Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Memories of Coach Bryant- The Ultimate Question

January 26 will mark the 30th anniversary of the passing of Coach Paul "Bear' Bryant. I am going to take the month of January to reflect on my experience with him as a boy growing up in Birmingham during some golden days which culminated to my being a walk-on player his last season.

There are thousands of stories about Coach Bryant which add to the myth of the man. Even some of my recollection may need to be adjusted by comments/corrections. The fact that his life is surrounded by myth is proof of his greatness. Some of the stories I will relay were told to me as fact. Some that I will relay are 30 year memories of eyewitness testimony.

I will also mention that there are some amazing books out there about the life and narrative of Coach Bryant. It would take a lot of space to list all the ones I have enjoyed over the years.

I personally loved Coach: The Life of Paul "BearBryant  by Keith Dunnavant
but there were MANY more!

I guess it is safe to say that I have never read a book about Coach Bryant that I did not enjoy.

Of course the movie was a big disappointment. I was still on the team when we were given a special premiere of the film. It was fun to see Wes Neighbors and Mike White in a movie. There is a funny story about how Thom Whitley's character makes it into the final part.(Maybe another day- I wish I knew where Thom was). But, we were disappointed because a movie really can't capture all that Coach Bryant meant to those who followed his life and career with such reverence. I did get to meet the wonderful person who played Coach Bryant's (Mary Harmon) wife in the movie while we lived in Nashville.


Of course, because I am connected with the Christian faith as a Bible teacher, I get asked OFTEN: Do I think Coach Bryant was a believer? And I tell people the following story, as it was told to me. Please stay with me until the end of this one because it is important to know an important general principle here.


Coach Bryant was very skeptical of religion, and he had good reason to be. My understanding was that Coach Bryant grew up very poor in Fordyce, Arkansas and his mom was a deep devotee to the Church of God. Part of that devotion was a belief that if you sought medical help, you were not showing faith in God as the healer.

Someone please correct my detail here: But my memory is that Coach Bryant lost a sister who would have lived if she had been taken to a hospital. Coach Bryant lived with an understandable anger toward that decision.

Coach Bryant had a deep love and respect (fear) for his mother and he grew up in a society that equated spirituality with smokin', cussin', drinkin'- so, though he did those things, he kept them very discreet.


One of my favorite Coach Bryant stories is that he put a jar in the coaches office and told all the assistants that he and them were to watch their mouths and if they cussed in front of the players, they were going to have to put money in the jar as a penalty.

One day the team had a really bad practice and Coach Bryant came in the next morning not happy about the poor effort. As they headed out the door for practice that afternoon, Coach Bryant took out a wad of cash from his pocket and deposited it firmly in the jar before practice. It was going to be tough on everyone that day!


I used to love hearing Wayne Atcheson's story about starting the FCA chapter at the University of Alabama in the 60's, making it one of the longest consecutively running FCAs in the country.

Coach Bryant was not keen on having an FCA program at the beginning. He was concerned that it made the players soft and not aggressive.

He completely changed his mind about the ministry and years later completely funded the ministry. But his concern was a legitimate one. (Another day and another topic).

He took time just about every year (and I distinctly remember this talk) where he talked to the Christians on the team about not losing toughness because of faith. His example was 3 killer linebackers that started for Baylor one year who all went on to be Baptist preachers. They must have made quite an impression on him!

But Mr. Atcheson (who I saw recently at Samford, and he is now working for the Billy Graham Association library) was always pleased to report that Coach Bryant told him that he used to think FCA was the worst thing that could happen to his team at Alabama and he now believed it was one of the best things about his team at Alabama.


There is no doubt that many of Coach Bryant's players, staff, and coaches had enormous impact on him. I haven't hear many people mention this, but the early death of Pat Trammel must have had a deep impact on Coach Bryant. We have been mourning the passing of Pat's wife, Ba, who passed away Dec. 22, 2012.

And we do know the raucous legendary tales of Joe Namath, and Kenny Stabler.

But there was quite an impact on the state of Alabama from a spiritual standpoint from the strong public testimonies that followed Alabama quarterbacks Gary and Jeff Rutledge, Steadman Shealy, Walter Lewis, and (though it was after Coach Bryant), Jay Barker.

I would not be a Christian today were it not for the ministry of Jeff's dad, Jack Rutledge at Ruhama Baptist church. Mr. Rutledge would show us bowl watches and made it clear that a being a Christ follower did not mean 'weakness' or 'being a sissy'.

I loved getting to know Jeff more when he and I coached against each other in Nashville and I saw Walter Lewis recently (in Best Buy and Lowe's of all places), he is doing well.

