Many vehicles in the parking lot of the lone Walmart in this working-class city proudly display LSU vanity plates.
Inside the superstore are racks of purple and gold Tigers T-shirts, sweatshirts and sweatpants. And in the automotive department in the back, one of LSU’s biggest fans, Sean Nelson, works as an oil-change technician.
This outpost of 14,431 sits in the heart of LSU country, just 70 miles southeast of the Tigers’ campus and 60 miles southwest of New Orleans. It’s known as a fertile football recruiting ground, where the Tigers traditionally claim the best prospects.
But a Tiger of different stripes has been on the prowl in Thibodaux recently: the Auburn Tigers. And when they play Oregon in Monday’s BCS title game, wide receiver Trovon Reed, the top-ranked player in Louisiana last year, will be standing on their sideline, having redshirted this season because of injury.
Slated to join Reed at Auburn next season is another Thibodaux High star, offensive tackle Greg Robinson. One of the nation’s top-rated offensive line prospects, Robinson committed to the Tigers last month, much to the displeasure of some family members.
The common denominator between Reed and Robinson is Nelson. Many people here are upset about their beloved LSU losing out on such highly touted players, especially to a rival SEC program, and some wonder whether Nelson steered them to Auburn for personal gain.
Nelson says he has been Reed’s guardian since Reed’s mother died nearly two years ago and insists he is not involved in Robinson’s recruitment, even though he drove both players on unofficial visits to Auburn, a six-hour trip. Robinson also is part of a nonprofit mentoring group that Nelson recently started.
Former Thibodaux High coach Dennis Lorio says several coaches and students saw Robinson show off cash and a new iPhone at school after a visit to Auburn. Robinson wrote in a Facebook message in July that he got the phone when "I came to Alabama.”
But after a practice Thursday for Saturday’s U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a high school all-star game in San Antonio, Robinson denied that he was given money or an iPhone from anyone associated with Auburn.
“Everything that happened with me, my parents took care of me,” Robinson said.
Efforts to reach Robinson’s parents through Robinson’s grandmother, Lydia Robinson, were unsuccessful as of Saturday morning.
Robinson said that to his knowledge, Nelson never received money from anyone associated with Auburn to take him on unofficial visits there. In a telephone interview Friday, Nelson also denied he was paid by anyone associated with Auburn for bringing Reed and Robinson.
“I don’t care what people think, they can think what they want, but Trovon chose to go Auburn so he went to Auburn,” Nelson said before hanging up.
But Lorio, a former LSU graduate assistant, says Auburn’s sudden recruiting success here is curious.
“How did players from Thibodaux, La., become so interested in Auburn?” Lorio asks. “That’s a really good question. Trooper Taylor and Sean Nelson would know.”
Taylor is Auburn’s controversial assistant head coach, who was the primary recruiter of Reed and Robinson. Taylor also was involved in the Tigers’ successful pursuit of star quarterback Cameron Newton, whose recruitment is the subject of an NCAA enforcement investigation begun after it was revealed that his father shopped him to Mississippi State for $180,000 in an attempted pay-for-play scheme.
During Friday’s BCS title game media day in Scottsdale, Ariz., Taylor said he did not give money or items to Nelson or Robinson.
“It’s illegal to give money,” Taylor said with a laugh. “Greg Robinson got travel money for coming down with him and his family, which is for mileage and they got a check for that. That was it.”
Reed was not made available to the media Friday, but Nelson’s involvement with him and Robinson highlights the increasing presence of third parties in college football’s world of high-stakes recruiting.
During an interview last month at a fast-food restaurant in which he wore a gray LSU pullover, Nelson, 30, talked about playing football at Thibodaux High and how he could have played in college but didn’t because he wasn’t exposed to the opportunity.
Instead he enlisted in the military, returning to Thibodaux after his service. Married with a daughter, Nelson says he works three jobs to support his family. Besides working at Walmart, he also delivers pizza three nights a week and has a state job in which he assists handicapped people overnight.
Nelson says his mentoring program, Total Package, consists of 30 kids, has 10 workers and is based out of a local church. He says not all boys in the program are involved in athletics, but for those like Robinson, the program provides opportunities to work out with an adult in the evenings.
“It’s for kids that need help in any kind of way,” Nelson says.
Nelson says he hopes to someday devote all his time to the program. He plans to seek grants for it; he currently raises money through donations and fundraisers.
Nelson says he has known Reed since the player was in sixth grade and became his guardian after Reed’s mother died nearly two years ago. He says he didn’t realize Reed had a chance to play college football until the youngster performed well at an LSU camp early in his high school career, and says he didn’t have a plan for Reed’s recruitment until a higher power stepped in.
