For Mary Lou Laslie Henry, the phone call sounded too good to be true.
Way down in Alabama, on the other end of the line was Fred Martinez, claiming he was in possession of her father’s long-gone University of Alabama 1965 national championship ring.
“That’s impossible,” said Mary Lou, a Virginia resident and the only child of long-time Alabama assistant football coach Carney Laslie. “That ring was stolen from us years ago.”
And so begins the true and improbable tale of an Alabama national championship ring, a coach, a snorkeling excursion in Hawaii, the patience of Job, and some clever investigative work by an Army soldier who happened to be a rabid Crimson Tide fan.
Let’s start with the discovery, then we’ll work backward.
“I found the ring in 1982 off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii,” said Martinez, who at the time was stationed at Schofield Barracks, a U.S. Army post in Oahu. “A friend and I were snorkeling for coral reef to sell at the local flea markets. We were in about 15 to 20 feet of water when we noticed sharks heading our way.
“We dropped everything and swam out of there as fast as we could,” Martinez said. “As I neared the beach, I saw something shiny on the bottom, about five to six feet down. It looked like it might be a gold coin. As crazy as this sounds, something told me to go get it, even though sharks were heading our way.”
Martinez went down and scooped up the object, not knowing what he had until he reached the shore. When he uncurled his fingers, to his surprise he was holding a 1965 University of Alabama national championship ring with the initials C.G.L. inscribed in it.
“My first thought was, ‘How in the world did it get here?’” Martinez said.
After Martinez’s serendipitous phone call, Mary Lou wondered the same thing. She can start and end the story, but all events in between remain an unsolvable mystery.
Carney Laslie, Mary Lou’s father, played football for Alabama in the early 1930s and became close friends with teammate Paul W. Bryant, an end on the Tide squad and later Alabama’s head coach from 1958-82.
“It was Daddy’s and Paul’s dream to coach together one day,” Mary Lou said. “And they did. Everywhere Paul went, Daddy went as an assistant.”
Maryland and Kentucky were their first two stops together. After five years as an assistant at Kentucky, Laslie moved on to Army West Point and coached with the legendary Vince Lombardi. In 1957, he rejoined Bryant, who had since moved to Texas A&M. One year later, the pair went back home to the University of Alabama, because, as Bryant so famously stated, “Mama called.”
Laslie served as assistant athletic director and assistant football coach under Bryant from 1958 until his death in May 1970. An accident on a blocking sled at spring practice led to phlebitis and a fatal blood clot to his lung.
Through Laslie’s coaching career at Alabama, he earned three national championship rings – 1961, 1964, and 1965. Following his death, Mary Lou gave Laslie’s 1961 ring to a member of the 1961 team whose ring had been lost. She held on to the 1964 ring and gave the 1965 ring to her son Jimmy, who was more than honored to have his grandfather’s Crimson Tide keepsake.
Here’s where the story gets bizarre.
“My son Jimmy wore that ’65 ring everywhere he went,” Mary Lou said. “In 1977, he was a college student and working a part-time job at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. One day he went into the restroom during a Redskins game and took the ring off to wash his hands. It was always too big for his finger, and he was always afraid it might come off and go down the drain.
“So, he washed his hands and forgot to pick it up after he finished. A few minutes later, he realized he had left it, so he rushed back. The ring was gone – someone had obviously taken it. We were devastated.”
Five years later, somehow and some way, Laslie’s ring made it to the ocean floor just off the coast of Oahu and was discovered by Fred Martinez.
“Whoever lost the ring was probably swimming in the surf, maybe riding a boogie board,” Martinez said. “No one will ever know how it got there.”
A few months later, in March 1983, Martinez was transferred to Fort Rucker in Enterprise, Ala., for helicopter flight school. His friends on the base encouraged him to sell the ring.
“I told them it wasn’t mine to sell,” he said. “I was determined to find the rightful owner.”
Martinez placed a couple of calls to the Alabama Athletic Department, but both times the answer was the same: There was no player on the 1965 squad with the initials C.G.L.
“The Athletic Department wanted me to send the ring to them,” he said, “but I was afraid it would never get to the rightful owner, so I kept it.”
For more than 25 years, through several military moves, Martinez held on to the ring, bringing it out when he watched Alabama football games on television.
“I’d have friends over to watch the games and I’d bring that ring out and tell them the story,” he said. “Just like before they encouraged me to sell it, but I wouldn’t do it.”
In fall 2011 Martinez, retired and living in Falkville, Ala., decided to make one more stab at finding the ring’s owner. Through a couple of friends at Fairview Church of God, an inquiry was made to the A-Club Alumni Association within the University of Alabama Athletic Department. This time, there would be answers.
“We were told, once again, that there were no players on the 1965 team with those initials,” he said. “But they said that one of the coaches on that team was Carney Laslie and that the ring was undoubtedly his. Our next move was to see if Coach Laslie had any children and if so, where they would be.”
A few more inquiries by A-Club staff led to Mary Lou’s whereabouts in Virginia and the improbable phone call that wrote the final chapter in the 34-year-old mystery.
“Ms. Henry was overwhelmed with the news,” Martinez said. “I sent the ring to her by registered mail and insured it for $10,000. Every step of the way, any postal worker who touched it had to sign for it. I didn’t want to take any chances.”
Through the years, Martinez has used the ring as a lesson in character for his son.
“When I first found the ring, my son was 6 years old,” he said. “He asked me what I was going to do with it. I told him it wasn’t my ring, and we must find the owner. I make a promise to God and to him that I would continue looking.”
Thanks to Martinez’s efforts, the championship ring arrived to Mary Lou in good shape, considering its long, wayward journey from the football fields of Alabama, to RFK Stadium, to warm Pacific waters, and finally to its resting spot in Virginia.
“We just couldn’t believe it,” said Mary Lou, who undoubtedly holds the distinction of being the only person to ever babysit both the children of Paul “Bear” Bryant and Vince Lombardi. “I thought that ring would’ve been melted down long ago. I appreciated Mr. Martinez’s persistence. He refused any type of reward from us, so instead I made a contribution to his church.
“It’s the least we could do.”
(Writer’s note: Mary Lou Laslie Henry’s granddaughter, Carey Henry Keefe, has written a fascinating book about the journeys of three inseparable Alabama teammates – Carney Laslie, Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, and Frank Moseley. “A Tide of Dreams” goes behind the curtain to the trio’s roles in using football techniques to train World War II fighter pilots all the way to leading young men on football fields for decades to come. “A Tide of Dreams” is a must-read for every Alabama fan.)
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