There are many bear stories now in the Macrander family. There is the time when we were on vacation in Colorado and Sarah was obsessed with seeing a bear. We were on a rafting trip on the Arkansas River and were coming around a bend. Sarah pointed excitedly at a large black animal by the stream and yelled “bear.” No Sarah, that would be a cow. She so wishes that the family did not have such a long memory.
There is the stuffed bear, once shot by Jarrod’s father Kent, that Emily now lives with. That had to be a question that entered her mind as they were getting to know one another. “Can I really date (love, marry) a guy that keeps a stuffed bear around the house?” I tend to think that it reflects Jarrod’s quirky sense of humor and connection to his dad more than a passion for killing things and displaying them. I just think that it needs a hounds tooth hat.
I am not really sure that Todd has a bear story, but, am not sure that I would want to know it. OK, that was shameless.
The story that I am about to recount is from 1981. You kids have grown up with the picture and the ticket stub to a game from this story prominently displayed in our house. You have probably heard me tell the story dozens of times, but I will write it down here as another daddy story. Put on your glasses. This is a long one.
A lot happened in 1981. After nearly two years of being grad student acquaintances in Biology, that spring Ginger (aka mom) & I gradually became friends, then good friends, then more than friends, our involvement and time together growing as spring turned to summer and then to fall.
Rolling the clock back a bit, through two college experiences I had never been to a game and generally viewed sports as a drain and a distraction to the academic reason to be (what a dud I was!). At Alabama, though, it is hard to ignore football. I went to a few games when encouraged by fellow grad students. I rooted for players that I had taught as students in Anatomy and Physiology. I listened to the games on the radio while doing my field work on Saturdays (nothing else was on the radio, unless you wanted to listen to Auburn). I even went to the ’79 Sugar Bowl when a friend got tickets and invited me on the road trip. I had gradually become a fan, but, fully expected to one day leave Alabama and leave behind college football. I still remember the conversation when it came time to buy student season tickets in the fall of ’81.
Ginger, “It’s time to buy season tickets.”
Michael, “I have never bought season tickets. That is almost $80 and I do field work on Saturdays.”
Ginger, “You will buy season tickets and we will go to the games.”
For her part, Ginger grew up in a family steeped in Alabama football. To say that graddad was a fan was to entirely miss the passion. Ginger was simply raised Crimson. Vandy be damned, she was going to “The University.” But,Ginger’s football tradition was further shaped by years of sorority life – beautiful girls dressed to the nines, neatly groomed boys in three piece suits and starched shirts, bourbon poured from flasks into stadium cups of coke, shakers and yelling “ROLL TIDE” on beautiful fall afternoons when victory was virtually assured. Life can be beautiful sometimes, and, oh to be young…
And roll they did. They won national championships in ’78 & ’79. Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant reigned over this kingdom like an invincible deity. If asked the question from ghostbusters, “Are you a god,” there would have been no question. From the hounds tooth and tweed hats that he wore, reminiscent of the time when a gentleman wore a hat, to his posture leaning against the goalpost watching the teams warm up, and the observation tower on the practice field, he was a transcendent presence. While students sometimes made fun of his gravelly grumblings and seeming besotted confusion on his Sunday afternoon game replay show, in the fall of ’81 he was nationally recognized as the greatest college football and he was ours.
The ’81 season had not been perfect, however, having lost to once arch rivals Georgia Tech and tied (yes that could happen in those days) a perennially weak Southern Miss team. Perhaps it was the pressure of Coach Bryant closing in on the record of the winningest college football coach of all time. There were whisperings of Bear having lost his edge. There was a young black quarterback (never before at Bama) and discipline issues with a talented but cocky running back (Linny Patrick) who had just never really produced as expected. Still, with one game left in the season, the record of 314 victories had been tied and a victory over our hated rivals Auburn, who were even more reviled because they were now coached by a Bryant acolyte who had turned coat, would seal the record.
Also in ’81 Ginger and I were approaching the end of our grad school days. There is no other time in your life when you are so immersed in the process of intellectual becoming. I am sure that it is the same for law school and medical school. It is a selfish time of total dedication to this chosen academic profession and it is an insular and esoteric world not fully appreciated by people outside of the process. Your community is small, dominated by fellow grad students and professors. A large university and even a city spins around you mostly unnoticed while you read journal articles, debate the merits of the latest theory, and imagine your work to be on the edge of breakthrough. Married grad students were rare and all but one that we knew at that time were divorced along the way. Perhaps it is a sign that four couples also got together during these years and, to my knowledge, all are still together after 30+ years. Having been there for several years and being nearly finished Ginger and I were medium sized fish in this small pond.
