Army's sports information department considered plastering Ross's likeness on the cover of its 2004 football media guide, but Ross shot down the idea. His image eventually did make it onto the cover, but only as part of a montage that emphasized veteran players. Ross also nixed suggestions of building a season-ticket sales campaign around him.
"Dad doesn't preach humility, he just lives it," says Kevin Ross. "Don't get me wrong: He's definitely in charge. He's the boss. But he doesn't put himself on a pedestal. He's demanding, and he's tough, and you know you're accountable and have to get it done. But it's never about him."
Ross's office in Army's new Kimsey Athletic Center looks down on the south end zone of 81-year-old Michie Stadium. Occasionally he stands at the window and studies the old gray arena, and there is that rare day when he recalls the first time he ever saw the place. It was 1956, and Ross, a sophomore at VMI, was a two-way player, at quarterback and safety. "I gave up a touchdown right over there," he begins, pointing to the spot. "Well, I never saw the play, so I don't know if that's where it happened. Until I came up last season after the Navy game, that was the only time I'd ever been to West Point."
Somebody raps on the door and brings in lunch: a ham-and-cheese sandwich and a bottle of orange Gatorade. "What I remember," Ross continues, "is we stayed over at the Bear Mountain Inn. I remember it being a beautiful day. I remember little of the playing except that their linemen were so tall, and they were getting downfield, and I had the hardest time finding the football. That sticks in my mind more than anything else, how those big, tall linemen kept coming at us. In 1956 [the Black Knights] were still a national power. They beat us--I remember that too."
Hanging on the wall next to his office door are photos of his father as a player. In one, Bus poses as if prepared to fire off the ball; in the other he throws a body block. The pictures, taken in the early 1930s, show him as a member of the Richmond Blues, a team made up of members of his National Guard unit. Bus, unable to accept his West Point appointment, never went to college and instead found a job as a freight clerk for the C&O Railroad.
"We lived in a little bungalow house in a tough neighborhood," Bobby is saying. "After work my dad would get me in this alleyway between our house and the house next door, and he'd make me tackle these bigger kids from the neighborhood. They were four or five years older than I was, but he'd send them at me and I'd have to tackle them."
Even when Bobby was preparing the Chargers for the Super Bowl, Bus, then 91, was quick to offer coaching advice. Bobby called him on Saturdays, and he could hear the roar of televised college games in the background, the volume turned way up. "Bobby, you make sure those ends box them in," Bus shouted at him on the phone. "Box 'em in, Bobby. You hear me? Box 'em in."
When Bobby was 16, he landed in the men's ward of a Richmond hospital, the Retreat for the Sick, after having his appendix removed. He'd been too busy playing sports and delivering papers to bother with girls, and besides, he was too timid to look at a girl long enough to figure out if she was worth his interest. But during his recovery he met the prettiest girl he'd ever seen in his life--really, the only girl he'd ever seen. Her name was Alice Bucker (pronounced booker), and she was a 15-year-old student at St. Gertrude High, Benedictine's sister school. Alice was in a special training program for young women who aspired to careers in nursing.
"I sent Bobby an invitation to my 16th-birthday party, and he was the only one who answered," she recalls. "I was almost afraid to open his letter because I was afraid he had written to say he wasn't coming. But he said he was coming. Bobby was just always so shy. The girls would ask me if he'd kissed me, and I always said no, and they would tell the guys. It went on and on. For months! The guys kept track of how many dates we'd had without Bobby kissing me. They put it up on a board [at Benedictine]. Finally he kissed me, and I told the girls, and they told the guys. And when Bobby walked into school everybody was cheering and applauding. Bobby Ross had kissed me at last."
They dated through his years at VMI. Military schools forbid cadets to get married until after graduation, so Bobby and Alice had to wait. His senior year, he interviewed for any number of jobs--with banks, with the telephone company in West Virginia, with Burlington Industries down in North Carolina--but nothing felt right, including a career in the Army. His and Alice's wedding was scheduled for the week after he got out of school, and that was the only thing he knew with certainty about his future. "Then my college coach called me and said Benedictine might be interested in having me become their head football coach," says Ross. "It was a shock to me. I was 22 years old, but they wanted me to come back."