Thursday in this neighborhood during the offseason will be Leather Helmet Thursdays, an attempt to remind everyone that college football was played en masse before the year 1990, and that it was still totally and completely awesome unless you were a Florida fan.
Our retro vibe today will be keyed by our recent reading of Keith Dunnavant's The Missing Ring: How Bear Bryant and the 1966 Alabama Crimson Tide Were Denied College Football's Most Elusive Prize.
To set the mood, and give you your mandatory Keith Jackson fix for the day:
The title follows the holy "FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE: EXPLANATORY PHRASE HERE" model, so we feel like docking points instantly.
For once we want a non-fiction book to just call itself something evocative without having to explain itself in the title. We've got enough soft corners on the mahogany coffee table of life--don't add more in our goddamn book titles.
This probably isn't Dunnavant's fault, since the publisher undoubtedly insisted on the tag. And it does rightfully describe what the book is about: the 1966 all-honky undefeated Alabama team that lost out on the national championship to Notre Dame. Why they lost it is at the crux of the book: that Alabama lost the title because of the furor surrounding segregation in the south.
That segregation did influence the choice is undeniable, and in hindsight the slight by the national media is fine okeley-dokeley with us. Journey into the zone of painful candor: we've had this little ongoing feud in our heads between the half of our brain stating the case labeled "Bear Bryant was a chickenshit about segregation," and the half that says "Would you have had the balls to do the same, or even say it to Bear Bryant's face?"
They hypothetical screenplay runs like this.
Orson: "Coach Bryant, why the hell didn't you just crush George Wallace's throat, toss him into a dumpster, seize control of the state, and just desegregate the Alabama football team by fiat?"
Bear Bryant: (Stares hard, tightens jaw. Takes drag on Chesterfield, blows smoke into Orson's face. The flesh on Orson's face melts off, revealing only the bare white of his skull, as Bryant mutters a "Hmph". The word "FATALITY" appears in bloody letters at the bottom of the screen.)
Like that, but with smoke, and Bear Bryant using our skull as an ashtray.
What we think this means is that we think Bryant sidestepped the issue of segregation because he felt powerless to do anything about it, but that we also think this is rankly absurd given the otherwise omnipotent stature he's given in every single story ever written about him. It also means we suspect Bear Bryant could just kill us with a puff from one of his Chesterfields, which is probably true.
The book does suffer from what you might think it should suffer from: flowery bootlicking in the direction of any and all things Alabama, most notably its ferocious coach. Its players play with a ferocity unlike that of any team! Its coaches scowl with a scowliness scowlier than any other! Their farts turn ragweed to roses; their children spit nails and wrestle bobcats for sport.
Once you cut through that, though, some really interesting anecdotal history starts to peek through. A few premium historical tidbits we learned from The Missing Ring:
--Kenny Stabler wrestled a shotgun out of a 6-5, 240 pound very drunk and angry man's arms to keep him from killing a whole family. The guy holding it was his dad, and the family was his. The quote: "Compared to that, 3rd and 20 doesn't look so bad."
The book also talks a lot about how cool, talented, and completely likeable Stabler was on and off the field. We'd rather let Bear Bryant do that for us:
--Ray Perkins nearly died from a blood clot in his brain suffered during practice early in his career, and still came back to play football even though he had to switch positions to wide receiver. We're still trying to figure out whether this was valor, stupidity, or a grand mix of both.
--Perkins also ran a 4.4 forty, which he could still do at the age of 45, as evidenced by his speedy departure from Alabama in 1986 for the Tampa Bay Bucs job.
--Life was harder back then, even for white guys at Alabama. Like Charles Bronson, Johnny Cash-level hard. The book's rife with stories about guys whose fathers were crushed by mining trucks, brothers who lost arms to dynamite accidents, players who discovered they were playing with broken vertebrae they couldn't even feel during military draft exams, and of course a head coach who, in the middle of a speech, simply grabbed his chest and said, "Is there a doctor in the house?" politely when he could have very well been dying in front of a live audience.
By the way, we're really, really sore from that spin class we took last night. So brutal. We had to have a Sweetwater Summer Hummer beer and watch "Little People, Big World" just to dull the agony.
--Michigan State: the Balls of 1966. You tend to overlook the one hot moment in Michigan State's history--the period in the late '60s where Duffy Daugherty begins to funnel in black players to MSU and flatten hapless competition. Bubba Smith alone was a defensive nightmare, as Terry Hanratty found out in MSU/ND's "Game of the Century", one of several games laying claim to the appellation.
--The puny, puny past. Alabama's heaviest player that year was 215 or so in terms of poundage, and he was a lineman. Comparisons of historical teams just get alternately sadder and funnier if one imagines that line going up against USC's 2004 behemoths. It would be just like that Powerstripe Right Guard ad with the Ravens vs. Leather Helmets, but with more exposed bones and screaming.