True to the spirit of the summer he has had so far, Bill Curry awoke last Thursday morning and dressed for a funeral. Then Curry, Alabama's second-year football coach, drove the 60-odd miles from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham's Elmwood cemetery, where Mae Martin Tyson, 52, was buried one plot over from her father, Paul (Bear) Bryant. Even in death, and on this cloudless day, the Bear cast a long shadow over Curry, the man who would wear his hat.
Curry thought he had problems last spring. Injuries during practice prevented him from addressing the Crimson Tide's most urgent need: the selection of a starting quarterback from among David Smith, Vince Sutton and Jeff Dunn, who had divvied up the playing time during a disappointing '87 season that ended with three straight defeats. During those same spring drills, tailback Bobby Humphrey, a.k.a. Alabama's offense, suffered a stress fracture in his left foot.
But spring's calamities were nothing compared with what Curry has had to endure since the team broke for summer recess. Curry's problems really began around 10 p.m. on July 12, when 6'7", 315-pound offensive tackle Joe King, fortified by half a bottle of whiskey, ventured by car into "the Brickyard" in Birmingham, an area near the Tuxedo Park housing project where two men have been shot dead since last October. King got out of his car and was shot himself.
King says the booze made him hungry, so he went "looking for a McDonald's or Burger King" and had stopped to ask directions "when this guy pops out some coke. So I smarted off to him a little...and got out of the car." A second man approached, put a gun to King's head and said, according to King, "This is a stickup, we want your money." When King told them he had only seven dollars, the cocaine peddler said, "Shoot him. Get his money and shoot him." In the struggle for King's wedding ring, King was shot in the back, the slug missing his spine by a centimeter before exiting his side. He ran four blocks to a convenience store, bellowing for an ambulance all the while. Miraculously, King will suffer no permanent disability. He just won't be suiting up for Alabama again.
Curry got another middle-of-the-night phone call three nights later: Humphrey and linebacker Vantreise Davis had been attacked in the parking lot of a Tuscaloosa disco called the Citizen Club at 2:30 a.m. and were in the hospital. Davis, who suffered bruises and cuts—one of them reportedly a knife wound—was treated and released. Humphrey, the fifth-leading rusher in SEC history and Alabama's prime candidate in this year's Heisman sweepstakes, was struck in the back and, when he turned around to face his assailant, was hit in the face with a tire iron. The blow dislodged three of Humphrey's teeth, broke his jaw and made him questionable for the Tide's Sept. 10 opener at Temple.
Early the following week, backup defensive back Steve Wilson entered an alcohol rehabilitation center in Tuscaloosa, the day after Curry announced the hiring of Kelvin Croom as the team's director of player development. Croom, 31, is the son of Alabama's chaplain and played safety for Bryant. Croom's duties will include "substance abuse education."
The troubling sequence of events was not altogether different from the off-season boozing and brawling of large, aggressive young athletes at any number of campuses in any given year. But in the land of Bryant, eyebrows were raised: Could this be happening at tradition-rich, storied Alabama? Was it a run of bum luck, or the tip of an iceberg?
Curry did not exactly reassure the Tide faithful when he attempted to defend his program. "You only hear about the failures, the ones in treatment," he told a press conference last week. "I'd like to tell you about all the guys we've detected and saved from drugs and alcohol, gotten straightened out. But we don't publicize those." At least, they didn't use to.
Strict as a schoolmarm, Curry is also a compassionate man, which is why King was allowed to return to the squad after two alcohol-related suspensions last season. But just before Alabama's 28-24 loss to Michigan in the Hall of Fame Bowl last January, King was suspended again and spent five weeks in Birmingham's Parkside rehabilitation center. King then traveled around the state lecturing schoolchildren on the dangers of substance abuse.
"I had the speech down, and I was getting standing ovations," says King, who now lives in Birmingham with his parents. "I got the big head. I said, 'I can handle the booze.' I missed my AA meetings—I thought my speaking was instead of going to meetings, but it doesn't work that way. I bought a couple six-packs. I'm an alcoholic. I've got a disease. Once the disease gets a hold of you, you could have a million dollars or the world in front of you, it doesn't matter. You'll take a drink." Indeed, King could not stop, and Curry finally threw him off the team just before the shooting.