There was a day in the late ‘70s when Bear Bryant, the fabled Alabama football coach, was in New York to help legendary Bob Hope kick off a pre-season college All-American football show. Coach Bryant, in a rare day away from prepping his Crimson Tide for the season, was the guest on “Today” or “Good Morning America” and then he was scheduled to join the beloved commedian for a cameo when the college football special would be taped later that afternoon.
With a void in his schedule before he would be jetted back to Tuscaloosa that night, Bryant turned down a couple of lunch invitations and instead asked the studio for a driver, explaining he wanted a little time alone. He directed the limo towards the Bronx, figuring to sit in the sun in the Yankee Stadium bleachers for a couple of hours, but – lo and behold – the pennant-chasing Yankees were going through a quick morning workout when he got there.
Sitting high in the stands, Bryant knew most of the Yankees starters (he was a big fan of baseball) and watched with glee as the club practiced. Suddenly his euphoria was snapped when an unwelcome voice invaded his solitude. “Coach Bryant … I just wanted to say hello. I have more respect and admiration for you that just about anybody I can name … ”
Into his view walked Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson, the famed “Mr. October” of baseball, and the truth of it was that the stoic Bryant loathed Reggie. “He never acted right,” Bryant said some years later, recounting the story late one night. “He was all hoot-and-holler and show-boated a lot. Oh, he was a good player but he wouldn’t have played for me for a minute … at least, well … before I met him.”
That’s why I want to tell you this story, particularly today when all of us detect a rancor in our country. We are terribly divided and Reggie, now 66, unleashed on all of us at a charity benefit for minority kids this weekend in Palm Springs. But, first, hear the rest of what made Bear Bryant completely change his mind. I think it is a lesson we all ought to learn.
Jackson, who played a year in the minor leagues in Birmingham before first joining the Oakland A’s, had some racial problems while he was with the Barons and – sadly -- spouted off about it soon after he left Alabama. This incensed the Bear, who was trying to recruit blacks in the late ‘60s, and – again – Bryant said Reggie “didn’t act right,” or meet Coach’s set of standards.
That day in the empty Yankee Stadium, Reggie Jackson had spied Bryant’s hounds tooth hat and immediately called for a sub for his position, happy to finally get to meet the Bear. But Bryant wasn’t so cordial at first until Reggie, sitting sideways in the row beneath where Coach was sitting, told him that he had grown up hard (his mother left him at age 4) and how rough it had been for a black guy in those first two years in the minor leagues.
As he spoke, Bryant warmed to him, realizing “Mr. October” was far from the flashy, boisterous player the media painted him to be. Neither man talked about sports. They talked about how they shared dreams of blacks and whites being kind to one another, about helping poor kids – blacks like Reggie and whites like Bear – who were had no choice except to grow up in tough surroundings and what each man might do in his quest to make the world a better place.
Coach Bryant said the conversation lasted almost an hour and, before it was over, Bryant actually apologized to Reggie for misjudging him. Reggie, who just laughed at the notion, immediately became one of Coach Bryant’s favorite players, one the Bear would follow in the box scores. In the World Series two months later, “Mr. October” hit a home run in the fourth and fifth game and – in the deciding sixth game – he led the Yankees to the crown with three home runs, each on the very first throw by three different Dodger pitchers.
As I mentioned, the 66-year-old Jackson was in Palm Springs this weekend and you know what he had the guts to say? "Just because President Obama is back in power is not as important as all of us pulling together, ''Jackson told USA TODAY Sports. "The best would be for Obama to be president and Mitt Romney to be vice-president. We need everyone to come together.
"I get so disappointed when I hear all of the negativity from Republicans against the Democrats and Democrats against Republicans. We need to come together as a nation. Black. White. Hispanics. Jewish. Native Americans,” Reggie said what millions like me are thinking right now.
"We need to have the resolve to work together,” he told the newspaper. “It's like when the Yankees have a great team, it helps baseball. When the Knicks and Lakers are great teams, it helps basketball. If the Republicans and Democrats can get together, it will make our country a strong, better place, for everyone.''
Reggie’s “Mr. October Foundation” is pushing for better education for minorities. "We're trying to help children get to the mainstream of what's going on in the world,'' Jackson said, "and that's technology. The world is moving toward technology. That's where the jobs are.
"When you see some of the top technology companies, you see so few people of color. They are not African American and Latins. They are Indians and Asians. The African-American and Latin-American population makes up 30% of our national population, but only 9% of those people are college educated with jobs in America, and we have only 6% of African-Americans and Latin-Americans in the world of technology.
"We're just not involved, so I'm trying to change that,” said the Hall of Famer. "By the year 2018,'' Jackson said, "there will be one million job opportunities in the world of technology, but 300,000 of those jobs will go to corporate people outside the U.S.
"We've got to stay competitive, and the only way to get past that is through education and create awareness in the African American and Hispanic American community. We want to mentor and transition studies in their careers. We want to enable students from all walks of life to define their future, and follow their passion.''
Well, put me down as one who buys into what Reggie Jackson believes. It’s time for us to cast away or perceptions of each other and embrace solutions where we can work together instead of the blue states fighting the red states in Congress. Instead let’s be The United States!
America is divided, just like Bear Bryant and Reggie Jackson were until Reggie cornered the Bear and each man found out about the other. I believe that can still work today. You see, I found out long ago that if you love people, they will love you right back.