Roy Exum: Yes, I Knew Bear Bryant

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

If Bear Bryant had lived, today would have been his hundredth birthday and, as you can only imagine, the Crimson Tide Nation and the whole state, to some degree, are having a field day with such a monumental anniversary. Coach died on January 26, 1983, and the Birmingham and Montgomery newspapers this week were asking readers who actually knew him to please send in stories of their memories. Oh my goodness, I knew Coach well enough to never call him “Bear.” He hated the name.

I met Coach Bryant in a pretty spectacular way one August night when I was 20 years old. In the 14 years that followed before his death, a warm friendship developed and eventually he treated me much like a son. Since I was based in Chattanooga, I was never around enough to pester him but our paths crossed often enough that my name was on the pass list at every Alabama practice, which always mean a whole lot to me.

Since I am no stranger to mischief, most of my memories are funny but to sit with him in his fabled tower at practice, smoking cigarettes and talking about other teams in the SEC, or to have a drink in his hotel suite before a big game the next day, were pretty special, too. I’ve written reams about him, of course, but the story that has been told the most is about the first time I met him.

I wrote it for Chattanoogan.com six years ago and it has since appeared on all the Alabama web sites, in various newspapers, and is a favorite on the sports-talk radio shows. I could write it again but I think I told it pretty well the first time so allow me to reprint a big portion of that Chattanoogan.com story from August 5, 2007 that was entitled, “Me And Bear Bryant.”

* * *

The whole thing started the first year I was invited on the old SEC “Skywriter’s Tour.” I was the youngest ever to be invited, largely because my family owned a newspaper, and therefore, I got to cover my first SEC game when I was 18.

I fell in with the right people early, maybe because the SEC publicity guy – "Scoop" Hudgens - was raised in Chattanooga’s East Lake before he went on to Vanderbilt way back in the 1930s, so I was on a pretty fast track from the get-go, all due to amazingly little skill of my own.

The “Skywriters” flew into Tuscaloosa late in the afternoon on my first year, and Alabama’s serenade began with a cocktail party in the lobby of the then-new Paul Bryant Hall, a lavish football dormitory that Coach had built as a shrine to his players.

It lacked for nothing. They’d gotten a fancy bunch from New York to come and decorate it, and brother, it was evermore a Taj Mahal. Coach Bryant didn’t miss a trick, and he wanted his players to know they were special every minute of the day. He also wanted them to give life-and-limb to stay there.

The “Skywriters” included the top sports editors in the South as well as some big national writers, all having votes on the weekly polls and the Heisman Trophy and – of course – the national championship, and it was a hard-drinking crowd, was it ever. They were pouring those drinks real dark when Coach Bryant got to the reception a carefully-timed 30 minutes after the rest of us.

Now Coach was a big man, I mean physically, but when he walked into a room, the presence he brought with him was staggering. He wasn’t a hale-and-hearty guy, but rather, he wore a scowl and he’d quietly say, “How are you, Benny?” or “Hello, Jack”  or “How’s your family, Phillip?” as his eyes caught those of the ones he knew, all the while scanning the room and sniffing the air.

I was standing off in the corner, not yet comfortable with my traveling companions and admittedly intimidated by the guys whom I’d been reading since I’d started devouring Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News and any newspaper I could find since age 12.

Suddenly Coach Bryant was taking purposeful strides across the room right towards me, and about 100 people in the room parted like the Red Sea. He got right in front of me, not a foot away, and, in that raw voice he usually reserved for practice, growled, “Where the h*** did you get that d*** shirt?”

Lord, I wanted to die. I had on a green polo shirt, just a simple pullover. I’d thought about putting on a tie but hadn’t, and I didn’t know where I’d gotten the shirt, but right then I was too busy to keep from crying. I couldn’t think, so I just shrugged. I sure couldn’t talk.

Then Coach said with a terrifyingly twisted look, “I hate green. It reminds me of Notre Dame and here you come in here wearing something like that! Take that d*** thing off!”

I was mortified. The room was silent, I mean pin-drop quiet, and with 100 people watching, I peeled it off. Coach then grabbed it and kicked it – my shirt – as hard as he could.

