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They got a name for the winners in the world

by Jeff Sykes

My childhood coincided with the glory days of Alabama football and the man in the hounds tooth hat who roamed the sidelines like a demigod. He was actually bigger than God to me at the time, being that I knew more about Paul “Bear” Bryant than I did that unknown deity looming somewhere in the great beyond.

Bear Bryant was real. I could see him and take in his handiwork every so often when his Crimson Tide football team would be on national television.

It’s hard explaining to young whippersnappers who grew up with cell phones attached to their nose tips what it was like discovering the world slowly. But I discovered Bear Bryant on a small television one Saturday in my Papa Roy’s living room. We’d probably been down Number 8 from the Stokes County border to Ogburn Station and the Paragon Foods where we’d buy groceries on Saturday mornings. We’d probably taken a walk in the woods behind his house to look for arrowheads and creep through the forest like the Saura he told me used to roam these piedmont woods.

But by late afternoon we’d be watching a game. I never knew why Roy loved sports so much, but he’s the one to blame for my passion for football and pro basketball. After Bryant won backto-back titles for Alabama in the late 1970s, he faded quickly, once telling a reporter who asked what he’d do after his December 1982 retirement that he’d “probably croak in a week.”

Bryant did pass away within a month. It was also just a few months after my Roy died suddenly of a heart attack in October of 1982. I recall finding a Bear Bryant biography in my neighbor’s library later that year. He let me borrow it and I read it quickly and returned it. I worshiped Bear Bryant throughout my teens and held on to the glory of those late-1970s Alabama teams even as they stunk up the 1980s and early 1990s.

But in that glorious winter of 1993, something familiar happened. The Tide went on a tear and met the hated Miami Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl that January. I was in college then and healing from a head injury and a nasty breakup with a woman that I loved. I’d left my friends back home in Winston-Salem and went back to college early in order to be alone and lick my wounds. I got a double surprise on New Year’s Day when my good friend Glenn from the ATL showed up that afternoon with a huge bag of weed. We blazed the house down and watched bowl games, culminating with the Tide crushing the Hurricanes that night.

I was likely too high that night to think much about Roy. I left school a few months later and took a job in the basement of the Forsyth County courthouse. It was a soul crushing experience that taught me a lot about the reality of criminal justice in this country. I lasted a few short years before launching on a decade-long journey to stability. There wasn’t much to say about Alabama football during those years. They were lean and I believe at least one NCAA probation was endured.

Times were tight during the Mike Shula era, but the teams were at least competitive. It wasn’t until the arrival of Nick Saban in 2007 that things began to look up.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love some smashmouth football and that’s what Saban has brought back to the Crimson Tide. The arrival of Lane Kiffin two years ago has been difficult to endure as he has the quarterback whip the ball all over the field like it’s lacrosse or something, but by and large they run the ball, mixed in with play action pass, and have a stout defense.

Go back to the 1979 Alabama-Penn State Sugar Bowl game if you want to see some hard-hitting football. Penn State’s defense was outstanding that year, but it was Alabama’s defense that won the game with a fourth quarter goal line stand to seal the deal.

I love Alabama football. That’s why I’m super stoked about the National Championship game on Monday night between the Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers. What a colorful game. What incredible athletes. What great coaches.

Lording over them all will be the ghost of Bear Bryant. Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney played college football at Alabama.

He was on that great 1992/93 team that won “the natty”, as Swinney called it after the Tiger’s win over Oklahoma in the national semifinals last week. Swinney played for Gene Stallings, himself a Bear Bryant disciple and survivor of the Junction Boys days.

A win by Saban puts him on par with Bryant for national titles. A win for Swinney helps him eclipse that great 1982 Clemson team, coached by Danny Ford, which won the national title with a New Year’s Day win over Nebraska.

I watched that one in my Roy’s living room, sitting at his feet with a sense of happiness I shall never forget. !

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