Thursday, January 10, 2008
I went downstairs last week and found an old box of memorabilia.
I had to – after watching an emotional Sylvester Croom before and after the recent Liberty Bowl in Memphis. The Mississippi State University football coach was leading his Bulldogs against Central Florida. And it was 25 years to the day after he stood beside Paul “Bear” Bryant, who was coaching his last game ever in the 24th annual Liberty Bowl.
Croom, who also played for “The Bear,” was an assistant under the legendary coach back in 1982.
He said his thoughts are always on Bryant, who won 323 games at Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama and guided the Crimson Tide to five Associated Press national titles.
To me, Croom acts and sounds a lot like Bryant. Some of his Mississippi State players agree.
“That’s who we feel like we’re playing for sometimes,” said tailback Anthony Dixon, the subject of a few of Croom’s growling Bear-like speeches. “We feel like we know what some of those Alabama players felt like when they were playing for Bear Bryant back in the day. We really do. There’s a lot of it in him.”
Croom and his Bulldogs beat Central Florida 10-3 a couple of weeks back. After the game, a TV reporter asked him about his love for Bryant, the game 25 years ago, and his being on the same field again and winning with his own team. Croom started to cry during his response.
That post-game interview made me think about “the box” and the things stored inside. Finally, I had to go look.
Inside are many memories of Bear’s last game – December 29, 1982. The Crimson Tide defeated Illinois 21-15.
I was there – in person – a 21-year-old who grew up idolizing Bear Bryant, and I watched him closely on this night. It’s the coldest football game I’ve ever attended. I froze. It will forever be etched in my mind. I talk about it often.
Atop the items in “the box” is the game program which includes an article written by Tommy Horton with the Memphis Press-Scimitar.
“At approximately 10 o’clock tonight, the Bear Bryant era comes to an end. The most famous football coach will walk off the field for the last time. For those fans lucky enough to have a ticket, it’ll be a game to remember.
“Fifty-two thousand fans will show up regardless of how cold it is. After all, we’re talking about history.”
Then there’s the game day “Souvenir Edition” of the Memphis Press-Scimitar. The price - 25 cents. The big headline on the sports page reads – “Thanks, Bear, for the memories.”
Sports editor George Lapides wrote – “It may be the biggest sports event ever held in Memphis. A legend will walk out on the field for the last time as head coach tonight.”
Then there’s the copy of The Birmingham News from December 30, 1982, the day after the game. The front page headline reads, “Bryant leaves football arena dry-eyed victor.”
The story was written by sports editor Alf Van Hoose. Its first paragraph – “The exit was the sweetest. And it was happy.”
It continues – “Paul W. Bryant was leaving the arena, the champ. Tears might be for tomorrow. This was victory joy.”
The other newspapers in “the box” are from just a few weeks later, January 27, 1983. Those stories, shockingly, were covering Bryant’s death.
The headlines included – “America’s fans mourn Bryant’s death” and “At Bryant home, a night for sad, fond memories.”
Mike Goens, then sports editor of The Times Daily in Florence, wrote – “From the White House to the home of virtually every mama and papa, America today mourned the death of the man they all knew as The Bear.”
I watched several games this bowl season. Only one stirred special memories. Thanks to Coach Croom, I dug out “the box.”
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