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The Life of Paul "Bear" Bryant

About The Book

The definitive portrait of Paul “Bear” Bryant, the most successful college football coach in history.

Just five weeks after coaching his final football game for the University of Alabama, Paul “Bear” Bryant passed away. The impact he had on the state of Alabama and the entire college football world cannot be overstated.

For twenty-five years as the head coach of the Crimson Tide, and thirteen years before that at Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M, Bear Bryant’s outsized personality and deep charisma made him the dominant figure in the world of college football, turning boys with ordinary talent but extraordinary heart into winners—both on the gridiron and off.

At Alabama, Bear Bryant would go on to become the winningest coach of all time, achieving the best record in the country in both the 60s and 70s. He is the only coach to win national championships with both segregated teams and integrated ones. His secret lay not in any strategic brilliance he brought to the game, but in his gift for molding individual talents into a cohesive unit that could achieve far more than the sum of its parts would suggest.

That ability made him a great coach, but to many, Bryant represented more than just a coach: He was everything a southern gentleman was supposed to be—tough, principled, charismatic, modest in victory yet quick to assume blame in defeat, and as mindful of where he’d come from as where he was going.

Coach is not only about the man and his tremendous ability to succeed, it’s also a tribute to the South and the legacy Coach Bryant left behind. In a divisive era, Bryant gave Alabamians something to be proud of. And, he was simply the greatest football coach of all times.


Coach 1 Fordyce
ON THE MORNING of December 29, 1982, Paul “Bear” Bryant leaned back on the sofa in his hotel suite and stared out the fourteenth-floor window overlooking the Mississippi River. For a moment, he seemed lost in the distance. A dozen men clutching notepads and pens waited for him to speak, the silence broken only by the muffled sounds of The Young and the Restless emanating from the bedroom television set, which someone had forgotten to turn off. He was dressed in a red sport coat, blue shirt, and gray slacks, and a steady trail of smoke flowed from the unfiltered Chesterfield cigarette dangling from his lips. On the day of the final game of his epic coaching career, Bryant’s sixty-nine-year-old face was a sea of wrinkles and sadness, and his usually vibrant, piercing eyes reflected his melancholy mood.

“I remember the first time I came to Memphis,” he mumbled to the small group of reporters, launching into a memory nearly sixty years old, of the day when he had hitchhiked from his home in Fordyce, Arkansas, to the banks of the big river. “So long ago . . .”

Two weeks after declaring Alabama’s Liberty Bowl date against Illinois as his final game on the sidelines, the winningest coach in college football history arrived in Memphis as an American folk hero who seemed larger than the game, larger than life. Calling him a football coach seemed inadequate, like referring to Frank Sinatra as a pop singer. The Bear’s presence demanded adjectives and bold type. In Memphis as in other southern cities and towns, he could not walk down the street without being mobbed. The clawing crowds even followed him into the men’s room. He was like a rock star or a monarch, but he was also a tired old man in failing health, and although he didn’t want to quit the game, he knew the time had come.

Several hours after this impromptu gathering, the Bear was late for a pregame meeting with key members of his staff at the team hotel. Sam Bailey, his longtime aide, who knew more than he wanted to know about the details of Bryant’s health, started worrying. His boss was a stickler for punctuality. Bailey feared the worst.

After searching throughout the hotel without success, Bailey happened to walk by a darkened ballroom on the first floor. He opened the door just a crack and saw his boss sitting all alone behind the head table, staring past all the empty chairs and into the darkness. He had a faraway look in his eye. Football had transformed the Bear from impoverished and insecure to wealthy and beloved. It had been his life. The old man knew more than a career was ending that night. He knew that something inside him was about to die.

•  •  •

Around the turn of the century, Wilson Monroe Bryant migrated from Georgia to rural Arkansas, where he met his future wife, Ida Mae Kilgore, in church. Like many southerners of the time, the Bryants lived a life virtually untouched by the progress experienced in the industrial cities of the North. Much like their ancestors, who had blazed a trail through the American wilderness, Ida and Monroe and their nine children lived off the land and struggled against the elements to survive. They were simple people, sustained by their faith, hard-working, thrifty, and self-reliant. Monroe, a large man with a scrubby mustache and a distant, somewhat melancholy disposition, was the son of poor Georgia farmers. The couple settled on a small patch of land in a sparsely populated area between the hamlets of Fordyce and Kingsland, where the acres were cheap, plentiful, and unforgiving. The area was not marked on any map, but the Bryants and the half-dozen other families scattered among two or three square miles called their community Moro Bottom, for its proximity to Moro Creek.

