Well, I wasn't very smart in school, and lazy to boot. Of all the people who might do something in life, I was the one folks figured would do the least. I was always involved in something, and one of my brothers had gotten the family in a sort of feud with another family when he caught one of the boys slaughtering one of his cows. Actually a near-shooting feud. Stupid. And I'd busted up some boys from Camden at a basketball game one night. Must have fought everybody in the gym. So I was about the last one you would figure to go to college and get a degree.
I wanted to go to Alabama. Always had. I remember one time going down to a college All-Star Game in Dallas with Fred Thomsen, the Arkansas coach. He wanted me to come there. And at the half I slipped off and rode a streetcar back to town to listen to Alabama play Washington State in the Rose Bowl on radio.
So when they came over to ask the Jordan twins, our best players, about coming to Alabama, they didn't have to recruit me. I was ready. There were always a few Arkansas boys on the Alabama team because of the influence of Jimmy Harland, who recruited me, Don Hutson, Charlie Marr, Bill Young, Happy Campbell and Leroy Goldberg on that same Rose Bowl team of 1935.
But nobody in Fordyce thought I'd stick it out. I remember years later I'd go back just to take a walk downtown and nod and say hello and how are you and good to see you to those slickers who laughed at me on that wagon. I don't get the kick out of it now. I have very warm feelings toward the entire state. I go back to see the folks two or three times each year now.
But I'll tell you how close they came to being right. It was during the Depression. Daddy had died eating watermelon—got poisoned or something—and Mama was having a tough time, and if I was looking for an excuse I had one. I wrote Collins Kilgore, my cousin, a letter. I told him I was going to quit school and get me a job in Texas. Well, in no time I got this wire back. It was from Collins. I remember so well, I was walking between the soup store and where the stadium is now, when I opened the wire. It said, GO AHEAD AND QUIT, JUST LIKE EVERYBODY PREDICTED YOU WOULD.
I wasn't about to quit after that.
We thought then, and I know now, that Coach Thomas was ahead of the game. There wasn't a whole lot he didn't know about it, and there sure isn't much we do now that he didn't know then. He could have been a great baseball manager. (I think he was one of the first to discover Willie Mays.) He was a real intelligent man, a smart football coach and, like most coaches who have a reputation for being tough, he was a sentimental old man, just like me. His background may have had something to do with it. He was a punk kid from around East Chicago—I use his terminology when I say that—and he knew how to handle himself at the spur of the moment.
Well, how much can a man influence you? I tell my coaches, when they go out on their own, to be themselves, but that doesn't mean you don't learn from people who have something to teach you. I used to call long distance to get advice from Coach Thomas years after he quit coaching. Even after he got sick—and I hated to see him that way—I chartered a plane just to go and spend a few hours with him. I still go to Hank Crisp when I have a problem. There's a tip-off for you. Surround yourself with good people. Coach Hank didn't know a whole lot about fancy techniques, but he had more of what it takes to win. Techniques alone won't win. He had that other thing—he could get you to play. He had lost a hand in a cotton gink and he had that nub wrapped in leather, and he'd get down there with you and flail away, and it was like patting you on the back.
We were playing Tennessee in Knoxville in 1935, and the week before against Mississippi State I had broken the fibula in my leg. The night before the Tennessee game Dr. Sherrill came by the hotel and took the cast off. He said if it felt all right I could dress for the game, if nothing else. I said, is there any chance of a bone sticking out anywhere? He said no. So we go out there, and I dress, and Coach Thomas made his little pitch, his pep talk, and then he asked Coach Hank if he wanted to say anything. Coach Hank said he did. He had a cigarette dangling from his mouth (I was kinda looking at him sideways from around Riley Smith), and he said, "I'll tell you gentlemen one thing. I don't know about the rest of you, you or you or you, I don't know what you're going to do. But I know one damn thing. Old 34 will be after 'em, he'll be after their tails." I looked down, and I'm 34! I had no idea of playing. So we go out there, and cold chills are running up my back. He done bragged on old 34. Ben McLeod, whose son played for us last year, had never started a game in his life, and he was starting in my place. They lined up for the kickoff, and Coach Thomas turned to me and said, " Bryant, can you play?" Well, shoot, what you going to say? I just ran on out there. McLeod was so mad he could spit.
I played the rest of the season with that broken leg, but that day I was lucky as a priest. On one of our first plays, Riley Smith and Joe Riley—they knew I was hurt, so they were going to fix me up fast for big-dogging—called a pass. Everybody was there to get the ball, but it just fell into my hands, and a couple of them fell over, and I ran a little piece before they caught me. On about the third play we did the same thing, a little old hook pass, and I lateraled to Riley Smith, the All-America back, and he ran for a touchdown. We won the game 25-0.