A life-or-death matter, it was not.
But my heart sure sank on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 1977, when I received a phone call from Rebecca Christian, long-time secretary to Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.”
After the pleasantries, she said, “Tommy, our team charter to Los Angeles for the Southern Cal game is full.”
I don’t remember shedding a tear, but I sure felt like it. A couple of months earlier, Coach Bryant had approved my traveling with the Alabama football team to the Nebraska and Southern California road games. As sports editor of The Crimson White (CW), Alabama’s school paper, I had visited him in April with, frankly, a sob story about the paper not having the budget to send me to the games in Lincoln, Nebraska and Los Angeles, California.
“The students need to be represented,” I told him, as I sunk further and further in the infamous sofa, the one that had through the years seemingly swallowed giants of men. And, I’m sure, several sportswriters.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” he said. “Write me a letter before fall practice to remind me.”
I penned my letter in June, and in mid-July I received his reply. “I think we will be able to invite you to accompany us to the Nebraska and USC games,” he wrote. “Should be able to give you a more definite answer in August.”
So, in early/mid-August, at the annual “picture day,” when the players gather for a group photo, as well as those rather unique individual shots taken to appear as if they were in action, I approached the coach, who was sitting in his golf cart. (The same cart, by the way, that’s currently on display at the Bryant Museum.)
“Coach,” I’m Tommy Ford from the …”
“I know who you are, son.”
“Just following up to see if you will have room for me to go with the team…”
“We’d be happy to have you go with us. Check with Rebecca to get the itineraries. Have a nice day.”
Boom. This ol’ Gadsden boy was fired up.
A few weeks later, on a Southern Airlines DC-9 jet, I accompanied the team to Lincoln, Nebraska. The game didn’t go as expected or predicted; the Tide lost to the Cornhuskers, 31-24. Stories abound from that trip, but I’ll save them for a later time.
After hard-fought victories over Vanderbilt and Georgia, it was finally Southern Cal week, which happens to be 46 years ago this weekend. I’d never been to Los Angeles, so for me it might as well have been Christmas morning.
Then, on that Tuesday came Rebecca’s call.
“Tommy, our team charter to Los Angeles for the Southern Cal game is full,” she said.
I paused as the lump in my throat swelled.
“But,” she said, “Coach Bryant has arranged for you to fly out on a commercial flight with some of our graduate assistants. They got bumped, too.”
At that instant, only one thought crossed my mind: Coach Bryant was a man of his word. It would’ve been just as easy to leave me at home, but because he’d said I could go, he followed through with his promise. And keep in mind, I was a nobody sportswriter from the student paper, no less.
The weekend in Los Angeles was magical, especially Alabama’s heart-stopping 21-20 victory over No. 1 Southern Cal. Going into the fourth quarter, the Tide clung to a 7-6 lead. Two quick Alabama scores made it 21-6, but USC stormed back with a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to cut the lead to 21-14. In the last minute, the Trojans scored again, making it 21-20. On Southern Cal’s two-point conversion attempt, Bama defensive end Wayne Hamilton harassed Trojan quarterback Rob Hertel into throwing an errant pass, which was intercepted by Tide linebacker Barry Krauss. For the 9,000 Alabama fans in attendance and the hundreds of thousands watching on ABC Television, pandemonium reigned.
Following the game, my “chauffeur,” Ben Cook of the SEC Sports Journal, drove me and Bill Brown, the Crimson White photographer, back to the Airport Marriott. An hour or so later, Bill and I were off to join a few of the Alabama cheerleaders at Bama alumnus Jim Nabors’ home in Beverly Hills. (This was the third straight night Jim had hosted Alabama friends and supporters at his home; on the Thursday night prior to the game, he accommodated 65 people for a seated dinner. And two lucky UA students – Honey Gothard and Leah Yelverton – stayed at Jim’s house for three nights.)
At Jim’s house that evening, “starstruck” doesn’t adequately describe my mindset. Not just with Jim, whom I’d met on campus before, but with the whole Beverly Hills lavishness. Within a couple blocks of his eight-level home overlooking Los Angeles lived, among others, Rod Stewart, Mac Davis, Dean Martin, Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford (called “Bob” by Jim), Johnny Carson, Jerry Lewis, Sonny Bono, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Located directly behind Jim’s house was the mansion where “The Beverly Hillbillies” was filmed.
We stayed at Jim’s until almost midnight, talking about the Tide’s big win (he was an Alabama sideline guest), his days at the Capstone, and his experiences with “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” The consummate host to his Alabama friends, Jim couldn’t have been nicer and more accommodating.
As the night drew to a close, Bill and I hitched a ride with Alabama cheerleaders Melanie Morris, Frank Woodson, Duke DuVall, and David Cochran. Before heading back to the hotel, we decided to do some late-night cruising and star-gazing through Beverly Hills. We were fortunate to catch a glimpse of Sanford and Son star Redd Foxx, who was driving his own car.
I’m guessing that I got to bed around 3 a.m., and even at that crazy hour, I couldn’t sleep. I’d had the day of a lifetime.
On Sunday, I took a United Airlines flight to Birmingham, and upon arriving back in Tuscaloosa, I learned of the raucous celebrations on campus following the victory over USC. From what I was told, more than 1,500 Tide fans had welcomed the team back to the Tuscaloosa airport on Saturday night.
Sunday would’ve been a nice day to soak in my incredible weekend, but I had work to do. By late afternoon, I was in the CW office writing my two game stories while Bill Brown slaved away in his lab preparing a few photos for publication. Then I was off to the basement of Carmichael Hall, where the stories were typeset and the sports pages were laid out. By midnight or so, the paper was shipped off to the printers, and by the next morning, the Monday, Oct. 10th edition of the CW was being read by students all over campus.
And I had Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, a true man of his word, to thank for making it all happen.
© 2023 Tommy Ford All Rights Reserved