Champions of The Round Table

 
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There's nothing like late summer in Alabama. Everywhere I go... to a restaurant, to the barber shop...there's the same old song playing in the background: Football fans clamoring about how this could be another great year for the Crimson Tide.

It happens every summer in Alabama, the most football-crazed state in the country. In Late summer strangers talk about how good the new quarterback is going to be, and old Ala/Aub friends argue like bitter enemies over whether coach Gene Chizik is a genius or should be given the boot. Forget about any discussion over family reunions, and mother-in-law visits this Fall. In July and August the discussion revolves around the Crimson Tide and the high hopes of another great football season, maybe even another National Championship.

Where does all this come from, this bounteous excitement, this love affair between this state and this football team? On a recent late summer day, I tried to figure it out by making a trip right up I-59, and over to Lomb Av., to Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham to see Coach Bryant and get to the bottom of this nagging question.
 
Once at the gates of Elmwood Cemetery, I asked an attendant where the final resting place of Coach Paul W. Bryant is, and he pointed to a faraway hill in the vast cemetery. As I drive on, I thought to myself, " Coach Bryant meant so much to this entire state. Back in the '60s the national image of Alabama was Kennedy sending the troops into Tuscaloosa, and the water hoses and the dogs in Birmingham used against civil rights demonstrators. But Coach Bryant was a cool breeze in the face of a sweltry battle over equal rights. He gave Alabamians something to feel proud of during a very difficult time, and he's still the standard to which all coaches are measured by at The Capstone."

27 years ago, on a foggy January morning, eight Alabama football players walked slowly down Greensboro Avenue, carrying a casket made of Southern pine. Thousands of fans....many wearing houndstooth hats watched in silence as the players lifted the coffin up the steps of the First United Methodist Church in Tuscaloosa.

Three days earlier Coach Paul Bryant had died of a heart attack at the age of 69. Coach Ray Perkins had just spoken with his beloved coach and mentor, and like a wisp of smoke he was gone. As word traveled through Alabama that The Bear was gone, the state just came to a stop. Thousands of people just stopped what they were doing, work, play, school... it didn't matter, The Bear had slipped away. Churches filled. Governor Wallace declared two days of mourning, and the state flag at the Capitol in Montgomery was lowered to half-staff.

Inside First Methodist a Who's Who of college coaches lined the pews. Frank Broyles, Woody Hayes, Darrell Royal, Bud Wilkerson, Eddie Robertson, Charley Pell, Jackie Sherill and Howard Schnellenberger all listened as the Reverend Joe Elmore quoted a few of the Bryantisms drilled into his players. "That to be a man is a matter of character and class," Elmore told the crowd of 400. "That the Number one goal in life is to be a human being."

After the service eight players carried Coach bryant's coffin and placed in a hearse, which led a funeral procession of more than 300 cars on that last ride to Birmingham. I sat on the side of Arkadelphia Road and watched as Coach Bryant's hearse drove by, I was crushed, and I wept. Then it was on to Elmwood Cemetery where a crowd of over 5,000 had gathered to pay their last respects. The eight players then carried the coffin, spread over with crimson and white carnations, to the grave site. Before Coach Bryant was lowered into the ground, the mourners recited the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. The casket then went into the ground and, just like that, Coach Bryant began living in memory.

I followed a crimson line painted on the roadway that twists and turns and leads me on toward block 30, which is where I've been told Coach Bryant's grave is. I think about the iconic image of Coach Bryant--the Bear leaning against a goalpost with "the sixty four dollar question" rolled up in one hand, and a Chesterfield in the other. There he would stand covered under that houndstooth hat watching his boys warm up in the autumn sun before a game...and I think of all the Bear sights in Alabama today. There's a Paul W. Bryant Museum, a Bryant academic center and a Paul W. Bryant High School. And of course there's Bryant-Denny Stadium, which sits on Bryant Drive.

"People in Alabama love Coach bryant," former Tide Coach Gene Stallings once said. "They just tolerate all the rest of us."

I park and after 20 minutes of searching, I come upon a small, flat marker set into a hillside facing east that reads: PAUL WILLIAM BRYANT SR. / SEPT. 11, 1913 / JAN. 26, 1983. The tombstone is so modest, yet it casts a shadow over an entire state. Just like him, though...."he wasn't nothin' but a winner."

"My favorite Bryant story is from 1966,and comes to mind as I stand over where Coach bryant lies. " Alabama is playing at Tennessee in a drivin' rainstorm. It's late in the game, and the Tide's up 11-10. Tennessee has a chance to win the game late on a field goal, but the kicker hooks it wide and Alabama wins. After the game Coach Bryant was asked about winning the game on a shanked kick. Coach simply said in his gravelly voice, 'If the kicker had kicked it straight, we would have blocked it.' I love the mindset behind that statement. He still stands for what Alabama football is all about. "Nothin' but winners..."

Then I walk away from where Coach rests, I swear, man it's hot, I'm soaked. It's late summer in Alabama, and here, close to the Bear, anything seems possible, anything. And all I had to do was pay him a visit. Love ya, Coach! RTR
Bot out

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Bamafan6811
7/26/2010

I think this is the best story so far Bot!!! Great job!!!

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Earnest T Bass
7/27/2010

Only a few of us are left today that remember his entire carreer at Alabama. And what carreer it was too. I have a sister who is a dyed in the wool Barner fan, who once said to me that when she thought of greatness in America 2 people always came to her mind. John Wayne for all his accomplishments in the motion picture industrey, and of course Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant of the university of Alabama. She said that those two men were yard stick that all others should be measured by.

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Will Trusty
7/28/2010

Well done.
Nothing like an article that carries one with something other than just details.

We all have stories that we remember about the Bear and all our players.

You covered them all,

Thanks for the trip Bot,
Will RTR

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    By: iRobot