The statue outside Bryant-Denny Stadium for Paul William “Bear” Bryant, who was born Sept. 11, 1913, and died Jan. 26, 1983.
Paul William “Bear” Bryant was born on this day 99 years ago — Sept. 11, 1913 — in Fordyce, Ark., and I hope you won’t mind taking time out for just a few stories about Alabama’s legendary coach.
To me, the most fascinating stories about Bryant, who died in Jan. 26, 1983, are the ones before he became a head football coach. Here are just a couple:
In 1934, Bryant got in trouble for a fight during an Alabama game. The Crimson Tide was coached by Frank Thomas, and the squad was on its way to an unbeaten season that ended with a Rose Bowl victory.
Tennessee was the Tide’s big rival back then, and in Alabama’s 13-6 win over the Vols, Bryant was ejected for apparently punching Tennessee’s Phil Dickens. Alabama won the game when future NFL Hall of Famer Don Huston scored on a 5-yard end-around in the second half, breaking a 6-6 tie.
The rest of the story: Tide lineman Bill Lee admitted in 1986 to “Third Saturday in October” author Al Browning it actually was he who bloodied Dickens’ nose.
In 1935, Alabama won again against Tennessee 35-0. Bryant, who played end, spent Friday on crutches because of a cracked bone in his leg. But he played anyway in the Tide victory.
Years later, Bryant often told a story about assistant coach Hank Crisp telling the team before the game that he was certain No. 34 would play hard that day. At the time, players switched jersey numbers from game to game to help program sales. To Bryant’s surprise, he was No. 34 that day.
Two quick stories about Bryant as a coach:
Bama Magazine editor Kirk McNair has told a story often about a national reporter coming to the university in the 1970s to speak with Bryant for a story. At the time, McNair was with the Alabama sports information office, and he said that the reporter kept talking about how he was going to ask “Bear” this and “Bear” that.
As McNair tells it, when the reporter met the coach, he no longer was set on calling him “Bear.” Instead, it was “Coach Bryant.” In a respectful way.
My own Bear Bryant story: When I was an elementary school student growing up in Homewood, Bryant appeared at a department story at Brookwood Mall, which is only about a mile and a half from where I eventually would attend high school.
My parents and I were near the back of the line. We had the book, which was a pre-signed edition, but I also brought my college football scrapbook that I wanted him to sign. When we got to the front of the line, a woman who was helping coordinate the coach’s appearance told my dad that he would sign the book but not the scrapbook. As my dad was discussing it with her, Coach Bryant look around at me, motioned me over. He said, “Come on, I’ll sign your scrapbook.” He put me in his lap, reached over my shoulder and wrote, “Paul ‘Bear,’ ” then he hesitated before writing, “Bryant.” As he put me back down on the ground, he smiled and said, “I almost forgot my name there.”
Much later, after I grew up and became a sports writer, I repeated that story to one of Bryant’s former players, Scott Hunter, who spent nearly a decade as an NFL quarterback. He told me about walking one day with Bryant on campus, and the coach was unfailingly nice to everyone who approached him to say hello. Hunter said that when he asked why he made that kind of effort, Bryant said, “Because when everybody in the stands is calling for your head, that person might be the one person who will defend you to the death just because you were nice to them once.”
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