Everybody in Alabama has a Bear Bryant Story
Rick Bragg tells us about his own awkward farewell.
You can't live down here and not love that sound, that solid thud of a leather shoe making contact with a leather ball, and the roar that it brings. It may come from a field surrounded by rickety bleachers at a forlorn crossroads that is dark any other night except Friday or from a great stadium straining with 100,000 souls. It is yet a roar, and on that lovely sound, we'll ride from the misery of late summer to the dull wet of winter. In the meantime, life is just better, richer. Hot dogs become delicacies. Parking lots become places of celebration, if not worship. Even the air is finer just because a kid encircled by a battered tuba warbles by.
When I hear these things, my heart lifts inside my chest and then breaks, just a little bit. I always think of the Bear—and enchiladas—and it almost makes me cry.
I was a young man when it happened, when the great Paul William "Bear" Bryant coached his last football game in a frigid Liberty Bowl in Memphis and then, before another season could begin without him, died, on January 26, 1983. He had passed into history and mythology long before, but his death sent newsrooms here in Alabama into a kind of frenzy. I, one of the very best newspapermen that you could hire in this world for minimum wage, was dispatched to Birmingham, to interview the man who dug his grave.
Along with me was one of the most remarkable photographers ever to live, the great Ken Elkins, who looked a whole lot like Mark Twain. My 1976 Pontiac Grand Prix was running hot, so we left the premises of The Anniston Star in Ken's pickup, which might have been a Chevy or a Ford but was already old by the Korean War.
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We had no plan, other than to ambush the gravedigger somewhere on the cemetery grounds, even if I had to throw Ken in front of his backhoe. We'd made it to Irondale, just this side of Birmingham, when the truck's transmission began to smoke and whine and we limped into a garage that promised absolutely nothing.
There was a Mexican restaurant across the street, and you could smell the tortilla chips frying. So we decided that was a better way to spend our downtime than standing in a cold parking lot wringing our hands. I might have had a margarita, to ward off the chill. I might have had a couple more. And on at least one of them, I toasted the greatest football coach of his time. It seems like, after the truck was fixed, we made a half-hearted stab at finding that gravedigger. Or maybe we didn't; my mind was not clear. I seem to remember Ken trying to shift gears while eating chips and salsa, all balanced on the steering wheel—or maybe that was just what Jose Cuervo wanted me to believe.
I have written before that I am not sorry we didn't get that interview, that I would not have wanted to look down on the grave. It's much better to remember the Bear growling along a sideline. He's the first thing I think of when the sounds, smells, and magic of this season descend—that, and pico de gallo.
Everybody has a Bear Bryant story here in Alabama. The one thing I am certain of is that every one of theirs is better than mine.