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Brian Winters arrived at his beloved second home Wednesday morning: Mobile, Alabama.
It's a fitting final destination for Kent State's stalwart senior left tackle, who will cap a stellar collegiate career by making his school-record 50th career start when the Golden Flashes play their first bowl game in 40 years on Sunday. Following the GoDaddy.com Bowl, the former Hudson High School star will train for his return trip to Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile to take part in the heralded Senior Bowl on Jan. 26.
"They said I can be the ambassador of Alabama," Winters smiled.
Winters was the only MAC player picked to participate in the Senior Bowl, and will become just the second member of the KSU football program to take part in the game. The Flashes' tri-captain is currently ranked as the seventh-highest tackle in the senior class by NFLDraftScout.com, and could move up by impressing scouts during the all-important practices leading up to the Senior Bowl.
"It's an exciting time," said Winters. "It feels like just yesterday I was a freshman walking in (at Kent State), having those jitters. I still have those jitters every time I come out. It's been a long ride and a bumpy ride, but this last year I couldn't ask for anything more."
The Flashes certainly couldn't ask for more out a left tackle than the consistently superior effort Winters has produced over the past four seasons.
"You think about all the games he's started and played since he's been here. He's played through your normal bumps and bruises, and always shows up and always plays well," said Kent State coach Darrell Hazell. "That's why he's in the position he's in, to be able to play on Sundays."
Since Winters' football career began to flourish at Hudson, he has dreamed of playing in the NFL.
"That was always the goal in my mind since high school. I've always wanted to do this," said Winters. "I saw my buddy do it, Bill Nagy. He was a great player (at Hudson). I knew if he could do it, I could do it."
Nagy played at Wisconsin, then was drafted in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He was later claimed off waivers by Detroit, and played guard and center for the Lions in 2012.
Winters decided to stay closer to home, committing to Kent State at a time when the long-struggling program was starting to show some signs of improvement under head coach Doug Martin.
"Other offers were there, but my parents and I sat down and had a long talk about it and we saw the best choice was right here in my backyard," said Winters. "The people I was surrounded by were great, and I felt comfortable here. My dad said it really doesn't matter where you are, as long as you play hard they'll find you."
Winters certainly wasn't hard to find when he joined the Flashes in the fall of 2009.
"I was a little heavier then than I am now actually. I was like 325 (pounds)," said Winters. "I was pudgy when I first came in."
Playing as a freshman on the line is tougher than any other position because bodies develop at such a fast pace at that age, so players with years of experience at the collegiate level have a distinct advantage over younger ones in strength and maturity. But Winters overcame the odds by earning the starting spot at right tackle as a freshman, and more than held his own.
"After I came in as a freshman and started, I knew I could only get better," he said. "Obviously (the coaches) saw something in me that could help the team, and from that I continued to build."
MAKING THE DREAM A REALITY
There's nothing pudgy about Winters these days.
Winters is now a chiseled 310 pounds and stands 6-foot-5, prototypical size for today's pro offensive lineman. His smile is pleasant, but his massive arms covered with tattoos are like a pair of warning signs clearly stating that this man is no one to mess with.
"My body has definitely changed a lot," said Winters. "Working with (strength coach Doug) Davis and the staff before, they've really helped me get to where I am right now."
Winters has helped himself by spending countless hours in the weight room.
"It's a lot of work," he said. "I did a lot of work in the offseason with people outside of Kent State, also. Then every day after practice I go in and workout still, every day. I've gotta find a way to workout, because I know you've gotta be at your peak."
As Winters' body improved, so did his performance. He moved from right tackle to left tackle four games into his sophomore year and has anchored Kent State's offensive line ever since, earning Second Team All-MAC honors as a sophomore and junior before vaulting up to the First Team as a senior in 2012.
"I've grown up. That's a big thing," said Winters. "I was 17 when I started my first college football game, so I was a young kid. My body's changed."
Strength probably isn't even Winters' top asset. His athletic ability for a man his size is what sets him apart according to Hazell.
"I think what makes him really special obviously is his athleticism," said Hazell. "He's big, he's powerful, he's fast, and he's a great finisher. He finishes his blocks, finishes when the ball carrier's down field. That's what probably separates him now from when we first got here, he's a much better finisher."
Four years of playing Division I football have also taught Winters valuable lessons that he applies well.
"He's got a great understandings of what's happening to him," said Hazell, "and he's able to shut it down when it starts to go against him."
"I know the game now," Winters agreed. "I started young, so now I know what's supposed to happen. A lot of things come natural as the experience goes on. It's just a growing process."
No teammate knows Winters any better than the man he protects, senior quarterback and fellow fourth-year starter Spencer Keith.
"He's done a great job his whole career of protecting me and leading this team, this year especially with him being a captain," said Keith. "He doesn't take plays off like some people do; that's what makes him great. He's just a great guy and I love him to death. We've always been there together."
The Flashes didn't win many games during their first 2 years together. But that all changed midway through last season, Hazell's rookie year, when a switch on the offensive line triggered the stunning 15-3 run that vaulted Kent State into the 2012 MAC Championship Game and the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
Winters was superb at left tackle, but the rest of the line was struggling mightily until Josh Kline was moved from right tackle to left guard next to Winters during last seasons' bye week.
"We knew probably from the first day of camp that's what we needed to do, but we never had the urge to talk to coach (Hazell) about it," said Winters. "The season went on and we were hurting at one side and then hurting at the other. We never had the right puzzle pieces to get to where we needed to be.
"Once they moved Kline over it was awesome. It was a big help."
Kline, who is also being watched closely by NFL scouts and will almost assuredly be drafted as well, joined Winters to give the Flashes a virtual steamroller on the left side of the line. They've paved the way for a pair of 1,000-yard backs in Trayion Durham and Dri Archer, and kept pressure off Keith throughout the season.
When a vastly improved offense suddenly joined already staunch defense and special teams units, the Flashes at long last turned into a winning outfit.
"We've had a lot of ups and downs, and as a team that just pulls you together" said Keith. "Now this season we've made something happen, and I know for him and for me personally this is something we've been dreaming of the last four years. We're just really excited for the opportunity."
DREAM WITHIN REACH
This month, all of Winters' hard work will pay off in a big way.
"After the bowl game I'm gonna be flying out to Florida soon to train, then I'm flying back to Mobile for the Senior Bowl," he said. "It's gonna be a quick 20 days until I go back down."
First thing's first: Winters would love nothing more than to help Kent State capture the school's first-ever bowl victory on Sunday.
"I'm trying to keep all of my focus on the bowl game right now," he said. "Playing in the GoDaddy.com Bowl is a great honor. Me and (fellow tri-captain Luke) Batton went down (last month) and talked to the bowl committee, and they were really great, really welcoming. It's gonna be a really good experience. And there's no better way to end the season than with a 'W.' I'm excited."
Then Winters will focus all of his energy on realizing his dream of playing in the NFL.
"(The Senior Bowl) is a job interview really, to be honest," said Winters. "It's a real big thing, a big honor. My family and I, we're excited to represent Kent State. I've just gotta go in there and do as well as I can."
The next big stretch for Winters will come from April 25-27, when the 2013 NFL Draft is held in New York City. That's when, if all goes as expected, a dream will be fulfilled when "pudgy" becomes a pro.
"I'm proud of where I am," said Winters. "It's been a lot of hard work and a lot of fun. I couldn't have done it without all of these great people around me over the years."