“I’ve just received word that Coach Bryant is dead. He is dead.”
A stunned silence fell over our 9th grade Math class as Mr. Davis’ booming voice rang against the cinder block walls of Lipscomb Junior High School. It was as if we had heard God Himself had died.
Paul “Bear” Bryant was as integral a part of our lives in those days as Sunday dinner, during which we watched the Alabama head coach going over the previous game, a bag of Golden Flake potato chips conspicuously positioned on the desk in front of him. He explained the plays as they happened, the rumbling tone of his voice belieing a teacher’s heart as he went over the mistakes and praised the successes.
Bear Bryant just was to those of us who came of age in his latter days; he was and had always been Alabama’s coach as far as we were concerned, and he would always be.
Even when we watched him observing from the sidelines of the Liberty Bowl, his granite face nestled into the fur of a parka like a lion in winter, he seemed beyond the constraints of time and tide. All dogs went to Heaven, we were sure, and all boys went to play for the Bear.
But that Rider that waits for no man would not wait for Coach Bryant either, and he left us like a Caesar, carried on his shield past throngs of his subjects to an unassuming place on the lawn of Elmwood, where a simple marker would note only that a man was born and had died. Any commemoration would be done later, and is done to this day, by those who stop to pay respect and to leave some crimson token behind.
Young men now follow a new general, and the bronze statue of the fallen king is merely a reminder of ancient history. He has been surpassed, they say, and should be left to the museums and the yard sales where cheap trinkets bearing his craggy face are sold for pennies to yokels holding on to the past.
It has been thirty years since we sat in silence on that January day, and for the Boys of 1983, he remains. His memory endures for what he was and what he made us think we could be. And when all his records are broken and all his accomplishments exceeded, we will remember his voice, challenging us to be what he was to us.
Nothing but a winner.