TROY — It started to hit J.L. Gaston on the bus ride home from Lafayette, La., last Saturday night.
Suddenly, time is short for Troy seniors, particularly the band of brothers that is the Trojans’ veteran offensive line. The regular season ends Friday at home. Barring an upset of nationally ranked Appalachian State, which would make Troy bowl eligible, their college careers will come to a close.
“Football has been a part of my life since I was 8 years old,” Troy’s senior right tackle from Monroeville said Tuesday. “More than half of my life has been spent playing football.
“The four years I’ve been here have been really great with people I’ve met, the coaches and relationships that I’ve made. I know it’s going to be tough to play the last one here.”
Gaston is one of three multi-year starters up front. He has started 37 consecutive games, second on the team only to fullback Zacc Weldon’s 50.
Just behind Gaston is senior left guard Kirk Kelley, who has started nine games this season and 35 in his Troy career. That’s the same number of career starts by right guard Tristan Crowder, who has started 10 games this season.
Gaston, Kelley and Crowder are the veterans of an offensive line with 144 combined starts. Sophomore left tackle Austin Stidham has 24 career starts and junior center Dylan Bradshaw of Enterprise has 13 career starts, including all 11 this season.
A fourth senior offensive lineman, Bobby Klemm from Hoschton, Ga., has started three games in 2019 and also will play in his last home game on Saturday.
“Those are good players. They came into this program not off a 10-win season but off a 4-8 and whatever it was before that,” Troy head coach Chip Lindsey said this week. “But they bought into the vision, they believed in Troy and they believed in the coaches that were here then. I think they had a great experience here.
“Those guys are going to be missed tremendously because they’ve all been really steady for us. Kirk came into this season off knee surgery and has really been consistent.
“Tristan, the same thing. He had one miss early in the year. J.L.’s been as solid and steady as you’d want. They’re just good football players who are very solid and even keeled and we’re going to miss those guys tremendously.”
Offensive coordinator Ryan Pugh, who works closely with this group, said it will be an emotional day.
“Those three starters, and you really can include Bobby in that group, have a lot of experience and they have put a lot into this program and they deserve to go out the right way,” Pugh said.
“Having coached and played and seen and been a part of the last home games for different players, I think you have to control your emotions at the same time. You can’t get too high before the game and dwell on the fact that it’s the last time.
“I would hope that those guys will do what they do every week and leave it all out there on the field for us and for each other being that it’s the last time they are going to play in that stadium. I know there is a level of excitement in the team right now to get out there and really get a bad taste out of your mouth after last week.”
Crowder said sharing the moment with his fellow seniors will be special.
“Me and J.L. have been here. We came in together and we have been going right side four years strong,” Crowder said. “We have always held down the right side. Me and Kirk and Bobby, we always have fun; they are my brothers. We always pick on each other, but we always take care of each other. I’m going to miss those boys.”
Kelley said last week he was proud that the seniors worked through adversity and helped keep the season from being lost.
“It’s not the season that you want, that you expect from us. But it’s a learning experience just dealing with the ups and downs and adversity and trying to keep guys heads straight even though it’s not going how they want it to,” Kelley said.
“These guys, they’re working. Every day we’ve been practicing better. We’ve practiced a lot better this half of the season than we did to start off.”
Gaston seemed surprised by how close the group has become.
“It’s been really cool. I never thought when I got here that I would create a relationship like I did with all four of them,” he said. “I’ve been living with Bobby for over a year now. I’ve been playing next to Tristan for now the third consecutive year.
“Kirk was here obviously a year before we were, but the relationship we have, we’re able to joke around and laugh. It’s just something special for us to have. It’s something we’ll be able to carry when we’re older.
“I know we’ll keep in touch and know about each other’s lives. All the blood, sweat and tears, we fought together. It’s something we created a bond with.”
But forgetting the blood, sweat and tears formed on 100-degree days in the summer and forged on fall Saturdays, a unique part of their relationship is about to end. That’s unnerving. But the friendships will endure.
Gaston, whose trademark long, curly hair will soon be on the chopping block for a “real-person haircut,” as he called it, once let his fellow linemen take a flat iron to his hair.
“The scary thing is it looked just like my sister,” Gaston said, shaking his head.
They’ll miss those times, too.