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The pigskin historian begins to sort through the mounds of evidence that are supposed to add up to the man who is identified as Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant. It is all there, in layers, by now a folk chronicle, each tale told and retold in nearly the same language every time, and all irrespective of relative importance, time or place: The Bear and his humble origins in Moro Bottom, near Fordyce, Ark.; The Bear at Alabama as "the other end" opposite the immortal Don Hutson; the tales of how The Bear got his name (accounts provided by every possible eyewitness, save perhaps the noble ursine itself); The Bear and the bowls; The Bear and the record—Amos Alonzo Stagg's 314 victories as a coach, which Bryant tied last Saturday with a 31-16 defeat of Penn State and could surpass next week against Auburn; The Bear that first hellish summer in Aggieland; The Bear returns to his Alabama; The Bear and his hat; The Bear and The Baron; The Bear walks on water (and other fables); the ages of The Bear.
By now, it is all so blurred, yet all so neat. The more one reads—the more one suffers through the same stuff from The Bear and his hagiographers—the more one understands a friend of The Bear's, a Tuscaloosa physician, who says, "That he mumbles really doesn't matter to me anymore, because by now, I always know what he is going to say, anyway."
But, what have we here? Tucked deep into the recesses of another bio folder, there is one other obscure clipping, from a time long ago. It seems, studying this scrap of parchment, that as yet another Honor America Day approached, a certain U.S. politician named Nixon was beleaguered, beset on all sides by his bloodthirsty foes. But, after months of holing up, he decided that Honor America Day would be an appropriate occasion on which to launch a counterattack, to venture out again and reach for the souls of decent citizens. And so, he would go forth and deliver a speech.
And here, from The New York Times , is the last paragraph of that story: "Invitations to attend the celebration were also sent to John Wayne, the actor; Paul Harvey, the news broadcaster; Billy Graham, the evangelist, and Paul (Bear) Bryant, the University of Alabama football coach."
At that time, The Bear had 231 wins, and was counting.
The first of the two-a-days in the 24th year of Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant's tenure at Alabama takes place just after dawn on a steamy summer's day, Monday, August 17th. It would be winter, four and a half months later, before the Crimson Tide would be finished playing; the team has gone to a bowl for 22 straight years and, by now, as The Bear says, "We win two games, some bowl will invite us." Oddly, he overslept this morning. You'd have thought The Bear would have been raring to go, he being a legend in his own time, this being the start of his supreme season; besides, he's an early riser. But Billy Varner had to rouse him, up at his house by the third green at the Indian Hills Country Club.
Billy drives The Bear around in a Buick LeSabre. He has for six years, since, The Bear explains, "I started gettin' death threats and all kinda things." Billy was a bartender out at the club, and The Bear had him taught to shoot a pistol so he could pass the police tests. They get along beautifully, which is important, because by now The Bear probably spends more time with Billy Varner than he does with his wife, whose name is Mary Harmon if you know The Bear and Miz Bryant if you only worship from afar.
But even with the late start, it wasn't yet six o'clock when Billy got The Bear to his office before the first of the two-a-days. The moon was still up, nearly full, shining through the misty Alabama heavens. The birds were chirping, and about all there was on the roads were milk trucks. They still make milk deliveries mornings in Tuscaloosa.
The players started arriving around 6:30, driving the half mile or so from their private dormitory, Bryant Hall (of course). It was a showpiece when it was built in 1963, but is now more a garish curiosity, with a hideous interior of silver, red and white and a two-tiered fountain outside, which is supported by statues of naked men, their genitalia covered by decorous shields so as not to offend the eyes of innocent 'Bama belles. But then, little of the campus offers much in the way of beauty. The Yankees, it seems, burnt the best of it to the ground just before Appomattox, and what has risen from the ashes is largely without architectural grace. Football constitutes grace in this neck of the woods.
Where The Bear now has his football offices, in Memorial Coliseum, adjoining the practice complex, was all cotton fields when he first arrived in Tuscaloosa, coming over from the bottom country of Arkansas. It was the fall of '31, the Depression, and the segregated South was like a different nation then—one party, one crop, one sport and one dollar if you were lucky. "There wasn't but about three cars on campus then," The Bear recalls, exaggerating only a little bit. Now, as dawn breaks, his players drive up in all manner of vehicles; hardly a one walks the half mile from the dormitory.