Like the majority of you, I was shocked and dismayed when I heard about the white supremacist student who tried to kill several of his classmates, especially blacks, with some homemade bombs. Thankfully, he was stopped by teachers, administration and the police before he could transform the East Alabama County into the next Newtown, Connecticut.
I’ve learned that the student was a transfer from Manassas, Virginia, near where I lived while working in Washington, DC before moving to LaGrange. He may not know much about Alabama and its traditions. So I thought I would provide a story I learned when I came down here to the deep South to live about one of its legends: Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Bryant had coaching success wherever he went, but none better than at Alabama, where he won three national championships between 1960 and 1965. But then the Crimson Tide went through a drought. In four straight seasons, the team when 8-2-1, 8-3, 6-5, and 6-5-1.
All that changed in 1970, the year I was born. USC came out to Alabama to play in an early season matchup in Birmingham. USC brought highly touted running back Sam Cunningham, the successor to O. J. Simpson. All that “Sam Bam Cunningham” did was run roughshod over the Crimson Tide defense for multiple touchdowns and a 42-21 drubbing of Alabama. Cunningham went on to have a great collegiate and pro career, and got into the NCAA Hall-of-Fame.
Now Alabama’s team was all white, mostly due to the legacy of George Wallace and other political opportunists who translated hate speech into votes (how many of you knew Wallace started as an integrationist, but became a segregationist so he could get elected).
Bryant could have stuck to his guns, hated all black players after Cunningham outclassed his team, and ordered his players to hurt such athletes whenever they faced them.
But instead, Bear Bryant pressured the school to change that outdated policy. That year, Bryant recruited an African-American player and the following season, an African-American was playing. In fact, by the time Alabama made their big comeback and faced off against Notre Dame in the epic 24-23 Sugar Bowl in 1973, a third of the team was black. Bryant, of course, went on to win more National Championships with African-American players.
I went to my first Alabama game at the Sun Bowl where I worked, in December of 1983, the season after Bear Bryant died. There, his African-American quarterback Walter Lewis led the Crimson Tide to crush the heavily favored (and well-paid) 10-1 SMU Mustangs, 28-7 on a bitterly cold, windy day. A few years later, I got to work the Alabama halftime show when they returned to the Sun Bowl to defeat the Washington Huskies behind Bobby Humphrey, the Sam Bam Cunningham of the 1980s.
I wish the RCHS bomb plotter learned a little about Alabama history, and its legendary coach Bear Bryant, and how his successor Nick Saban (who plays black and white players) built a dynasty in the state by being something other than a racist or a white supremacist. Both coaches and their players are good role models for the rest of us.