Their domicile was more a shack than a house. A plank wood structure with a front porch running the length of the house and a wooden swing hanging by chains at one end, it consisted of four rooms: a kitchen with a fireplace used for heating and cooking; the parents’ bedroom; a children’s bedroom; and a living area called the “big room,” where some of the children also slept on pallets. They supported themselves by growing vegetables and raising chickens and hogs; they had no electricity, telephone, or indoor plumbing, but no one ever went to bed hungry or felt deprived of love.

Ida Bryant was a sturdy woman with long, prematurely graying hair. Friends and family members described her as a woman of unusual determination and resourcefulness. “Miss Ida was always a lady, but she was as tough as a sack of nails,” said her nephew, Dean Kilgore. In an era when women’s suffrage was the most divisive political issue, she was the dominant figure in the Bryant clan. While most of the children were still school age or younger, Monroe fell ill and was rendered a semi-invalid for the rest of his life. Unable to endure the kind of physically taxing work a family farm required, he mostly sat around the house. The illness may not have been purely physical: One night, after a big rain, Ida discovered Monroe missing from their bed, and after an exhaustive search, he was found sitting in a large mud puddle in the middle of the road that ran alongside the house. He couldn’t explain why he was sitting in a puddle of water in the middle of the night. Some of the neighbors and townsfolk who didn’t know any better believed he was lazy, and that became a burden for his youngest son. After he became ill, Ida took charge of the farm and was, in all but ceremonial functions, the head of the family.

Their faith was a powerful anchor for the Bryants. Before Paul was born, Ida had served for a short time as a lay preacher at Smith’s Chapel down the road toward Kingsland. That a woman was allowed to enter the pulpit in such a fundamentalist environment was a testament to the respect she enjoyed from her friends and neighbors. Every night after dinner and chores, the children gathered around their parents in the “big room” and listened, under the glow of a kerosene lamp, as Ida read a passage from the Bible. As far as the children could remember, the Bible was the only book their parents ever kept in the house. The Bryants believed so fervently in the strict teachings of the Church of God that they considered it sinful to seek medical treatment, Monroe’s mysterious illness lingered for at least fifteen years without a doctor’s care until he died in 1931 at the age of forty-six with what was believed to be a case of pneumonia.

“Mother and Daddy believed if you had enough faith you didn’t need a doctor,” said Louise Goolsby, the Bryants’ tenth child. “Well, Paul just couldn’t understand that. He thought his father suffered and died needlessly.”

Born on September 11, 1913—the year then-unknown Notre Dame used a new weapon called the forward pass to upset football powerhouse Army—Paul was the eleventh of twelve children. Ida never consulted a doctor during her pregnancies or the ensuing births. After delivering a child in her own bed, she usually returned to the fields within a few days. Three of her children died as infants. From oldest to youngest, the surviving children were Barney, Orie, Harlie, Jack, Ouida, Kathryn, Louise, Paul, and Frances.

The working day on the farm started before dawn, when Ida lit a lamp and walked around the small house waking her children, who slept two and three to a bed. There were cows to be milked, hogs to be slopped, water to be pumped from the well. At first light some headed for the fields to plow or pick, while others trudged off to school. It was grueling, back-breaking work, and as much as he hated it, Paul learned the value of hard work and sacrifice at an early age.

