By Rubin E. Grant
The oldest living Auburn University football player turned 100 on Feb. 19, and how Nick Ardillo Sr., wound up on the Loveliest Village on the Plains is quite a story.
Ardillo grew up on a farm in rural Amite, Louisiana, about 70 miles north of New Orleans, as one of 13 children whose parents immigrated to the United States from Sicily.
Ardillo played high school football in Amite and went on to what was Southwest Mississippi Junior College in Summit, Mississippi. Ardillo had a brilliant football career there in the 1930s and was inducted into the Southwest Mississippi Hall of Fame in 1990.
According to Ardillo’s daughter, Laura Estes, during his second year at Southwest Mississippi, a scout from Alabama Polytechnic Institute, which now is Auburn, spotted Ardillo while watching a game. The scout asked Ardillo to come to Auburn for an interview with Tigers head coach Jack Meagher.
Ardillo went home and discussed it with his family. He decided he wanted to go to Auburn, but with little means of transportation, he traveled the only way he could: He hitchhiked.
After Ardillo arrived at Auburn, he was shown where he would live and was given a scholarship. And once he got on the football field, he became a star at right guard for “Meagher’s Marauders” during the 1940 and 1941 seasons.
After graduating from Auburn in 1942, Ardillo entered the U.S. Coast Guard and served during World War II. Before leaving for the military, he married Kernie Hawkins, who has been the love of his life for 78 years.
Following his military stint, Ardillo and Kernie moved to Birmingham. He went into education and was an assistant football coach at Ramsay and Phillips high schools. He was on the staff of legendary Ramsay coach Thompson Mutt Reynolds when the Rams won a state championship in 1953.
Ardillo was head coach at Gadsden High School during the 1954 and 1955 seasons, according to the Alabama High School Football Historical Society website. He also served as president of the Birmingham Football Officials Association.
A longtime educator, Ardillo was a math teacher and principal of East Birmingham Elementary School. He eventually became assistant superintendent of education for Birmingham City Schools.
Ardillo retired when he was 57 after being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.
“He went through chemotherapy and lost all his hair, but he survived and the cancer never came back,” Estes said.
“He’s still remembered fondly by his former students and football players,” she added. “His players used to take him to lunch and tell him that he was going to outlive all of them. They’d say, ‘Coach, you want us to be pallbearers for your coffin, but you’ll end up carrying ours.’”
After his retirement, Ardillo became a member of the Homewood Board of Education, on which he served for 15 years. He also was active in civic affairs in Homewood, serving on the City Council and in other positions of leadership.
He is a longtime member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood and served the church in a number of capacities.
Ardillo and Kernie, who’s 98, still live in the house he built in 1957 in the Mayfair community of Homewood. They have two children, Estes, who lives in Hoover, and Nick Jr., who lives in Columbus, Mississippi. They also have five grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
“He attributes his long life to hard work and a healthy lifestyle,” Estes said.
Ardillo has outlived all of his siblings, but he has been mostly non-communicative the past two years.
“He has his good days and his bad days,” Estes said.
One of the good days was when he celebrated his 100th birthday with a party at his home with about 20 relatives.
“He had to shake everybody’s hand,” Estes said with a smile.