NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama defensive end John Copeland walked back to his dormitory room one day after spring practice in 1991 and thought about quitting.
He hated Alabama. He hated his coach. He hated practice. He wanted to go home.
Fortunately, his roommate was Eric Curry, who had experienced similar feelings when he was a freshman.
"I was a Prop 48 student, and there's a certain stigma attached to that title," said Curry. "I didn't play football my freshman year, and I felt real bad. John had a similar problem in his senior year in high school, so I told him it was just another barrier to break down.
"The coach was on him, and it was bringing down John's self-esteem. I just happened to be there to pick him up, like a big-brother-type thing. I told him the coaches were on him because they thought he could play. He came out of the funk just like I did."
Curry and Copeland have survived, and both likely will be first-round picks in the NFL draft in April. They probably are the best pair of defensive ends in college football, and one of the main reasons No. 2 Alabama has the nation's No. 1 defense.
"Defense starts up front, and I haven't seen too many guys go toe to toe with those two and win all year," said Miami coach Dennis Erickson, whose top-ranked Hurricanes meet the Crimson Tide for the national championship tomorrow night in the USF&G; Sugar Bowl. "We've got to find a way to neutralize them. Either double up or get rid of the ball quick. They present a lot of problems."
Actually, Copeland and Curry aren't supposed to be at Alabama. The standardized test that supposedly measures whether a player has enough intelligence to succeed in the college classroom rated the duo as potential failures out of high school.
Both missed the college entrance requirements by narrow margins.
Curry scored a 690 on his SAT (700 is the NCAA minimum) and Copeland a 16 on the ACT (18 is required).
The players, however, chose different routes to get to their senior seasons at Alabama. Copeland originally signed with the Crimson Tide, but decided to go to Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss., where he still could play football, and later transferred to Alabama.
Curry remained at Alabama, but Proposition 48 rules required that he sit out his first year of competition to concentrate on academics.
Both say they made the right decisions, but they also feel the standardized tests were unfair.
Copeland grew up in Lanett, Ala. He was the youngest of four boys and also had two sisters. His divorced mother, Irma, provided for the family by working in the cafeteria at Valley High School.
Curry is from Thomasville, Ga. His divorced mother made ends meet for three children by working with handicapped children.
"By no means did we come from well-to-do families," said Curry.
He added: "The tests were unfair to me because some students prepared for this throughout their whole lives. I was always taught to go to school and do what you were told. Some of the test segments weren't a part of my social environment.
"But the year off helped me because I could concentrate more onmy books, and develop better study habits. I think junior college helped John because it took off the pressure of not succeeding that first year at Alabama, where everybody in your hometown is looking at you."
The two have been roommates the past two seasons, urging each other in the classroom and on the field. Curry, in four years, has a degree in criminal justice and is one of several graduate players on the team. Copeland, also in his fourth year, is one semester short of earning a degree in physical education.
"Obviously, we're pleased with their work in the classroom more than on the football field," said Alabama coach Gene Stallings.
They have put themselves into a highly marketable situation. Curry, 6 feet 6, 265 pounds, is a relentless pass rusher with 40 tackles this season, including 10 1/2 sacks.
Copeland, 6-3, 261, is bulkier and more of a run-stopper despite also compiling 10 1/2 sacks among his 65 tackles.
"Either way, we're coming at you," said Copeland.
And either way, they both are success stories at Alabama.
"We've never really sat down and talked about playing in the NFL, which is strange," said Curry. "But we have talked about graduation, and John is excited about that. As for me, graduating was the best thing that happened. I've won both games."