The Big Bear

I’m watching the Alabama-Missouri game. I’m eating boiled peanuts. It’s the first time I’ve seen college football since the pandemic began some 300 years ago. To say I’m happy is like saying the Pope is an okay guy.

I’m ecstatic.

I don’t want to get all mushy about Alabama football because I don’t want to be “that” kind of fan. You know the one I’m talking about.

The football fanatic whose conversations are always about sports. A guy who, even if he is at, let’s say, a baby christening, will talk about the importance of a well-formed wishbone offense.

These are men so painfully obsessed that they name their kids after head coaches.

So I’m not going to tell you how I was born during Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s farewell game, the last of his career. A game in which the Crimson Tide smeared the Fighting Illini into proverbial skidmarks.

Neither will I tell you about how, during the instant I drew my first breath, my father was facing a delivery-room television that broadcasted Paul Bryant’s final game.

I won’t tell you how when my father heard a newborn baby crying, he was so moved by paternal emotion that he sincerely said, “Ssssshhhhhh! It’s third down!”

What I will tell you is that my father liked Alabama’s head coach.

Who didn’t?

Paul William Bryant was born in the late summer of 1913 in a sleepy Cleveland County, Arkansas backwater. His hometown of Moro Bottom wasn’t even a town at all. Only seven families lived in the community. All dirt farmers.

Paul was a large, lanky baby. He had feet like rowboats, hands like ball gloves, and a stern, righteous face that looked like he helped write the Ten Commandments.

He was the eleventh of twelve births, and friends said he was a fearless human being.

When I say “fearless,” I mean that in his boyhood, Paul once wrestled a bear in a traveling circus-sideshow tent. The animal nearly ripped off his ear, earning him the nickname “Bear.”

His was a generation that grew up during a toilsome time. It’s hard to imagine just how difficult those years were in America. But make no mistake, they were godawful.

They were decades that formed men out of toddlers. A trying period that makes our modern-day pandemic look like a trip to the dentist.

The Great War was on in Europe, killing 20 million. Meanwhile, the Spanish Flu was taking another 50 million. Then came a Great Depression. Suicide rates were climbing higher than ever. Big-city bankers were leaping off tall ledges.

Dust storms were murdering the Heartland. Poverty-stricken sharecroppers were migrating to keep from starving. And the wars just kept coming.

This was the America he grew up in.

As a kid, Paul’s father was sickly, and his mother had too many children to handle. They were bone poor. She simply couldn’t afford to feed a teenage buck with a bottomless appetite. So Paul went to live with his grandfather in the nearby crossroads of Fordyce.

It was there, in an unassuming American hamlet, that football history would be written in the Arkansas mud. When 13-year-old Paul discovered a pigskin ball, tied with twelve evenly-spaced white laces, it would become his reason for breathing.

Paul said it happened like this:

“One day, I was walking past the field where the high school team was practicing football. I was in the eighth grade, and I ain’t never even seen a football before.

“The coach naturally noticed a great big ole boy like me and he asked if I wanted to play.

“I said, ‘Yessir, I guess I do. How do you play?’

“Coach said, ‘Well, son, you see that fella catching the ball down there? Well, whenever he catches it, you go down there and try to kill him.’

The following Friday, Paul was on the field in a uniform.

The big-limbed kid didn’t know the difference between a goal post and a “Reader’s Digest.” But he played hard. And he hit hard enough to dislocate your pride.

His teachers said he was a crummy student—he didn’t even graduate with his classmates. He failed a language class, and struggled in his other subjects. But on the field he was Michelangelo.

He led his rag-tag high school toward a perfect season in 1930, snagging the Arkansas State Championship. College talent scouts began crawling out of the wallpaper to find this six-foot-four hick from the sticks.

One such scout offered Paul an athletic scholarship to the University of Alabama. And so it was. Paul Bryant began his life in Tuscaloosa. It was the biggest city he’d ever known. A metropolis, by all means.

They say he played ball like his face was on fire. In one particular 1935 game, for instance, Paul played with a broken leg and still managed to help Alabama to a 25-0 victory over Tennessee.

But wait, what am I doing?

I told myself I wouldn’t talk about football. And just look at me. I’m boring you with statistics, obscure dates, and stories that are making you snore.

I apologize. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t tell you about Paul Bryant’s 25-year tenure as coach of Alabama, wherein he racked up six national championship titles and 13 conference championships.

I wasn’t going to tell you about how on the day of his retirement, the dirt-poor country boy from Cleveland County had grown up to hold the record for the most wins of any collegiate coach.

And I definitely wasn’t going to tell you that my middle name is Paul.

46 comments

  1. Nell Thomas - September 27, 2020 7:53 am

    Great story Baby Bear. Enjoy the heck out of this football season and the boiled peanuts.

