matt) Luke set quite an example for me. They had a tremendous impact. They put me under their wings and showed me the ropes.”
Tommy Tuberville was the coach at that time, and Claxton was there one year before Tuberville took off to Auburn.
“Hugh Nall recruited me — he was with Tuberville,” he said. “That was rough for me. He sold us into thinking that he would be here the rest of my time here. I was asking myself, ‘what should I do? Should I stay or go?’ I made the right decision in staying.”
Claxton recalled the story of Tuberville leaving very clearly. He said he felt abandonment.
“There were rumors that he was talking with other schools, Auburn in particular,” he said. “He addressed the whole team, saying that he wasn’t going anywhere, and that he’s going to be a part of Ole Miss for a long time. I went back to Dublin on Thanksgiving since I couldn’t play (medical redshirt) and watched the game against (Mississippi) State on TV. The next morning, my mom woke me up and told me to turn it on Sportscenter, he was getting off the plane with an Auburn hat. It felt like a slap in the face.”
Even though the circumstances were not the best, Claxton hung in there and said he has grown so much during his career at Ole Miss. Football means more than just a game to Claxton. He said it has taught him a lot about himself.
“I’ve had a lot of time to reflect,” he said. “I was so worried and had so many thoughts about how much I have put into this. I don’t have the words to say. I have met so many people and I got to go to school for free. I don’t think any other sport teaches you more about yourself than football. I am constantly tested. Everyday when it’s hot outside, I ask, ‘why are you doing this?’ You push yourself farther. It’s the greatest game ever. There are so many things I can carry away from football — lessons of life, adversity, overcoming giants and learning to cope.”
His brother Jon has really had an impact on the way he looks at things. When he decided to come to Ole Miss, Jon decided to go with him.
“He is the only fifth-year senior not on scholarship,” he said. “I’m at a loss for words. Someone asked me what my greatest Ole Miss moment was, that is it. I can’t say enough about him. My love for the game doesn’t compare to his. He could go to another school and start if he wanted to. When Tuberville was here, he said he was going to take care of us; Jon would have been starting by now. There’s no way I’d be playing football if I had to go through what he did.”
Claxton’s greatest game came last year when they beat Alabama at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium 27-24.
“It was really special,” he said. “The year before we were blowed out and then the year before that we were so close. I’ll remember it the rest of my life, Eli leading us back.”
Even with the win and a better record than the Crimson Tide, Ole Miss was snubbed from going to the Independence Bowl because the bowl selected Alabama.
When asked about the Bowl Championship Series, Claxton believes it has tainted football.
“I hate it because it becomes a business,” he said. “I’m not fond of the BCS, but I don’t know how to work it out.”
The games he would like to forget are the three losses to rival Mississippi State. Last year, Mississippi State won 36-28 in Starkville, and two years before that, the Bulldogs outscored the Rebels 17-0 in the fourth quarter to win 23-20 on a last-second field goal.
“That was disappointing,” he said. “We dominated the whole game and then lost it.