Kicking it with Antoine Caldwell

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Plain and simple, you win with people like Antoine Caldwell ... in football and in life.

He's not the most decorated player on Alabama's team. He's not the flashiest, the most talented or even the best player.

But I'm not sure there was a more important player this season for the Crimson Tide than the 6-3, 305-pound Caldwell.

The senior center was the rock of an Alabama offensive line that had few peers in college football. He was at his best against the best competition. His leadership during the offseason and the season was invaluable, and his can-do attitude was infectious.

He did things the right way, and others followed.

Caldwell was named a first-team All-American by the Associated Press and deservedly so. In the classroom, he just recently picked up his second degree at Alabama. He earned his general studies degree in less than three years and added a consumer affairs degree earlier this month.

The only semblance of a blotch on his college resume was the four-game suspension he had to serve last season after he violated the NCAA's textbook rule by providing textbooks for his girlfriend. Caldwell says he wasn't selling the books, which he received as part of his scholarship, but was merely helping out his girlfriend so she wouldn't have to buy her own books.

They are the only four games he didn't start since stepping foot on campus as a freshman in 2005.

The whole thing was blown out of proportion. It's something college athletes at just about every school have been doing for years. But Caldwell insists he's not bitter. If anything, he's kept his sense of humor.

When I asked him about finishing up his final classes earlier this month, I couldn't resist and sarcastically asked him, "Whose books did you use?"

His laugh was heartier than mine.

One of the best parts of my job is getting to know people like Antoine Caldwell, who along with eight other scholarship seniors was a driving force this season in returning Alabama to elite status in the college football world.

Here's my Q&A with Caldwell:

How surreal was your last practice ever (Wednesday) at the Alabama football complex?

Antoine Caldwell: Rashad Johnson and I were joking around about that. You're like, 'Man, it's my last one.' All of us have times where we really don't want to practice, but the last one here at Alabama is just another reminder that it's all winding down. You have so many emotions. You've spent your last four years doing nothing but sweating on that practice field. You kind of feel everything -- excited, sad, anxious about what's coming up next.

How does a major college football player in this day and age manage to get two different degrees before his eligibility is up?

AC: By sticking around here and not going home when everybody else does. I'd stay here in May and knock out a couple of classes. A lot of guys slack off in the summer, but I'd take a full load. You're doing nothing but working out in the summer, so why not push forward academically?

What are you prouder of, your accomplishments on the football field or the two degrees?

AC: I'm proud of all the All-America stuff and honors and the season we had this year. Those are things you'll always be able to take with you, and people are going to remember them for years to come. But there are going to be plenty of other All-Americans come through here and they're going to win a lot more games here. I'm not sure, though, that too many more will leave here with two degrees.

When you're finished with pro football, how are you going to use your degrees?

AC: I want to get into real estate. I had a job here in Tuscaloosa and worked for Richard Ellis at Advantage Realty. He took me under his wing and showed me some different tools to be successful in the business. It's always been something I was into. My high school teacher did it, and I would go to open houses with him and go over leases with him. The first thing I'd like to do is invest in real estate and get a steady flow of money, but my ultimate goal after football is to get into commercial real estate and be a developer.

Being from Montgomery, Ala., and growing up in the state, what's it mean to you to be a part of the team that restored Alabama to national prominence?

AC: The way we did it is what means so much. We went on the road and won most of our big games, and those are the things that bring you closer together. This group of nine seniors is the closest group I've ever been a part of, and this team is the closest team I've ever been a part of. The chemistry on this team was unbelievable, and to be remembered as the team that turned this thing around is something I'll always remember.

What moments this season stand out the most?

AC: The first one was the Clemson game. I remember riding back after we beat them and everybody was asleep. I was still up, though, and just had this feeling that this was going to be a really special team from the glimpses I saw in that game. The second was the LSU game, which was the most fun game I've ever played in in my life. The atmosphere was incredible. The storylines with coach Saban going back made it us against the world. They felt like we had their coach. He told us before the game he wouldn't want to be anywhere but with us. The attitude we took into that game was hard to describe and then to beat them in overtime, clinch the West and celebrate was a great feeling. The last moment that sticks out was the Auburn game. We hadn't beaten those guys in so long and then to just dominate them the way we did was a long time coming. That's one of the reasons I came back to school, to get that monkey off my back.

Rarely does a team have two first-team All-Americans on the same offensive line. How good are you guys up front?

AC: I think it's a great offensive line. We definitely have the individual talent. I think every guy we have could play on the next level some day. But the way we had each other's back was what separated us and the way we played together. There were no egos on this offensive line and no fussing. Nobody wanted the glory or the spotlight. We just meshed so well together no matter if we were in the middle of a tough game or all out bowling. I hope people remember us as one of the best offensive lines to ever come through Alabama.

How big a role did your offensive line coach, Joe Pendry, play in molding you guys into a unit that physically mashed people this season?

AC: I feel like we've got the best offensive line coach in the country. Coach Pendry lays low. He was in the NFL for a long time and doesn't get much pub, but he wouldn't let us settle for anything but excellence. He knew how to push us, and the job he did was incredible.

Is everything you guys accomplished this season diminished if you don't beat Utah in the Sugar Bowl?

AC: For us to be remembered the way we want to be remembered, we have to win this game. Coach Saban says that great teams are remembered by how they deal with adversity. People are going to be looking to see how we respond from that loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game. If we don't win the Sugar Bowl, people are going to say, 'They were a pretty good team, but they didn't finish the season.' We don't want that "but" on the end of it. The way we want to be remembered is the team that handled its business in the Sugar Bowl and was 15 minutes away from playing for a national championship.

What are some of the Nick Saban sayings you will hear in your sleep after you're gone from Alabama?

AC: Focus on the process and not the results. I'll hear that one over and over again. Coach Saban is a process-driven guy. He focuses on details and what you have to do to get where you want to go and not so much where you're going. He told us the first day he didn't want to hear us talking about SEC championships. What he wanted was to see us doing what it takes to get there.

Players who played basketball under Bob Knight used to say that Knight wasn't for everybody. Is Saban for everybody?

AC: You've got to be mentally tough if you're going to play for him. It's not that he's a bad guy. He's just demanding and knows what it takes to be successful. You can say what you want about the guy, that he's this and he's that. But my experience is that he's one of the most passionate and genuine guys you want to meet. I think a lot of the media have done him an injustice. He's not the monster some have made him out to be. Now, he'll holler and run you, and it may take you a while before you understand where he's coming from. But once you buy in, you definitely reap the benefits.

What do you hope your legacy will be at Alabama?

AC: That I was part of a group here that put the team in front of everything else and helped put Alabama back where Alabama should be. There are so many people across this state and across this country who take a lot of pride in Alabama football. We've been through some ups and downs here, but I feel good about where we're leaving this program.