Fan Flashback

Making His Mark

In the aftermath of a humbling loss to Tennessee, Paul Bear Bryant taught a young fan the lesson of a lifetime
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Photo courtesy of Gilbert Nicholson.
This program from Alabama’s 41-14 loss to Tennessee, signed by Paul “Bear” Bryant, remains one of Gilbert Nicholson’s most prized possessions.

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.

Just him.



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