“God gave me a vision,” he says.
According to Nelson, God told him to take Reed to camps and “live on the Internet” so he could do research and network with web-based recruiting gurus.
Nelson made highlight tapes of Reed and started sending them to schools after his sophomore season. As Reed garnered attention, so did Nelson. Soon, recruiting websites started interviewing him and he began taking Reed to recruiting camps across the country.
After one camp in Atlanta during Reed’s sophomore year, Nelson and Reed stopped by Auburn on the way to visit one of Nelson’s cousins in Montgomery, Ala. They didn’t talk to any Tigers coaches, but Reed wanted to visit again during the spring after his junior season.
Nelson called Auburn, which had hired coach Gene Chizik several months earlier, and set up an unofficial visit on Easter weekend. During that trip, Reed connected with the energetic Taylor, who preached the importance of family, which resonated because of the death of Reed’s mother, Roszaina Johnson, from stomach cancer just a month earlier.
While Reed entered Thibodaux’s 2009 season as its star quarterback, Robinson was on the cusp of breaking out. He was a first-time starter on the offensive line, where he had never played.
He had been a defensive lineman when he arrived at Thibodaux, but the line coach didn’t want him because he didn’t work hard, Lorio says. So he moved to offensive line after his sophomore season.
That spring Robinson attended a scouting combine, where he shined in testing drills before straining his back, causing him to miss all of spring practice. But an Arkansas assistant still offered Robinson a scholarship on his potential that spring without having seen him play a snap, Lorio says.
Robinson ended up being so dominant during the 2009 season that Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn watched only four plays of his highlight tape before declaring, “I don’t need to see any more. He’s as good as some of our offensive linemen that we have right now.”
By then, Reed already was headed to Auburn, a stunning development for a player once thought to be a lock for LSU. When he committed to the Tigers in November 2009, he hadn’t even made an official visit to Auburn, but Nelson had driven him there for several unofficial ones.
Two months later Reed played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Nelson was there, too, having his picture taken with top recruits on the sidelines. When he returned home, he proudly showed off the photos.
As he did with Reed, Nelson drove Robinson to Auburn for unofficial visits — two of them, both say. Nelson says he didn’t approach Robinson about taking the trips but let Robinson ride along on trips Nelson already had planned.
Robinson says he told Taylor he wanted to visit the school, and Taylor called Nelson to see if Robinson could ride with him. He says he didn’t get to know Nelson until high school, but feels comfortable talking with Nelson, who he says “knows a lot of people.”
“He’s pretty cool,” he says.
Last month, when Robinson spurned LSU and committed to Auburn, he says he received thousands of congratulatory messages, including some from “boosters.”
He speaks highly of Taylor, who in 2009 received a four-month suspension from recruiting off campus because of secondary violations of NCAA rules that he committed at an event at Auburn, which Reed attended.
“He just seems like he has nothing to hide,” Robinson says of Taylor.
But reaction to Robinson’s Auburn pledge wasn’t so positive among his family. His grandmother, Lydia Robinson, is unhappy about his choice for many reasons and hopes he changes his mind before signing day on Feb. 2.
She doesn’t think highly of Auburn’s coaches, who she says “weren’t very intelligent.” She is especially not fond of Taylor, who she says “got a lot of lies in there when he was talking.”
Robinson, who won’t say where she wants her grandson to attend college, says she is also upset that Nelson and Taylor had her grandson take several visits to Auburn without her or his mother’s permission. At times, she says, she didn’t know his whereabouts.
“They were wrong for doing that,” she says.
She also has suspicions about Nelson’s involvement with her grandson.
“I don’t know what he’s in this for,” she says. “Everybody’s got a reason for doing things. Now, whether it’s bad or good, I don’t know.”
But Greg Robinson says Nelson never told him to attend Auburn. Robinson originally planned to go to LSU but says he became interested in Auburn through Reed.
Nelson says he has been criticized unfairly for taking Reed and Robinson on trips to Auburn. He says locals would prefer that players have limited exposure to schools beyond LSU.
“My job is to make sure you have the most options and see all the places you want to see,” Nelson says.
Nelson planned to be at Saturday’s U.S. Army All-American Bowl, as he has the past two years. He was to take a group of seventh- and eighth-grade football players in his mentoring program to watch Robinson play.
The intent of the trip was for them to see that success is possible if they work hard.
Says Nelson, “It’s about more than just football.”