From the time he and his wife, Dana, met in eighth grade, Rob Pate ’02 had his life planned out. He and Dana would marry, he would play football for Auburn University, he would move on to an NFL career and they’d live happily ever after.
“Rob does not like being uncomfortable,” said Dana Pate ’02. Rob, she said, is a planner.
The road to the happily ever after took a few unexpected turns.
Pate proposed to his middle-school sweetheart in eighth grade, and the two married the summer before their junior year at Auburn. He played football for the Auburn Tigers under Coach Terry Bowden, but found his position changed when Coach Tommy Tuberville came on board.
“My position no longer existed,” Pate said. “[Before], I would rush the passer, spend time in man-to-man coverage against the receivers, and it let me drop back as a safety andline up as a linebacker.”
Pate was moved to a ‘rover’ position in John Lovett’s 4-3 defense. The main focus of this position was to cover the opposition’s best player. “It was really an honor,” Pate said. “But at the time I viewed it as a kick in the gut. Plays were now happening away from me and behind me.”
Adapting to new positions on the field was going to take a lot of practice and work, hard work. A Texas native named Kevin Yoxall ingrained the motto “work, hard work” into every football player as Auburn’s strength and conditioning coach.
“The first thing Tuberville told us was, ‘I just hired two men [strength and conditioning coaches Yoxall and Phillip Lolley] who can physically throw you out the window,’ ” Pate said.
With Yoxall, Pate and his teammates quickly learned they would have to endure some of the most intense strength training of their football careers.
“The biggest thing I remember was the first time we met him,” said Pate. “Coach Yox lined us up on the sidelines and we ran three 200-yard sprints [called gassers]. All the coaches were there and did not say a word. We would run from one half of the field to the other sideline and back.”
Yoxall told them that was the minimum amount of running they were going to do that season. “We were so out of shape as a team that we had guys throw up and quit after that. I remember struggling to get under the allotted time.”
Although the workouts were brutal, Pate believed that if he could make it through them, he could get through anything in life.
“Rob was a part of a core group of guys that totally bought into the program,” Yoxall said, adding that Pate was always ready to work. He described Pate as the “classic overachiever.”
Pate saw his strength coach as a father figure and mentor who molded him to take on any obstacle in life.
“By the end of the winter, the players could run 12 gassers,” Yoxall said.
However, no amount of gruesome workouts could prepare Pate for the summer before his senior year.
“It came out of nowhere,” said Dana Pate. “We were headed to the beach with some friends and he got really sick. The whole time we were there, he was feeling it.”
That whole summer, no one knew what was wrong with Pate. He spent a majority of his summer at the doctor’s office. No diagnosis was ever offered. “I had so many problems with my muscles,” Rob said. “I was constantly having muscle spasms and muscle cramps.” Doctors rotated different medicines and even injected him with steroids. The side effects made it a constant battle just to get out onto the practice field.
“I remember having to adjust a lot of his workout schedule because fatigue and loss of strength was a huge part of this,” Yoxall said.
“It consumed him, mentally,” said Dana, her voice cracking. “As a wife, I didn’t know what to do.” She was helpless, watching her husband suffer with no way to alleviate his pain.
Pate knew every day that passed with him in bed and not on the field sent his NFL stock value down.
However, he managed to recover enough to be ready for the first game of his senior year.
Things finally were going Pate’s way again.
He played well, but felt even better after discovering Dana was pregnant with their first child, Claire, before facing Georgia nine games later. She would become the eldest of their five children.
“I had an interception in that [Georgia] game, then one against Alabama and one in the SEC Championship,” Pate said. “That news of my kid was a good luck charm.”
Rob and Dana Pate spent 2001 NFL draft weekend in Panama City, Fla., but his NFL dreams weren’t dead. His parents called on Saturday night at 5 p.m. and said the San Diego Chargers wanted him to report to training camp—at 7 a.m. the next morning.
He made it on time.
As a signed free agent, no starting position was guaranteed. He was already uncertain of his future because he could be cut at any time. “I told them, ‘If you’re going to cut me, cut me now.’ ”
If Pate was cut from the Chargers too late, he would miss the deadline to apply for the fall semester at Auburn and delay his plans to get his degree.
Those were his plans, but once again, life had different ones.
“The best play I made in a Chargers uniform was my last football play ever,” Pate said. “We were running a blitz, and I was covering the slot receiver man-to-man. The quarterback saw [it] was going to be the man-to-man cover, so he threw a lob pass to the receiver and I met him right as he caught the ball. I hit him hard and the stadium made that ‘oooh’ sound.”
When he hit the ground, his shoulder came out of its socket; when he got back up, it popped back into place. He was released the next day even though the team doctors said he could still play.
He discovered back in Auburn that he required surgery, which led to him filing a grievance against the Chargers. “They ended up paying me for 10 games,” he said. “NFL teams can’t cut you when you’re injured.”
Pate had missed the fall cutoff to reapply to Auburn by two weeks. “Dana and I were married, and we just had our first child,” he said. “I honestly had had enough.”
Rob landed a job at Cooper Tires in Auburn, but, again, it was going to take a lot of work—8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hard work. Dana worked at a daycare so she could watch over Claire.
“In every endeavor I’ve seen in his life—in our relationship, our marriage, our children and even when he was at the tire store,” said Dana, voice faltering, “the fabric of his nature is to compete, to perform, to pour himself in and do his best.”
Pate’s NFL career might have ended, but not his drive. He finished his bachelor’s degree at Auburn in 2002, then went on to graduate in 2007 from optometry school at the University of Alabama Birmingham.
The young physician spent eight years at EyeCare Associates in Hoover before joining Basden Eye Care back in the family’s familiar home turf of Auburn.
Pate has written about his struggles and achievements in two books. A Tiger’s Walk: Memoirs of an Auburn Football Player tells Pate’s entire story, starting when he first picked up a football. The Way of the Athlete explains itself in its subtitle: “The role of sports in building character for academic, business and personal success.”
Finally, free of uncertainty, his present and future are as clear as a fresh pair of lenses. In 2014, he was named the Young Optometrist of the Year by the American Optometric Association.
“The valleys are surrounded by mountains and we keep climbing,” Pate says. “We put our faith in God, so I find my peace in knowing that I’ve given it everything I’ve got.”