Austin Box remains on Sooners' minds

NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma's BCS title hopes were in peril.

With the score tied and the end of regulation quickly approaching, Sooners receiver Kenny Stills leapt high over Florida State cornerback Greg Reid to snatch the ball out of the air and tumble into the end zone.

Yet Stills' thoughts were elsewhere as he slowly walked to OU's sideline just seconds after making the biggest catch of his career in the biggest game of his career. The sophomore held up one finger on his right hand, two fingers on his left hand, signaling the No. 12 to a national audience.

In the heat of the moment, Stills paid tribute to former teammate Austin Box, who passed away suddenly in May from an accidental overdose.

"I felt like that was for him," Stills said of his touchdown catch that clinched the Sooners' 23-13 win over the Seminoles. "As much as people want to say we are focused on the game, Austin is always on our minds."

Not a day goes by without Box being a central figure in the Sooners' drive to winning a BCS national championship. His presence is felt in the locker room, on the practice field and during games, where each Saturday a different Sooners defender is chosen to represent Box by wearing his No. 12 jersey.

"It's been a good inspiration," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "It's been a good way -- or a proper way, we feel -- to remember him and to carry Austin's spirit with us."

Senior linebacker Travis Lewis is the main Sooner in charge of picking the player each week who will represent Box. Joining Lewis in the decision is quarterback Landry Jones, who wears No. 12 on offense. The two make the choice based on a player's performance -- on and off the field -- during the week or in previous games.

"Everybody anticipates it. 'Who is going to wear No. 12 this week?' " said safety Javon Harris, who wore No. 12 during OU's win over Missouri.

Lewis, who was in the same recruiting class and became close friends with Box, will wear the No. 12 this weekend against the Longhorns.

Four defenders so far have had the honor of representing Box this season: Harris, linebacker Tom Wort (Tulsa), defensive end Frank Alexander (Florida State) and linebacker Corey Nelson (Ball State) have worn the No. 12 jersey, with no name on the back, this season.

"The guys who get to wear No. 12 are always filled with a little more emotion than usual," Stills said. "They want to make sure they represent him and his family well."

Representing Box by wearing his number changes everything for the OU player given that honor. He often speaks with Box's father, Craig, before the game, and gets to lead the team out onto the field, knowing that it will be a night he won't soon forget.

"You feel like he is with you playing, him being right there, like God gave you wings," Harris said. "Being out there knowing you're being looked at -- not just for you, but for him -- when you get that opportunity, you know as a player what you're representing."

Intensity, passion, excitement and toughness are the words teammates most often use to describe Box. He wasn't extremely vocal, but he was well-liked and respected throughout the locker room.

That respect continues.

"It was a different feeling for me," Nelson said of wearing No. 12. "To have that number on brought back memories of Box. It made me think I had to go 10 times harder or play at the highest peak I can.

"I felt like all eyes were on me."

As the Sooners travel down I-35 to take on Texas this weekend, memories of Box are destined to rise to the forefront of their minds. Box was a die-hard Sooner, having grown up as an OU fan in Enid, Okla. The Red River Rivalry held a special place in his heart.

"I can remember how hyped up he was last year to get out there and play in this rivalry," safety Tony Jefferson said. "I know this game meant a lot to both him and his family. We know Austin is going to be with us, and he really loved the game. This is just another reason why we need to win."

Brandon Chatmon covers University of Oklahoma sports and recruiting for SoonerNation. He can be reached at bchatmonespn@gmail.com.

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