A 100th Birthday Salute to Bear Bryant

I can only remember three times ever seeing my father—the biggest, baddest, chain-smoking, neon-orange-blooded, Tennessee Volunteers-loving homicide detective this side of the Mississippi—cry.

One was at the passing of a family friend in a plane crash. Another was when heartworms took our Labrador, Cinder. (Because in the South, dawgs are family.)

Paul Bear Bryant

All man, no myth, lasting legend.

And the third was the death of Tennessee’s (everyone’s, really) football god and nemesis, Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant in 1983, at age 69. He suffered a massive heart attack, just one month after he retired from coaching, predicting he would “probably croak” without it.

I remember sitting in front of the TV when the news came in. Even at age 10, I knew full well who Bear Bryant was—who didn’t? But I did not realize the impact he had on my dad, someone in whom I rarely saw such raw emotion.

Bryant would have turned 100 on September 11, and football fans of current #1 Alabama and nationwide are celebrating his legend this week with parties, museum exhibits, and calls for photos and memorabilia.

If you think you don’t know Bear Bryant, you may recall his iconic black and white houndstooth fedora. His persona appears in ‘Bama grad Winston Groom’s “Forrest Gump” (against Tennessee’s orange-checkered endzones, sadly).

So why did this coach, this man, inspire so much reverence from people like my father, and even from women who wouldn’t know a football from fried chicken?

Like when one bridal party, according to Dallas Morning News reporter Marilyn Schwartz, arrived at the “…seating row that Coach Bryant was on, we kind of stopped and sort of nodded. It was almost like bowing to royalty.” Or that it was my own 75-year-old mother who pointed out to me this week was his centennial?

Was it his 25-year Alabama career, racking up six national titles, 13 SEC championships, and 323 wins? President Reagan posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor. So many places are named for him in Tuscaloosa, type “Paul Bryant” into your GPS and it will likely have a stroke.

Was it his hardscrabble Arkansas upbringing to which Depression-era Southerners like Daddy could relate, the lore claiming Bryant’s nickname came from wrestling a carnival bear at age 13—and not even being paid the dollar he was promised? He was one of 12 children, and being born into that ready-made football team honed his skills which, paired with his eventual 6-4 frame, earned him a scholarship to Alabama. He played on the school’s 1934 championship team and even played a game with a broken leg (again, against Tennessee. Sigh.)

Was it his loyalty? He was married to one woman, Mary Harmon, served as a Navy Lieutenant Commander during World War II, then after coaching stints with Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M, returned in 1958 to coach the Crimson Tide because, as he put it, “Mama called. And when Mama calls, you just have to come runnin’.”

Or was it his command of the game, his ability to lead players like Joe Namath and Gene Stallings to great football careers of their own? Or to spur society to change, recruiting Wilbur Jackson, Alabama’s first black scholarship player in 1971?

It was all of these, and many other things that made Bear Bryant great. But for me, he gave me that deeper connection with my dad, whose birthday is today—the day before the Bear’s, and whom I would lose only two years after Bryant’s death.

As all good coaches do, Bryant inspired my father and mother—herself a 40-year coach—and they in turn inspired me with the same philosophy as inscribed on Bryant’s memorial at Legion Field:

“If you believe in yourself, and have dedication and pride, and never quit, you’ll be a winner.”

No better coaching than that, on the field, or in life. Happy one-hundredth, Bear Bryant!

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