Meeting “the man” as an 11-year-old boy in 1969 was frightening.
And it should have been, at least in one respect. His proud Crimson Tide had just been clobbered by Doug Dickey’s Tennessee Volunteers 41-14 in the Birmingham stadium self-declared as The Football Capital of the South.
There he was. All 6-foot 4 inches of him. Standing there alone. Smoking a cigarette. In front of the dressing room while his players quietly filed out the back of the facility to the bus.
But in another respect, it shoudn’t have been frightening. I grew up knowing the man from afar. At age three, so I’m told, my father, a member of the American Legion, who ushered at aptly-named Legion Field Stadium, would leave me in the south end zone among the disabled who watched from their wheelchairs pushed up to the end zone fence.
I keenly remember like it was yesterday.
Indeed my first memory was watching a referee run in that south end zone, wearing that black and white striped shirt. My thought as a three or four-year-old: “Why is a man running? Men don’t run. Children run.”
Knowing the man took a different tact fall Sundays on “The Bear Bryant Show.” In that venue, Paul William Bryant, to the mind of a six or seven year old, seemed almost presidential. Elite—in the good sense of the word. Transcendent—not in a sacrilegious way, but in the sense of a man who carried himself in a manner that was, frankly, superior.
In the age of no Internet, ESPN or other multi-media outlets, seeing Bryant behind the desk for an hour with Charley Thornton on Birmingham’s Channel 13—alongside a Coke and bag of Golden Flake potato chips—was my only visual of the man. Grade school kids rarely read newspapers, and I missed seeing his many pictures.
So it was somewhat with shock I noticed his tallness when I rounded the corner that third Saturday in October 1969. Why I was there in the first place is a mystery.
Only on a handful of rare childhood occasions did Dad and I wander to the Alabama locker room. I begged during the 1971 season. At 13, I full well knew the value of a Johnny Musso or John Hannah autograph. But not at 11.
I still recall meandering during the post-Tennessee defeat among the likes of Alvin Samples, Neb Hayden and Mike Dean. It was awkward. They had just lost badly. To make matters worse, I didn’t have a pen. Here I was a scrawny 11-year-old asking them to retrieve their own pens to sign my football program. And they did. Very graciously.
Why I ventured around to the front of the locker room, where nobody was, is also a mystery. Maybe I was looking for more players. But there he stood. Solemn. Quiet. Looking out on the field. Nobody in sight. No police. No assistants or handlers. No fans or players.
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