“See that hall over there?” he pointed toward a foyer. “There is a guest room, the last door on the left. You go down there and wait for me because we got to get an understanding! Good God-all-mighty…”

So as I hastened to do as I’m told, so scared I’m ready to vomit, it wasn’t lost on me that everybody in that room was tremendously amused, but nobody dared laugh out loud lest they, too, incur the wrath of Bear Bryant.

Bare-bellied, I am soon standing in the middle of this swank room, and it is immediately obvious this was his lair during two-a-day practices. There was a film projector set up on an antique desk and a stack of game films beside it.

A couple of cartons of Chesterields were on the dresser, along with several bottles of Bell’s No. 12 scotch, and a loaf of light bread was half-opened on this $25,000 French table with a jar of mustard, some fancy linen napkins and the prettiest sterling silver you ever saw.

There is a quick knock on the door (does somebody who is going to kill you knock?), and he doesn’t get the door shut before he starts laughing. “Roy, you’re a great sport! Welcome to Alabama!

“I didn’t mean to embarrass you so bad, but I felt like I had to set a tone for some of those uppity writers, the ones who don’t think their breath smells (or something like that), and I’ve been wanting to meet you for a long time.

“Look over there in the closet and get you a shirt. I’ll get that other one back to you. Then get a couple of beers or Cokes or whatever you want and let’s visit for awhile. Dinner won’t be for another 20 minutes, and those other guys need to get a little likkered up before I tell ‘em what I need to say,” he added in a way that would have charmed Queen Elizabeth.

I opened the closet, and it was chock full of golf shirts, but I pulled out one that said “Bama Staff” on the front, and Coach howled with glee. “Oh, I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you wear that out there!” I wouldn’t have taken a dime, but it was one I wanted.

We sat down in these two big chairs, my still-shaking hands trying to hold a can of Budweiser while he shook the ice cubes of his Bell’s, and within five minutes a friendship was solidified beyond description.

He made sure I had his home telephone number, and the one to the private line in his office, and he told me to make sure to tell his secretary, Brenda, who I was if ever I called and he wasn’t there because she could find him in a hurry.

Then he quickly changed gears, knowing I needed something to write, and we talked about John Hannah, who would soon become an All-American at Alabama at the time, and how much he appreciated the way Baylor School’s Luke Worsham had influenced John.

Coach wondered how Charlie Hannah, who was still playing at Baylor, was progressing and did I know anything about two little black kids at Howard who were still in junior high named Charles Morgan and Reggie White.

We finally went to dinner, and when we walked in, “Bear” Bryant’s arm over my shoulder and me wearing that “Bama Staff” shirt with a can of Budweiser in my hand, I got one of the only standing ovations of my life.

Coach Bryant made his point, but that night, he also gave me his stamp of approval. From that minute on, I couldn’t go to Tuscaloosa that somebody wasn’t whispering, “That guy’s one of Coach Bryant’s best friends.”

When Coach would close practice down through the years, the FBI couldn’t get through the gate, but the managers would scramble to let me in, and his assistant coaches, running from one drill to the next, would always jog close enough to speak.

The “Skywriters” also loved it, one of their own shrugging in front of “The Bear,” and they not only wanted to know what was said, they were jealous, and to me at the time, that was extraordinarily delicious.

In the years that followed, Coach Bryant always stayed within an arm’s reach. He’d call, just out of the blue, and ask had I heard anything about Tennessee getting rid of Bill Battle or what about the Strickland kid at East Ridge.

When my son was born, the very next day, he FedEx’ed baby Andrew a football scholarship to Alabama, and at his funeral, I stood next to Joe Namath. That’s the kind of deal we had.

About four or five days after my first “Skywriters”  trip ended, Brenda sent me my green shirt, neatly washed and folded just so, but I couldn’t tell you what became of it.

What I can tell you is that in my bedroom right now, in the third drawer of my dresser, is one that reads, “Bama Staff,” and I wouldn’t dare wear it. It’s far too precious for that.

royexum@aol.com



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