Austin stood there, all 2-foot, 7 inches of him.

It isn’t every day that the sleepy-eyed little boy gets out of the car at 6:50 a.m. and looks up to see what was facing him Tuesday morning:

Anfernee McClemore standing there; all 6-foot, 7 inches of him.

But this morning, Austin was the giant, and Auburn star basketball player Ant, as his teammates call him, was the one paying homage.

Smiles, not tears

The Auburn University basketball team showed up at Beauregard Elementary School at 6:40 a.m. Tuesday to open car doors, give out stickers and offer high-fives to young students returning to school for the first time since tragedy struck more than a week earlier.

Tragedy that killed four children among its 23 fatal victims, including classmates from this school. Nearly 100 more men, women and children were injured.

The EF-4 tornado blew in with 170 mph winds on March 3, destroying everything in its path.

Beauregard and the nearby community of Smiths Station, also hit hard by the twister, are close-knit communities, the kind of places where most everybody knows most everybody.

Damage and debris everywhere, roads still closed, and schools and churches converted to command centers or refugee centers for all of last week, there was great concern about the children.

A return to normalcy and familiar structure could be a good thing. But so could walking into the front doors with a lighthearted smile instead of a heavy heart.

Early for whom?

Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl is no stranger to providing service to others. His AULIVE Cancer program was created to promote awareness and save lives through early prevention. His work with Children’s Harbor helps generate much-needed money to help children facing difficult times in their lives from illness or injury or otherwise.

He’s involved in something, or several somethings, almost every week in giving back to the community or simply making a friendly phone call to provide encouragement.

It’s not that Bruce Pearl is Mr. Perfect, by any means, but the simple truth is, he knows what it feels like to sometimes need encouragement, and he knows what it feels like to lose a friend.

And he knows what it means and why it’s important to share the spotlight on where it needs to be shining.

Bruce has a soft heart, when he’s not fired up on the court with sweat popping off his head, or him popping out of his suit jacket. In conversation last Friday he asked repeatedly, “What can I do to help?”

This, despite getting ready to play the No. 5 team in the nation the next day, and with the SEC and NCAA tournaments knocking on the door.

“How about a visit to Beauregard Elementary to help the Beauregard cheerleaders open doors for the kids coming back to school?”

“Yes, absolutely,” he said without hesitation. “I will try and get Aubie too.”

“Great! Just to be clear, it’s early, 6:45 to 7:30 a.m.”

“Second cup of coffee,” quipped Bruce, known to do more by 9 a.m. than most do in a day.

‘I asked the guys’

His right-hand man, Auburn basketball director of operations Chad Prewett, himself a valuable contributor to the community with longtime connections, took point to make sure all proper compliance rules were being followed with a college coach visiting a school. No problem, since it wasn’t the high school.

Beauregard High cheer coach and teacher Joy Edwards, along with BHS librarian Regena Spence, took the lead on getting the proper approval from school and district administrators, including elementary school principal Lisa Harris and schools superintendent James McCoy.

All of whom were very pleased to have Bruce and company to help lift the spirits of students and faculty alike.

Bruce met with the latter for lunch on Monday, as it is the teachers and staff who love and care for these children much like their parents do.

Then on Tuesday morning, it became a matter of who would join Bruce.

“I asked the guys for volunteers, and said it was volunteer-only,” Bruce said, the dawn sunlight beginning to glow. “The whole team showed up.”

His son, assistant coach Steven Pearl, took part of the team to a school in Loachapoka that also lost a student in the storm.

Meanwhile at Beauregard Elementary, joining Bruce was Chad, Ant, several other players, Aubie and the Auburn cheerleaders.

Why they came

Some of the younger kids, understandably, were much more impressed with Aubie than Bruce.

No worries, the veteran coach said.

Nodding toward an excited little girl with an orange bow in her hair and holding up his hand to give her perhaps his hundredth high-five of the morning, he summed it up perfectly:

“It’s all about that smile right there.”

Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He can be contacted at tturner@oanow.com and followed on Twitter @troyturnernews.

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Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He previously served as the news editor in New York for the nation's second largest newspaper company, and as the senior editor at several other news entities around the nation. He is an Auburn alum.

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