    Reply
  2. Harriet - September 27, 2020 8:34 am

    My cousin almost played for Coach Bryant. Alabama scouts wanted him and they drove to N. Ga. to watch him score touchdowns. But then during his last high school football game he got hurt real bad and broke his back. No one from Alabama visited him at the hospital, no get well card. I understand they couldn’t use him and had to move on to the next kid – but it was sad to watch his dreams go down the toilet. My cousin never recovered from his injury emotionally or physically.
    He got hooked on OxyContin for pain then meth and some jail time.
    He’s 58 years old and stuck in the 1970’s.
    I like Saben better then Bryant and I love SEC football. Go Dawgs. ❤️

    Reply
  3. Karen Erwin-Brown - September 27, 2020 9:19 am

    Roll Tide. I didn’t know that story about “The Bear”. Thanks. I met my husband at The University.

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  4. Jean - September 27, 2020 11:25 am

    Thank you for the story on The Bear. God bless Paul Bear Bryant! He is surely missed. RTR

    Reply
  5. topdock - September 27, 2020 11:40 am

    When I first moved to Alabama, I joined a Touchdown Club. Every college football Monday evening, 300 plus men met for dinner that featured a speaker. Most of the speakers were head coaches. The evening that Coach Bryant was the speaker, I will never forget that the room hushed when he entered the room. I recall one voice saying “He’s here”. Indeed, he was a presence.

    Reply
  6. Judy Cobern - September 27, 2020 11:44 am

    Sean, you made me laugh at 6:30 this morning! That’s hard to do! Thanks … and ROLL TIDE!

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  7. Sheila B Ahler - September 27, 2020 12:41 pm

    RTR – my whole family – save one wayward cousin who attended that “other” school in Alabama – are Bama born and bred!
    I was at University while The Bear was still coaching and grateful to have met him on numerous occasions – including a cook-out at his home.
    Thanks for sharing memories.
    What a great legacy to carry your middle name to another generation.
    Bama Gal

    Reply
  8. Dan Wise - September 27, 2020 12:43 pm

    Fond memories of my brief and enduring encounter with ‘The Bear’, We were in Tuscaloosa playing in the state 2-A basketball finals. It was the first time the tournaments transitioned from Foster Auditorium to the newly christened Memorial Coliseum. Our Coach, the legendary Craig Purcell, accompanied us on a walk-through to get a feel for the landscape. He then led us into the bowels of the facility. Little did we know, Coach had arranged for a private audience with the legendary Paul Bear Bryant. He was the consummate gentleman. Needless to say, we were awed as he shared experiences and encouragement. And yes…we went on to carry the winning trophy to it’s fitting home in the trophy case of our Kinston High School Gymnasium!

    Reply
  9. Robert M Brenner - September 27, 2020 1:05 pm

    “The Bear”! A friend took me to a game in Tuscaloosa and I got to visit the museum built and named in his honor. A true icon for the game and when “Men were Men”! Loved hearing your knowledge of this giant in the game of football 🏈…Bob

    Reply
  10. Chip in Auburn, AL - September 27, 2020 1:13 pm

    I love it! And I, too, loved watching football yesterday! It was our first day of ‘normalcy’ in what seems like forever!

    Oh, and don’t worry about talking on and on about Alabama and the Bear. I, too, can ramble on about my school. It will only take a second.

    War Eagle!

    Reply
  11. Ken M. - September 27, 2020 1:26 pm

    Wonderful story. My great-uncle was a friend of Bear’s and I love some Bama Football. Roll Tide.

    Reply
  12. Lynn - September 27, 2020 1:32 pm

    I’m from Missouri and Mizzou didn’t stand a chance against Alabama. Congrats on the win and I loved the Bear facts.
    War Eagle! (I’m an Auburn mom)

    Reply
  13. Susan - September 27, 2020 1:42 pm

    Score!

    Reply
  14. Peter Clay - September 27, 2020 1:51 pm

    Normally I would find football stories and stats to be a faux pas, but you my friend have a gift to view the world through a beautiful lens and the commitment to writing that helps that beauty come into focus for others.

    Reply
  15. Debbie - September 27, 2020 3:04 pm

    Roll Tide! 🐘🏈🐘

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  16. Pat - September 27, 2020 3:10 pm

    Sean Paul…..that just rolls off your tongue so easily, almost as one name!

    Reply
  17. Beau McLarty - September 27, 2020 3:20 pm

    Thank you Sean for sharing that story of the Bear. I grew up listening to Alabama Football. Most of my family are Tide fans. I always roiting for the Tide, until they meet the Tigers. Then I am an Auburn fan. Dad’s M.S. in Engineering was at Auburn. My B.S. in C.J. was at UAB. I am now going back for additional CEUs at Auburn. But the Tide still has a place in our family history. 4 nephews, & my step-Mom graduated from UA.

