It's probably pretty nice being Arie Kouandjio right now. He's got a pair of national championship rings to conspicuously leave around the house when he's expecting guests ("Oh, is that where they went. I can never seem to keep track of them."), he's ranked by CBS Sports as the number three man at his position for the upcoming draft, and projected to get picked up in the second or third round. He's gotta wear shades.
Five years ago Kouandjio was a heavily recruited four star high school senior from Hyattsville, Maryland. You can only imagine the despair weighing on Maryland Head Coach Ralph Friedgen as recruiting giants like Alabama, Notre Dame, and USC took note of the emerging prospect from DeMatha Catholic which, if Google maps is correct and per the scale bar at the bottom right of the screen one mile is roughly the length of a post-it note, is two post-it notes due south of College Park. I don't know that the Terps ever had a chance to bring Arie in but from what I've read, the Kouandjios seem to be a tight knit family. Having the fam in the stands at every home game had to be attractive to a young kid.
Thankfully, Sal Sunseri spearheaded a successful effort to woo him south to The Capstone. I wasn't a big recruiting follower at the time, but I remember an Auburn fan telling me that not only did we score an awesome OL recruit in Arie, but that we probably had the inside on his brother, another awesome OL recruit. That same Auburn fan called me to crow when the younger Kouandjio, Cyrus, declared for the Tigers. As the day continued, Cyrus expressed regret and uncertainty. He wasn't so sure he wanted to go to Auburn and needed to discuss things with his family. Later that day a Tweet from Arie announced to the world that his brother had sided with the angels and in doing so Arie became the first redshirt in the history of redshirts whose actions resulted in a gloating call to a rival. Arie commended himself to the fan base immediately.
After taking a redshirt in 2010, he saw action in two games in 2011 before he was forced to sit out most of the season due to a nagging knee injury suffered in the preseason. The medical staff recommended surgery.
From all reports his rehabilitation and return to form were not guaranteed but by 2012 he was back on the field as a reserve in eleven of the Tide's fourteen games.
From the Montgomery Advertiser :
"I really think that when he had the injuries and the problem, I talked to the medical staff and they gave me the prognosis for the future, it was like this is going to be a really, really tough rehab," coach Nick Saban said. "But it did not surprise me that Arie was a guy that could accomplish it, could do it, could overcome the adversity because the guy is a great person, he has great character and a great work ethic and a great student."
Saban wasn't the only one to laud his effort to return to the field. His brother told the Tuscaloosa News "A lot of the athletic trainers talk about him a lot. They call him Jason, out of Freddy vs. Jason, because he just keeps on coming." Adding, "They cut up both his knees, they chop 'em up real good and he just keeps on coming."
Chance Warmack told the same publication "Oh, man. I've seen him grow up so much, man. He's one of my best friends in terms of how he just overcomes adversity, it's tremendous."
After a lot of hard work he broke into the starting lineup in 2013, starting all 13 games that year and allowing only two sacks on a line that helped gain the second most yards of total offense per game in Alabama football history.
But the process doesn't settle for second. In 2014, he was an integral part of an offense that gained the most yards per game in Alabama football history, garnering second team AP All-American honors in addition to being named to the Sports Illustrated and USA Today first team All-American squads. He didn't just return. He dominated.
I didn't interview Arie Kouandjio for this post. That should seem obvious. This is a fan blog and not a news organization. If I had scored an interview, you can bet it would be trumpeted in the headline: "RBR Interview" or some such. I mention this because when writing about someone you have never met you come across bits of information that are hard to contextualize. At some point Arie Kouandjio contemplated giving up football.
The source for this didn't say at what point in his career at Alabama he had doubts about his athletic future but I would be very surprised if it wasn't during his rehabilitation. "I thought from a medical standpoint it would be tough. From a character standpoint I thought it was a good bet on that particular guy." said Saban, acknowledging that a return to form at this level of athleticism requires more than just good genetics. There are mental hurdles to overcome.
Two brothers join together to set the world on fire. That's the narrative at least, but Arie got sidelined. I imagine it was amazingly frustrating. Whatever the issue and time, which I stress is only guessed at, Cyrus noted a change in his brother and surreptitiously called their father who then called Arie.
Again from the Montgomery Advertiser, "My dad called me." said Arie, "I thought it was like magic at first. My dad called me and talked to me and reminded me where I get my strength from and my resiliency, and I'm here today." Speaking of narrative, there's a nice parallel between Cyrus' call to dad and Arie's Tweet; brothers delivering each other from football uncertainty.
Back to the beginning, it's probably nice to be Arie Kouandjio. Assume he had quit football. The fall back position was not too shabby. He was a standout in the classroom too. His efforts in 2014 earned him second team Capitol One Academic All-American honors for his work towards earning a master's in economics, awarded last month, one year after he got his bachelor's in finance. I never took any finance or economics classes in my time at the Capstone, but my brother in-law did. "It's bloody ridiculous." he said, although he didn't use the word "bloody." Kouandjio made the Dean's List more than once and was a four year member of the SEC Honor Roll. Not bad.
We celebrate the idea of a student-athlete because we admire those whose gifts transcend disciplines. We may well call Arie Kouandjio a scholar-athlete. Not to descend into hagiography, but he has been a tremendous part of what might be my favorite Alabama team to date. I look forward to hearing him say "University of Alabama" when they show the offensive lineups on Sundays. If he decides to cast his lot in the financial, or any other, world, I look forward to telling those who wonder why Arie left football that he did so because football is not the only challenge he has positioned himself to take on. Said Nick Saban, "He's a pretty relentless guy."
Thanks for representing us Arie, and Godspeed.
Alabama's Arie Kouandjio goes 1-on-1 with Auburn's Gabe Wright at Senior Bowl practice.