Like Proust be an old teahead of time –Jack Kerouac
Remember, the pre-covid-19 days, when you could go into a bookstore and get your super caffeinated frappacrappamochajava, sit down in one of those nice comfy chairs, read unto your heart's content or until they kicked you out? Those were the days my friend, I thought they'd never end. Sometimes those nice comfy chairs would be full, but there was always this one snoring fat guy I could rouse from his somnolence by letting him know in a very loud voice that there were free coffee cake samples at the café. He fell for it every time. I then had my chair and a stack of books. I'm was on my way to information overload. On one of my last outings, I spied a memoir by Joe Namath – "All The Way: My Life In Four Quarters". That's all it took to set the wheels in motion. Flashes of memories came forth, followed by linkages and connections only
my mind could make (although several delusional individuals from certain institutional facilities can make the same claim). You see it all goes back to a piece of real estate they call Alabama.
Before he was "Broadway" Joe, he was Joseph William Namath: a talented, skinny, athletic Hungarian kid from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. And when his high school football days were over, who came a courtin'? None other than the man himself: legendary U. of Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. Now Coach Bryant was one tough son of a bitch. He earned his nickname honestly as a teenager in Arkansas wrestling a bear. As a coach at Texas A&M in the summer of 1954, he subjected his players to a brutal training camp in the unforgiving Texas heat. The survivors (which were few) were called "The Junction Boys". A 2002 film by the same name depicts their ordeal. Alabama in the 1960's was the place to be if you loved football and/or were talented enough to actually play there. That is if you were white. Segregation would keep African Americans off the field for
several years still. The campus itself would begin to be integrated in the summer of 1963 as Vivian Malone defied Gov. George Wallace and registered for classes. Namath himself was there that day as Wallace made his "political stand in the schoolhouse door". Though he deplored segregation, he was a football player, not a civil rights activist. This yankee boy would soon develop a southern drawl and become Joe Willie Namath. Before I could get too lost in my thoughts about Joe Willie, my mind wandered again. I suppose the sight of a box of chocolates distracted me.
Forrest Gump, the character created by brilliant Alabama writer and historian Winston Groom, has long fascinated me. Who could not fall in love with the simple everyman who found himself amid the most important historical events of the latter 20 century? And just like Joe Willie, Forrest played football for the revered Bryant. The quarterback on Gump's Alabama team was not Namath, but a character called "Snake". Obviously to those who know their Alabama football, this is a reference to another lovable rogue – Kenny "The Snake" Stabler. The novel mentions the famous tower Bryant would oversee practices from his unique vantage point. In real life, as far as anyone knows, Namath was the only player invited up to that tower. After getting kicked out of school due to poor grades, Gump is inducted into the army and sent to Vietnam. One must believe that Groom used his own
experiences in shaping the Gump character. Groom was a student at the U. of Alabama (a classmate of Namath) and saw action in Vietnam. Ironically, Namath as well as other football players of that era were deemed unfit for military service due to football related injuries, yet they continued to play the game. After Vietnam, Gump would find himself in one madcap adventure after another, giving us all a history lesson along the way.
Like Forrest in the movie version of the book, "I believed my magic shoes could take me anywhere". And while they could have taken me to New York, Nashville, Dallas, Los Angeles, or any number of exotic locales, they took me to the only place I wanted to be at 18 years of age – Alabama. A generation after Joe Willie first enrolled at the U. of Alabama, I decided to do likewise. I was also able to see what others had seen before me – Coach Bryant up in that mythical tower. Though it was toward the end of his life and career, I was able to see firsthand what all that fuss was about. I finally understood how a man could blend football and the cult of personality and turn it into a near religion.
And while racial tensions had dramatically eased by the time of my attendance there, there was only one African American in my Saffold Hall dorm room and he was my roommate. We were bound together by our shared poverty. Trips to the day-old bread store were made to supplement our lean diets. We shared a small black and white television in which we used a pair of pliers to change the channels due to a broken knob. It was the same television that brought to my attention the attempted assassination of President Reagan by John Hinkley. Yep, those were the days. But somehow, we thought Tuscaloosa was the center of the universe and we were glad to be a part of it all.
So, what became of the folks populating my head? Joe Willie? Well we all know what became of him. He went on to play pro football in New York, a city made to order for this epitome of 60's cool, swagger, and bravado. Some may have hoped that he would have used his celebrity to change the world and though he would dabble in acting and various business enterprises, he was and always will be a football player. He never pretended to be anything else. That's what I like about Joe. The Bear? Coach Bryant passed away a month after coaching his last game in 1983 after winning several national championships. The Snake? Well he had a phenomenal pro career himself. He later went on to provide color commentary for U. of Alabama football broadcasts. Stabler passed away in 2015 and was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Forrest Gump? It
seems Forrest went on to more madcap adventures as chronicled in Groom's sequel "Gump & Company". It has yet to be made into a film. With Groom's recent passing, that prospect may be left up in the air. The fabulous Rose Stabler, former wife of the "Snake" and a former Miss Alabama was a friend of Groom. She recently communicated to me that her favorite Groom book is "Better Times Than These". The semi-autobiographical war novel resonates with her due to the Vietnam experience her father also endured. What about Governor Wallace? The man who vowed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever", would later renounce his racist past and win a final term as governor with the unprecedented support of black voters. I remember seeing George McGovern who was on the lecture circuit at the time, nearly a decade after his losing presidential bid visiting the campus and having nice things
to say about Wallace. Politics does make strange bedfellows. And there's always another election around the corner. And what about me? I had long given up on an athletic career and my stay at the university was brief but indelible. Though I had let myself become soft by sitting in bookstore comfy chairs and sipping frappacrappas, just like Forrest Gump, I'm waiting for the next adventure to unfold.