Austin is the host with the most - food

Fajita nights hosted by Clemson guard and his wife have fostered team chemistry

pstrelow@thestate.comDecember 3, 2009 

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Clemson guard No. 65 Thomas Austin points to the crowd standing behind Howard's Rock before Clemson defeats Virginia 34-21 at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2009. Clemson's last home game of the year is to clinch the ACC Atlantic division and advance to the conference championship game against Georgia Tech.

RICH GLICKSTEIN/RGLICKSTEIN@THESTATE.COM

— When Clemson senior left guard Thomas Austin got married a little more than a year ago, his wife said he laid down one law:

Don't buy chicken breasts for more than $1.98 a pound.

If the public saw the amount Austin's teammates consumed every Thursday night, Margaret Austin said, we would know why.

"We would be broke," she said. "You can never fill them up."

Rules and discipline come with the package of Austin's extensive military background.

Both of Austin’s grandfathers served, and his father, Tom, graduated from West Point and now works with Officers of Christian Fellowship there.

But that paints only part of the picture for why Austin has developed into one of Clemson's unquestioned leaders.

Coach Dabo Swinney suggests it is rare for an offensive lineman to emerge as the figurehead in a locker room. Yet heading into Saturday's league championship game, Austin's fingerprints are all over Clemson's trek.

His was the steadiest and most memorable voice among players who spoke during halftime of the first game against Georgia Tech, which the Tigers cite as their unifying point. Austin broached the notion of a players-only meeting with star running back C.J. Spiller after the Maryland debacle threatened to induce an all-too-familiar tailspin.

"Thomas is always the guy when something needs to be said; he's the one who says it and brings the team closer," center Dalton Freeman said. "He's always been the glue that holds this team together."

Austin said he began taking leadership seriously when his wrestling and offensive line coach at Camden High - current Richland Northeast staffer Richard Bonneville - pulled him aside for a talk about influencing through example.

Austin is the team's only married player, as he and Margaret - who met as freshmen - elected to tie the knot at their relatively young ages because they saw no need to wait.

When Austin's football career is over - he projects as a mid- to late-round pick in April's NFL draft - he foresees either enrolling in seminary or doing mission work. He and Margaret have been inspired by friends in East St. Louis, Ill., who help feed inner-city athletes in need.

They already have their own little, so-called ministry - known simply as "fajita night."

Almost every Thursday night, as many as 25 teammates squeeze into the couple's two-bedroom duplex after practice for a tradition Austin began about two years ago.

Austin grills between 15 and 25 pounds of chicken or beef for fajitas, the centerpiece of an evening that includes video games and storytelling.

The home can get so cramped that Margaret has to force everyone out of their small kitchen to open the oven or refrigerator.

While the event began before Margaret became an official football family member, participants say she has changed the event for the better - in as much making sure folks have utensils as by having the brunt of the cooking done by the time players arrive.

"She brings the class," tight end Michael Palmer said. "Everybody starts pigging out, but she makes sure we all stay in line and have some manners. She really is the mom for this group."

After the offensive line class featuring Nathan Bennett, Dustin Fry and Roman Fry exited following the 2006 season, Austin said he realized that even though he was only going to be a redshirt sophomore, he had become the veteran member of a rebuilding line.

So to harness chemistry, he and roommates Tyler Grisham and Tribble Reese invited teammates - mostly linemen - to their place for dinners.

The festivity has expanded to include any player who wants to come, although the majority of regulars remain offensive players.

And the Austins surmised it best to invest in a Sam's Club membership to stock the basement freezer.

After 35 pounds of meat were devoured at one gathering, the Austins have scaled back to stay out of the poorhouse, figuring players would devour whatever food was available, regardless of amount.

The success of fajita night led several teammates and their girlfriends to take a turn hosting. With Austin set to move forward with his professional career, tonight's gathering figures to be the last regular Thursday night social, although a few could be planned when Clemson learns its bowl practice schedule.

"Offensive linemen are always looking for free food," Austin said. "I always like to eat, so I figured if I cooked the food, I could eat more.

"We're definitely going to having those nights. We work so hard together that it's fun to just get off the field and relax. It's just a way to get guys together to hang out, a time for fellowship, and that's been one of our keys. This team has grown really close."

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