The biology department had gotten some grant money and over a year had the opportunity to bring in truly top scientists for multiple days of interaction with students and faculty. We got to hang out and receive advice from people like Edward O. Wilson who had done both undergrad and Masters at UA before going on to Harvard to become the top celebrity scientist in ecology. During the week prior to the Auburn game, a couple of guest scientists were leading a workshop in Ginger’s field. They were actually developing mouse embryos in vitro, or outside of the female’s body. Imagine that, in 1981, actual development, though short in duration, of embryos in a “test tube” incubation chamber and Ginger was learning the procedure from the two guys who developed it. Although tops in their field, these guys were fun loving down to earth guys who insisted on being called Tom and Norm. These were seriously fun guys, as well as being great in their field, and for a week Ginger & I were their social guides taking them out for fried catfish, to off campus bars, and generally having a great time, sometimes including an undergrad pre-med girl (Beth) who tagged along.
On the last day, Norm (the older guy) suddenly said, “before I leave, I want to meet Bear Bryant.” Ginger’s major professor (Ron) said, “I think he is pretty busy. He IS trying to become the winningest coach of all time AND beat Auburn this Saturday.” Being bold, however, and having faith in The Bear, Ginger called up the athletic department and told them about the visiting scientists that would like to meet Coach Bryant. “Of course,” they said. “He’s not here right now, but he should be back soon. Come on over and he will see you.”
So Tom, Norm, Ron, Beth, Ginger & I jumped in a car and drove over to the coliseum, an impressive structure that housed the basketball arena and the athletic offices. We walked up two flights of stairs and into the receiving office of athletics. There were three admin desks, each with footballs resting on pedestals signed by Alabama football legends like Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler, Lee Roy Jordan, and Johnny Musso. On the walls were large aerial shots of the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Orange Bowl stadiums before any of these were in domed stadiums with teams lined up to run a play at mid field. Our excitement levels grew as we realized the greatness that resided here.
Shortly, a phone rang. “Coach Bryant will see you now.” The attractive mid 40s lady escorted us down a long crimson carpeted hall past the offices of coaches of other sports and assistant coaches. We came to a huge door with a plaque that said Paul W. “Bear” Bryant Football Coach and Athletic Director. She knocked before entering and when the door opened there stood The Bear dressed in a suit.
The next few minutes is sort of a blur. He apologized for keeping us waiting, saying that he had just returned from attending a funeral and remarking that, at his age, you start doing that more and more. He politely asked what Tom and Norm did and listened while they tried to explain in awestruck tones. Part way through, he laughed and said, I’m afraid that is all over my head. Noting the camera that Ron had with him, Coach asked if we wanted to take a few pictures. There was one of Tom and Norm with The Bear and one of Mom and Beth with The Bear. Sadly, I was too shy and stupidly aloof to get into one of the shots, but, I was there.
Soon our time was up and we were ushered out. We were all walking on air. Tom and Norm were like kids who had just visited Santa Claus, talking constantly and pumping fists in the air. Ginger was the hero that day, having had the nerve to dial the phone and arrange the audience. As soon as we got back to the Department she called her daddy to tell him.
Norm and Tom left that afternoon with many thanks and fond goodbyes. Ginger may have seen them at a science meeting, but I never saw them again. Waiting for time to take them to the airport Tom and I were shooting hoops in the back lot of a local bar. He asked, “So, you and Ginger, is it serious?” It was the first time anyone had ever asked that. “I guess so,” I said. “It is good so far.”
That Saturday we were in the South end zone student section of the Iron Bowl at legion field. I still had no clue as to how important that game was to both fan bases, but I knew that Alabama would fight hard to make Coach Bryant the winningest of all time and Auburn would fight hard to prevent it. The game was close and hard fought with momentum swinging back and forth. In the 4th quarter Linny Patrick (the running back who had been perennially in the dog house and generally failed to live up to expectations) took over the game ripping off multiple runs of 10-20 yards. With the game finally secure, it was the first time I remember doing the na na na na hey hey goodbye song or rammer jammer (a truly obnoxious cheer where the band plays dunt duh dunt “Hey Auburn” dunt duh dunt ” Hey Auburn” dunt duh dunt “Hey Auburn. We just beat the hell out of you, rammer jammer yellowhammer give em hell Alabama). What great fun!!!
Alabama had won, Coach Bryant was the winningest coach, and I was in love with this beautiful, brilliant, and confident girl. It all fit together somehow.
In January Alabama lost its bowl game to Texas. The ’82 season was disappointing with four losses and discipline issues on the team. Coach Bryant retired at the end of the season, but won his last bowl game, the Liberty Bowl on a cold night in Memphis. 28 days later he passed away. I-10 was shut down as the motorcade took him from the church in Tuscaloosa to the cemetery in Birmingham.
That May Ginger and I were married. I married into an Alabama football crazed family and found that it fit pretty well. It sort of all came together one gorgeous fall afternoon.