I originally published this blog on Jan 26, 2011. Tonight, almost two years later, I’m re-posting it for a couple of reasons. First, I no longer use the site I originally posted it on, and in the course of time links have broken, and tonight I need to reference it for another blog about the men who have had a major influence on my life. The other reason for the re-post is, I believe that besides being a great coach of college football, Paul Bryant was a great man, and we should never lose sight of that.
And now, the unedited, original post:
Tonight I sent a Facebook message to my friend Ralph Burke. While I was on Ralph’s home page I noticed that he had just posted three You-tube videos of Bear Bryant. Of course I watched them all; in fact, I watched one of them three times. As I watched, I got choked up, and judging from the comments others had already left, I wasn’t the only one who watched and cried.
So what was it about Paul “Bear” Bryant that elicits that kind of reaction twenty-eight years after his death? I think I know the answer to that question. Paul Bryant was a combination of human traits that seldom come together in one person. He was a natural leader – a man who could motivate and guide others. He was a man of absolute integrity. In this day, that trait alone is almost extinct. Besides leadership and integrity, The Coach was loyal. He never took credit for a win, and he never blamed the team for a loss. Every person who knew him or played for him knew they could always count on him. He was the personification of the statement, “I’ve got your back.”
On a hot August afternoon, over thirty-five years ago, I had the good fortune to meet and talk to him. I remember it, as if it happened an hour ago. I was working for Ryder Truck Rental, in Birmingham, Alabama. My boss, a born and raised Alabama football fan, told me that our region manager had given him permission to donate a truck, for a year, to the Alabama football team. I was surprised when he asked me to go to the athletic office and set up the loan with someone there.
I got to the athletic office at noon. There was a sign on the receptionist’s desk that read, “Gone to Lunch.” That was fine by me. I was more than willing to wait. I waded through the thickest carpet, crimson of course, that I had ever seen, to the waiting area and sat down in view of the door. For the next ten minutes or so, I watched Alabama’s legendary assistant coaches come and go at a rapid pace. Since the first game of the season was less than three weeks away, their haste was understandable.
At the risk of sounding like a total air-head, I suddenly had a feeling that something was about to happen. In Vietnam, just before a rocket attack, the crickets would stop chirping. It was that sort of sensation. Seconds after I felt that familiar premonition, The Coach walked in. He wasn’t in a rush, like his assistants. As soon as he came through the doorway, he saw me and without hesitation came directly to me. I managed to stand and take his outstretched hand. As we shook, I heard his familiar, low pitched voice speaking, not to a player, or commentator, or interviewer, but to me.
“I’m Paul Bryant. Our receptionist has gone to lunch. Normally one of us would fill in for her but we’re pretty loaded up right now with the first game so close. Maybe I can help you.”
He motioned for me to sit. As I did, he sat in a chair directly in front of me. I was surprised and delighted to find that I could still talk. I told him who I was and why I was there. He told me he sure appreciated the offer, and he would see that Ryder was added to the list of companies offering to donate a truck to the team. Then, we talked about football. We talked for almost thirty minutes, before he apologized for having to go, but noted that it just couldn’t be helped. We stood, shook hands, wished each other well, and I left.
I left knowing that I had just experienced greatness – I know of no better way to describe the time I spent with Paul Bryant. I believe that we still cry, twenty-eight years after his death, because he was a rare example of the potential we all have within us, while also reminding us that, by and large, we have failed to live up to it. It’s difficult not to get choked up in the face of greatness.