Roy Exum: Scottsboro’s Pat Trammell

Wednesday, July 30, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I got a warm feeling Tuesday when it was announced Pat Trammell will be among those in the inaugural class of the Jackson County (Ala.) Sports Hall of Fame. When the august group is enshrined at Scottsboro’s Goose Pond Civic Center on Nov. 1, most folks won’t even know who Pat Trammell was but I knew all about him in my very first year as a fledgling sports writer back in 1967 and, believe me, I’ll never forget him.

As a matter of fact, I can argue with some authority that Trammell is easily among the top five athletes to ever come out of the Chattanooga area. Oh, I’ve studied it. The late Scrappy Moore, who played at McCallie before starring in both football and baseball at the University of Georgia, is easy. He shunned a major-league contract to end up coaching football for years at UT-Chattanooga and he would be in my Top Five.

I’d also have to include Cleveland’s Steve Sloan, who was an All-American in everything during high school before becoming a big-time All-American at Alabama, and certainly Bill Spears who went from McCallie to become Vanderbilt’s greatest and – with Scrappy – is in the National College Football Hall of Fame.

While my fifth pick gets edgy – because so many deserve it – Trammell has always been my favorite because after being All-State and All-American at tiny Scottsboro High, Pat went on to become the “bell cow” who ushered in the greatness at the University of Alabama. You don’t remember because Trammell, right after he obtained his M.D. degree, died in December of 1968 of testicular cancer. He was 29 years old and I’ll never forget that, either.

The way the legend has it, Alabama head coach E.B. “Ears” Whitworth had stunk it up for the third straight year in 1957, going 2-7-1 in a dismal attempt to coach the Crimson Tide to glory and, as “Bear” Bryant would so quaintly says years later, “Mama called me home.” Well, that’s not the whole story.

Bryant was 8-2 in his fourth year at Texas A&M in 1957 and as the Aggies awaited a date to play No. 20 Rice in the Gator Bowl, Bryant quietly slipped away for several days to study his chances of success if, indeed, he was hired as the next Alabama coach. Coach Bryant always had a plan and very few knew he sneaked into Alabama to scout around weeks before he ever agreed to return to “Mama.”

Wouldn’t you know “Bear” almost immediately sniffed his way to Jackson County, flying in through nearby Chattanooga the night before, and once he got to the sleepy little hamlet of Scottsboro, he immediately went unannounced out to Dr. E.L. Trammell’s house.

“Doc Trammell” was the area’s beloved physician for many years. It so just happened Dr. Trammell’s son was the most fabled athlete in the state and was so good, Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd had already gotten Pat and his parents to verbally agree that Trammell would join the Ramblin’ Wreck. Bryant deftly sidestepped any such pledge, explaining things might change, in what would be the harbinger of a lengthy feud between Bryant and Dodd and soon launched into a pep talk like no other.

Remember, no outsiders were there, just the Trammells and Coach Bryant, so this can’t be confirmed but I heard it come from pretty strong lips: “Pat, I’m trying to decide whether to coach at Alabama. I’ve dreamed of it all my life after playing there like I did. So here’s what I’ll say, if you’ll commit to Alabama – right now -- then I’ll come back to Alabama.”

That’s all it took. Of course, word leaked out, with A&M losing the bowl game by one point, but the die was cast. Pat Trammell got to play in his home state and was the quarterback on Bryant’s first freshman team. As a sophomore Trammell led Alabama in total offense and then came 1960, where Pat led Alabama in scoring and, glory-glory, masterminded a win over a Fran Tarkenton-led Georgia.  But the best was in 1961.

A host of Trammell’s freshmen teammates, guys like Mal Moore and Brothers Oliver and Billy Neighbors, forever swore that during an early meeting with that freshman group, who were ineligible to play back them, Bryant had promised they would win a national championship if they’d stick through what it took to get there. Alabama went 11-0-0 in Trammell’s senior year, whipping Arkansas for the national title and Coach Bryant’s first of many.

The “bell cow” – the leader – was Pat Trammell. At 6-feet, 200 pounds, he was neither fast nor mighty but listen to what Coach Bryant said at his funeral. “He was one of those people who vibrated leadership. When he walked into a room, you knew he was the leader. You’ve seen people like that, some old, some young. They walk in and you know they are that kind of people. Pat was like that.”

“As a quarterback Pat had no great ability.” Bryant said at another point, adding famously, “All he can do is beat you.”

Trammell, a consensus All-American at Alabama, was also an Academic All-American and while starring in 26 victories as “the smartest player (Bryant) ever coached,” he played in only two games where Alabama lost. His influence over his teammates was amazing, especially with Alabama’s freshman quarterback during Trammell’s championship season – freshman Joe Namath.

Don’t you see, Trammell started it all. Vince Lombardi campaigned Coach Bryant hard to get him to bless Trammell going to the Packers but Bryant demurred, saying Pat was “too smart” after having promised “Doc Trammell” long ago he’d help Pat get in medical school. Tragically, shortly after Trammell finished his residency, the cancer was discovered.

I know this to also be true. The first time any Alabama player ever saw Coach Bryant cry was early on the afternoon of Nov. 30, 1968, just before Alabama would play rival Auburn at Legion Field. Minutes before kickoff, Bryant spied Trammell walking with his six-year-old son towards the Tide sidelines. Bryant unashamedly wept at the sight, the emotion washing over his team and triggering a dramatic 24-16 win over the Tigers. Trammell, who would die 11 days later, was presented the game ball.

Then there is this: the six-year-old son, Pat Jr., triggered Coach Bryant’s greatest legacy. Trammell’s death inspired the coach to start a foundation called The Bryant Scholarship and – get this – the sons and daughters of any Alabama football player, from Heisman winner to water boy, automatically receives free tuition to attend college in Tuscaloosa where their daddies once played.

Because of Pat Trammell’s death, and the influence it had on Bryant and the Alabama family, nearly 800 children have now gotten stipends of up to $4,000 a year to walk in front of the Denny Chimes on their way to class and see Pat Trammell’s handprints and cleat marks cast in concrete at its base, simply because their dad also once paid the price.

A short time after Coach Bryant retired (due to advanced heart disease), legendary Birmingham News writer Clyde Bolton caught Bryant in a melancholy moment and asked him quietly, “Who was your favorite player, Coach?”

Oh course, Bryant would never pick one kid over the other, and he loved the guys who consistently tried to outwork their limited abilities every bit as much as his glittering All-Americans, but Bolton finally caught the legendary Alabama molder-of-men just right.

Coach Bryant talked about 10 or 15 “really special” players and then, pausing a moment, famously told the writer, “Now you’ll have to forgive me here for getting a little sentimental but … Pat Trammell was not just my favorite player … he was the favorite person … I’ve ever had in my life.”

That's who Pat Trammell was.

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