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January 22, 2012Brother vs. brother has always been a theme for Arie and Cyrus Kouandjio.
As youngsters growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, their wrestling and horseplay was constant. On the football field at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., they drove each other to be better players. At the University of Alabama, that dynamic continued for the sibling offensive linemen.
For the past several months, Arie and Cyrus have found a new playground. They have spent hours together in the training room as both have worked to recover from knee injuries that ended their 2011 seasons.
"We grew up together. It's great we can continue that," Arie, the big brother at 6-foot-5 and 335 pounds, said a few days before the Crimson Tide's Bowl Championship Series title game victory over LSU. "It's given us a lot of time to bond and stuff because we're both hurt right now, which is crazy.
"He pushes me and I push him. That sibling rivalry continues even in the rehab room."
Cyrus, the younger Kouandjio, is hardly a little brother at 6-6 and 322 pounds. He credits his brother's presence as playing a big part in his rehabilitation.
"Since both of us were injured, we had that support from each other," Cyrus said. "After a while, the training room all day doing rehab, it gets boring and sickening. It's good to have someone there with you all the way. It's just an easier process with each other."
Before their injuries, each tasted success at Alabama in 2011. Cyrus earned increasing playing time as the backup left tackle as a true freshman, while redshirt freshman Arie played in two games and was running at second-string right tackle when UA played Penn State in the second game of the season.
Arie's injury first flared up in the preseason, when he was sidelined from practice for a couple of weeks with tendonitis in his left knee. That led to bigger problems.
"During the summer I tore my left knee up and I just didn't want to quit," he said. "I felt like I could keep going and, plus, I didn't even know how bad it was. So I just sucked it up and kept getting hurt.
"Eventually, my right knee got hurt because I was overcompensating on it, and finally it got too bad for me to do anything on it, and I had to have the surgery."
Alabama coach Nick Saban announced in early October that Arie was headed for season-ending knee surgery. A few weeks later, Cyrus saw his season cut short with a knee injury sustained in the fourth quarter of UA's victory over Tennessee.
"I was blocking. We were running outside draw and I had the guy blocked, but a linebacker from the back side came in and kind of leg-whipped me trying to tackle the running back," Cyrus said. "I tore my ACL, my MCL, in my left knee."
The ligament injury also necessitated surgery for Cyrus, so he joined his brother in the rehab room. Now both are making their way back to playing shape.
"It feels, actually, pretty good," Cyrus reported. "I'm running now, I'm sprinting, running stairs, doing a lot of things. It's just slow to cut (on)."
Arie has also recovered at an encouraging pace, although he said before the BCS game that he might be facing surgery on the left knee in early 2012.
"I'm able to jog and run up the stairs and stuff like that," he said. "I can do squats. I'm moving pretty fast for my injury."
If their competition in the training room is fierce, it's nothing compared to the battles they had in their youth.
"There was a lot of damaged walls and stuff like this," Arie said. "I always (won), but if you ask him he'll say different. Ask my parents, and they'll tell you who won."
Said Cyrus, "Yes, but that's back then a long time ago when I used to be pint-sized, but we aren't the same size now. I got taller than him in high school, and that's when I really started challenging him."
The brothers are able to be there for each other now because Cyrus chose to sign with Alabama after announcing his intention to go to Auburn last year on National Signing Day in a recruiting battle between the rival schools that gained national attention. Ranked by many as the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the country and one of the top five overall recruits in the nation, he struggled with his decision for several days before finally deciding to go with Alabama.
"The weekend before I made my announcement I had went to Auburn, so they were fresh in my mind and fresh in my heart," Cyrus said. "So I went completely on my emotions and my feelings and I chose Auburn.
"Then, after a while, my rationality started to kick in and I thought the best place for me would be Alabama. I would not take that back now, 100 percent."
Big brother, himself ranked as the nation's No. 15 offensive tackle prospect by Rivals.com out of high school, gave his sibling room during the recruiting process.
"His recruitment was pretty crazy," Arie said. "I tried to stay out of it for the most part because I didn't want him to come to Alabama just because I was here, and I didn't want him to have any pressure.
"I told him at the end, 'Just do what you think is right and follow your heart.' His heart led him here."
For Cyrus, a youngster with man-sized talent, having a big brother around has been a blessing.
"The first couple of weeks were tough," Cyrus said. "Just getting around campus and doing what I was supposed to do, a lot of things that are complex for freshmen were a little bit easier for me because I had my older brother to show me the ropes."
And if Arie's little brother had gone with his original decision and gone to Auburn?
"My thought was, 'I'm going to have to whip my own brother's (rear end) every year.' He called me and told me that he was going to Alabama, and I was really happy," Arie said. "He's here now. I'm glad he made that choice."
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.