    Reply
  18. Retired Ol' Geezer - September 27, 2020 3:29 pm

    Well, Sean, did you catch the irony of the colors of The Fighting IIlini? Orange and Blue.

    Reply
  19. Diane Bailey - September 27, 2020 4:12 pm

    Roll Tide, Roll!

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  20. MAM - September 27, 2020 4:49 pm

    The last line was the best!

    Reply
  21. Ann - September 27, 2020 4:53 pm

    Refreshing and filled with hope for us all today❤️🇺🇸

    Reply
  22. Linda Moon - September 27, 2020 5:04 pm

    I know two of those kinds of fans. They are brothers #10 and #12 of a dozen siblings. The Lord God that their Mama often called on blessed her and the Mama of Paul “Bear”, too. “And so it was” are just about the best story-telling words of yours, Sean Paul, so no need to apologize for this or any of them. I’ll pass this one along to those brothers 10 and 12. They won’t be bored!

    Reply
  23. Mistydawn Haynes - September 27, 2020 5:15 pm

    Love these stories about the most admired man in Alabama. Yesterday was virtual freshman day for our daughter at UA. It was fitting that a pic be taken with Bear for social media. Writing this brings back so many Saturday memories that I will forever treasure. Thank you for an article to share with my children. #Roll Tide

    Reply
  24. H J Patterson - September 27, 2020 5:37 pm

    Sean, It took some stones to reveal the story behind your middle name but please give your dad some credit. He could have gone full bore like Harvey Updyke and named you Bear Bryant Dietrich and your sister would have been named Crimson Tyde Dietrich. Harvey was the epitome of as you said “These are men so painfully obsessed that they name their kids after head coaches.” The season is finally here with limited fanfare, no player walks to the stadiums, officials with electronic whistles, coaches interviewed from info babes that are standing in the next county, but copious amounts of masks. As ridiculous as it all is, we should be thankful, let’s get in on.

    Reply
  25. Bonnie Stewart - September 27, 2020 7:58 pm

    I don’t know much about football but your writing entrances me. Thank you

    Reply
  26. Melanie - September 27, 2020 8:14 pm

    Roll Tide ❤️🇺🇸😊

    Reply
  27. Sandra - September 27, 2020 8:50 pm

    I have the book on the life of Bear Bryant . He was an awesome coach. Roll Tide Roll 🏈🐘

    Reply
  28. Anita Crabtree - September 27, 2020 9:33 pm

    One of your BEST articles!!!

    Reply
  29. Cindy - September 27, 2020 9:49 pm

    A great tribute to a great coach!

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  30. Julie Patterson - September 27, 2020 11:16 pm

    Alabama has another school?!

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  31. Michael - September 27, 2020 11:51 pm

    I am not going to tell you how much I enjoyed this article or how I look forward to your writing every morning. So there.

    Reply
  32. Betty Kelly - September 28, 2020 12:32 am

    Loved this one Sean! Johnny and I loved the Bear all our married life! (61 years) Our children loved him too and many of our greats! Three of our grandchildren have gone to UofA! We are big RollTide fans!!!

    Reply
  33. Patricia Gibson - September 28, 2020 12:37 am

    I loved him too and I am not from Alabama and never attended school there. He was a legend.

    Reply
  34. Nancy M - September 28, 2020 1:38 am

    We’re Auburn fans in our family, but we’ve always admired Coach Bear Bryant. Actually, our older son was born on the Friday before that famous game, “Punt, Bama, Punt.” My husband believed that my doctor induced delivery early so he, a fervent Alabama fan, wouldn’t have to miss it. The doctor denied that.

    Reply
  35. Anne - September 28, 2020 3:01 am

    Oh, Sean, this is one of your best! ❤️

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  36. Don Brunn - September 28, 2020 1:06 pm

    A photo in a small diner in Anniston Alabama had the ‘bear’ walking on water. This was1967, hope it is still there. Don, Auburn Hills, Mi

    Reply
  37. Penn Wells - September 28, 2020 1:43 pm

    Everybody in the South had a love/hate relationship with The Bear, unless you were a Bama fan, then it was love/love. If an opposing team ever beat The Tide, Bear would just say “we got our butt kicked today,” or “they just wanted it worse than we did.” Not the current guy’s (I cant say his name) “we didn’t play very well,” of “I didn’t coach very well.”
    “The Junction Boys,” the book about that ill-fated trip he took his first Texas A&M team on, is a must read. One-hundred-twenty-five went to Junction, 32 wound up sticking it out. That Aggie team one one game in 1952, against my beloved Dawgs, in Athens, when we were ranked #4 in the country. BTW, Coach O at LSU kind of reminds me of the Bear. Not the guy who’s in Tuscaloosa now. Go Dawgs.

