Thursday, January 03, 2013

Memories of Coach Bryant- On Campus, Aug.1982

I will never forget the night our phone rang at home and dad told me Alabama was calling. For a boy growing up watching Golden Flake potato chips and Cokes being opened on Sundays, this was a dream becoming reality.

It was Coach Ken Donahue, a legend in his own rite, inviting me to join the scholarship freshmen on day 1 at Alabama. He called it an 'invited walk-on' and said that I would be treated like the scholarship guys if I came.

I told Coach Donahue 'yes' which meant turning down some smaller schools who had offered scholarship money to go. We did not have much money and now I know what a sacrifice that was for my family.

I want to side track just a minute about Coach Donahue. What a man! My visual memories of him are so vivid and my admiration of him has never wavered. He had to have been in his late 50's or early 60's but lived, worked, and coached with passion! The pictures in my head are of him drawing plays on napkins in Bryant Hall, working out in the weight room after a hot practice and pressing out dumbbells with force, and getting so mad he would say, "Gosh darn-it" which in his mind was cursing. "Gosh darn-it Tom, you made me so mad I'm cussing, Gosh-darn-it".

But one more story sticks out about Coach Donahue. Coach Bryant would have one of the water breaks set-up where we got pop-sicles and not a cup of water or 'sport drink' (not sure what to call that stuff we had).

A horn would sound and we all would go and take a knee in one line and the managers/trainers would go down the line handing out a cup if was water or a pop-sicle. I will tell you this- in Tuscaloosa, AL on a hot, humid August morning on astroturf so hot you saw heat waves- a pop-sicle does little to help.

But, it was at least a break, and here came the multi-colored pop-sicles. I was given the last one, and Thom Whitley my room-mate, was left without one. Coach Donahue saw that and walked over and gave his to Thom. It made quite an impression on us both. We talked about it many times after that.

Knowing the college admission process today, it is still amazing how I made that decision, went a short time after that to freshman orientation, and packed my car on August (9th or 12th?), 1982 heading to T-town. I left my mom and dad waving at me and all I knew was to drive to Dr. Gary White's office in the coliseum.

Dr. Gary White is another unsung hero of those days. How would I have made it without Dr. White and the encouragement of Coach Jack Rutledge? I keep up with both of those great men through facebook and love to hear that they are well!

I drove up to the Coliseum and Dr. White looked a little surprised. He seemed to have to put some wheels in motion, but he found me a temporary room- all by myself- in Martha Parham dormitory- a women's dorm- but it was empty except for some summer campers for the time being. I was in my own room, on my own floor- all alone for about 2 weeks- until they moved me in with Thom at Crimson Tower apartments with some baseball players and swimmers.

I went that evening to Bryant Hall and began meeting some amazing people.

Hardy Walker with Coach Bryant
I miss them both!

 I was sitting at a table in the dining hall when Coach Bryant walked up. He may have seemed smaller when I had seen him on the steps of the coliseum many years before- but now he seemed like a giant. He was friendly and smiling- and I was intimidated.

He put his heavy hand on my shoulder and said something. We all shook our heads and smiled. When he walked off we looked at one another. "What did he say?" And no one knew.

Anyone familiar with Coach Bryant knows the mumbling growl that came out of him. Sometimes crystal clear and animated, sometimes low toned and garbled. The longer you heard it, the better you got at hearing it.

I went back to my dorm room. I was terrified. All I knew was to show up in the morning for breakfast and then report for my first practice. I was totally panicked about waking up on time and making it. I set my alarm and prayed that it worked. I checked the red dots 3 times to correct PM and AM.

And just layed in that small bed, hearing my heart thump. No one else was in that whole dorm that night. I was on the 2nd floor in a corner room. No phone and no other human in sight. I was as scared as I had ever been in my entire life.

And that next morning, I was to experience Coach Bryant's last football season. It would be a year I would never forget.

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