Of all of those, Steadman Shealy, is said to have had the greatest impact on Coach Bryant. When Steadman spent time after his playing days as a grad assistant coach, he reportedly had a big impact on Coach Bryant from a biblical teaching standpoint.


This is how it was reported to me from multiple sources.

Coach Bryant had long had questions about the gospel. You can't live in the heart of the Bible belt and not be confronted with it. Though it often comes with mixed messages of human hypocrisy and abuse.

Billy Graham had numerous opportunities to lay down the message: We can't save ourselves- it is a humble reliance on Jesus Christ.

But that message has a hard time gaining root in a man who literally fought his way out of poverty and loomed large as the man's man of success and fame.

But he also could see the fragility of life. He was fading. And he had a huge, tender heart behind the scowl and rough exterior. He had a lot of guilt. He didn't like how he treated his players when he was a young, fireball coach. The reason (I believe) he wore the ring from the junction-boys late in life was that it was a testimony that they held nothing against him for his demanding and often brutal techniques.

He held guilt about smoking filterless Chesterfield's and hiding all the whisky just to please his mama and be protected somewhat from the flak of the crusaders and finger pointing whisperers.

In the end- this message was too easy and his sin seemed too big. Yes, he had given millions and helped people his whole life. He had showed class and dignity, but in his soul- it did not seem enough to measure up to the God he heard about as a boy, full of fury and wrath for vain sinners who loved the world and forfeited their souls.


There was this story: Coach Bryant heard that Rober Shuler was on his plane. The way I was told the story, it was Coach Bryant who approached him. And Coach Bryant gave a number of his personal objectons to the gospel message- mainly, it seemed too easy and there were a number of 'Christians' that he wasn't too high on.

Dr. Shuler's account says that Coach Bryant also said, 'I talk to Billy Graham and I don't get a feeling. And there is a part in the Bible where a prophet calls on God and God sends a bear to eat them. And the Bible says that Christian's aren't supposed to sin and I am on this plane smoking and drinking."

Dr Shuler looked at Coach Bryant and said, "Being a Christian is not about feelings or deeds. It all begins with faith in what Jesus has done. Even if you don't understand all about the Bible or God's ways- an old evangelist used to say, 'you are saved by the blood, not how much you know about the book'. And, Paul, Christians are not sinless. Ephesians 2:8 says we are saved by grace not works."

And Dr. Shuler looked at him- "I think you are ready to become a Christian, Coach."

"In John 6:37, Jesus promises that 'Anyone who comes to me, I will not cast out'."

"I can give you a ticket right now"

He took Coach Bryant's boarding pass and wrote down these words:

MY TICKET TO HEAVEN"Any one who comes to Me, I will not cast out." Jesus Christ. Jesus said it. He is there. I trust Him. I accept Him._______________________________Signature

I was told that Coach Bryant signed his name and that Steadman Sheley spent time teaching Coach Bryant from the Bible the truth of the simple but glorious gospel.

Sometime later, Dr. Shuler mentioned this story from the pulpit and called Coach Bryant to ask if he needed to edit it out from his televised program that was going to be broadcast over the nation.

Coach Bryant replied, "Don't edit it out, I still have that ticket in my billfold and I would be proud for you to tell that story to the country."

And, according to Dr. Shuler, Coach Bryant went into the hospital the next day for complications with his heart.


It is always a tough question to get.  In the end, I trust in a just, righteous, beautiful, and fair JUDGE to make that call. I do know that the Bible says, 'No other name is given for salvation' except Christ. No other sacrifice is accepted to wash away sin except for Christ. Jesus Himself asked if there be another way, let the cup pass.

Jesus says it clearly, "I am the way, the truth, and the life- No one comes to the Father except by me."

I John 5:11-13 says it very well. "This is the witness, God has given eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life. He who does not have the Son of God does NOT have life. I have written these things to you, who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may KNOW you have eternal life."

The best question is not, 'Was Bear Bryant a Christian?' The best question is "Am I a Christian?".

It is up to each of us to evaluate our life and see where we stand regarding the claims of Christ.

You may have great objections. You may not understand it all. Ask God to help you with that.

But don't give me a question like "What about all the natives on a lost island who haven't heard about Jesus"- you have heard about Him, just as Coach Bryant heard about Him.

For all of us, it is an ultimate question. And it has little to do with the trivial things that hold us back.
Don't spend time pointing fingers around behavior and inconsistencies. All of us are in the same boat.

Are you going to sign the ticket?

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