    Reply
  38. Don Hilscher - September 28, 2020 8:51 pm

    I became a BAMA fan listening to WSB Radio’s pick of Dixie game of the week on Saturday nights which in most cases featured the Alabama Crimson Tide running the mighty wishbone offense. BAMA dominated the SEC during the 70’s. Winning 8 SEC Titles during the decade. Back in the 60″s and 70″s BAMA was constantly recognized in the National Polls winning the National Championship in 61; 64; 65; 73; 78; and 79. The 1966 Crimson Tide was the only undefeated team in college football however the title went to Notre-dam-Dame. WHY!! College football resented the constant success of BAMA Football. The missing ring team was probably Coach Bryant’s best team which deserved that title. I loved Coach Bryant and I had the good fortune of seeing him on the football field 3 times when the DAWGS were playing BAMA. Seeing him gave me chills and I was awed being in his presence. BAMA is the epitome of college football. BAMA now has 17 National Titles and more to come in the future probably this season. BAMA’s success all started with Coach Wallace Wade. I was a 31 year season ticket holder at Georgia and love my Bulldogs however the mighty Crimson Tide is only a half a step behind the DAWGS. What Coach Saban has done at Alabama is remarkable but there is nothing that can compare to “Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.”
    ROLL TIDE ROLL keep setting the standard in college football!!

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  39. Berryman Mary M - September 29, 2020 8:45 pm

    Great story, Sean! Add from an Auburn graduate – War Eagle!

    Reply
  40. Hazel - October 2, 2020 12:08 pm

    Even though I was born in Mississippi, I have always admired Paul Bryant…… I did not know his back story or history, just his fine coaching and life lessons he gave his players….. It is a great story, Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  41. elainenkarrh - October 7, 2020 4:03 am

    Proud to say I was attending school at Alabama when the Bear was still coaching.One of my favorite memories is getting to eat breakfast with him and and the players before a game way back in 1981!! He was a man of few words,but I was in total awe of him.I think it is wonderful that you are named for such a wonderful legend. ROLL TIDE!!🏈🏈🏈🐘🐘🐘🐘

    Reply
  42. Wendy Smith - October 8, 2020 11:33 am

    Thank you for reminding us how special Coach “Bear” Bryant was and why Bama fans love ❤️ reminiscing about him. Our youngest was born on his birthday , and that’s the first thing my father mentioned when he called that evening. It’s also how I choose to remember Sept 11th each year, the day two very special men entered this world.

    Reply
  43. Bill Keller - October 14, 2020 10:18 pm

    My wife and I, both Bama alumni, were walking in a trail in Zion National Park in Utah, when we met a young couple, and the fellow said “Roll Tide” when he saw my cap with that cursive A on the front. He was from Mississippi, and he was a Bama fan, he said. He also had a Coach Bryant story: Years ago, Coach Bryant had called one of his uncles, then a star running back at a school in rural Mississippi, and they talked about his playing for the Tide. That next week week, his uncle opened a package from Tuscaloosa. Coach Bryant had sent him a tie. The boy did not go to Alabama to play for the Tide, but that tie took on almost sacred properties in his family, he said. It became a talisman. When he got married some 25 years later, his uncle lent him that tie to wear during the ceremony, for luck. As our conversation went on, I showed him a photo on my phone showing my father, Red Keller, who played basketball and football for the Tide, with three teammates, all dressed in suits and ties and looking like Hollywood actors, and with my Dad are his roommate, Bubber Nesbit, Bryant and one player we could not identify. The photo showed them waiting to board the train to Pasadena for the 1935 Rose Bowl. Dad, a first-string basketball player, was a third-team “sub,” as he called it, on the football team, behind the two legendary ends, Bryant and Don Hutson. I sent the photo by email to the young man from Mississippi.

    Reply
  44. Debra - October 28, 2020 5:10 pm

    You made someone who doesn’t give a hoot about football care a lot about this man and his life. And, as usual, I laughed and then got teary-eyed.

    Reply
  45. Wyman Pilcher - October 28, 2020 5:38 pm

    I’m a Georgia Dawg, but the best TV Show ever was his Sunday game replay! Sponsored by Coca-Cols and Golden Flake Potato Chips, I can still the Bear saying “Bingo” on a big hit!

    Reply
  46. Kathryn Purnell - October 29, 2020 10:31 am

    Creigh Purnell is my brother-in-law and they honored him by naming the gym in Kinston after him. He is in his mintiest and still very active. He still loves ALABAMA Football and especially round balls!

    Reply

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