A mama’s boy who hung on her every word, Paul was shameless in pursuit of Ida’s attention. The special bond between Ida and her youngest son may have been cemented when he was about four years old. After he had misbehaved one night during the Bible reading, Monroe pulled down the boy’s pants and started whipping his naked butt with a long wooden paddle with a hole in it. The boy cried and cried, and Monroe kept on whipping him until Ida, who was standing nearby with the other children, thought he had crossed a line; fearing for her son, she pulled Monroe off Paul and told him never to hit another child of hers like that again. The boy’s father dropped the paddle and walked away. The challenge to his authority as the man of the house enraged and embarrassed Monroe, and his relationship-with his wife and children was never quite the same. From that point on, Ida handled all the discipline. Paul was a mischievous boy who always seemed to be trying his parents’ patience—he once created a community scandal by stealing watermelons from a neighbor’s garden—and Ida was not one to spare the rod on him or any of their other children; when one of the children misbehaved, she pulled out her plum tree switch and got busy. But her discipline was always tempered by her memories of Monroe’s whipping.

By the time he was six or seven, Paul’s brothers were mostly grown up and were leaving to make their own homes, so as the only remaining son he was responsible for feeding the mules and hitching them to the family’s wagon every morning before breakfast. During the week, he and his sisters would drive the wagon to the one-room schoolhouse three miles down the dirt road in Kingsland, a town of some nine hundred souls that was really just a larger collection of small dirt farms. The trip required crossing Moro Creek, which was no simple task after a big rain. In fact, Jack Bryant, who fancied himself a shrewd businessman, kept a team handy to pull the occasional wagon or automobile out of the drink—for a reasonable price. During the bitterly cold winters, when the creek sometimes froze solid, Paul and his sisters would heat bricks in the fireplace and sit on them during the trip to Kingsland to keep from freezing. On Saturdays throughout the year, Paul and his mother would load the wagon with vegetables, butter, milk, and eggs and head for Fordyce to peddle the homegrown merchandise door-to-door.

Years later, whenever a writer referred to Fordyce as Bryant’s hometown, he always made a point of emphasizing that Moro Bottom, which wasn’t a town at all, held that distinction. This was his way of saying he never forgot those unhappy Saturdays. Fordyce was a town of about thirty-six hundred people in the early 1920s. Its downtown included two general stores, a movie theater, a train station, a hotel, a dry goods store, and a livery stable, among other points of interests. In those days, the children of Fordyce attended school until noon on Saturday. Invariably, Paul and his mother would wind up in front of the school about the time the boys and girls were dismissed. There was always a group of more prosperous “city” boys and girls waiting to tease the poor boy from the “country.” They made fun of his dusty old overalls, his bare feet, the way he talked, that beat-up wagon, and those tired old mules; they ridiculed the fact that he was so poor that he had to go around with his mother scraping for enough pennies to buy those things they couldn’t raise on the farm. In time, he and his mother moved on through town and past the hateful voices, but he knew they would be there when he and his mother came through the next Saturday, and the Saturday after that. At a vulnerable, impressionable time in his life, when his self-image was shaped by the way others saw him, those children had the power to make him feel inferior.

I can pass that school now and hear those voices,” Bryant wrote in his 1974 autobiography, Bear, with John Underwood. “I still remember the ones that did it.”

Years later, when he was the very embodiment of his profession, Bryant often was asked what motivated him to succeed. “I didn’t want to have to go back behind that plow . . . or peddling through Fordyce with my mama,” he would say. “I was motivated by the fear of having to go back to that more than anything else.”

Those Saturday encounters helped shape the insecure boy’s evolution as a man. They fostered his feelings of inferiority, which infused him with an intense need for attention and acceptance and, for a while, made him an angry young man. But those encounters also lit a fire inside him. It seems clear that his incredible ambition was driven not merely by the desire to break free from a cycle of poverty, but also by the need to prove something to himself and all those voices of doubt that rang in his head. Like many men with weak fathers, he was driven by a determination to be strong.

“There were people who thought they were better than Paul, and I don’t think you ever get over that,” said his sister Louise. “He was never ashamed of where he came from or having been poor, but he never forgot the ones who belittled him and our mother. He was determined to show them he was made of something special.”

When Paul and his mother finished their rounds, they drove the wagon over to the Kilgore Brothers general store on Main Street. Ida’s brother, who owned the store and a hotel across the street and was considered their rich relative, would buy the rest of her vegetables as a favor and treat her to a good meal. Paul was so bashful and so self-conscious about his table manners, he didn’t want to go to the restaurant with his mother, so she let him buy a hunk of cheese and a handful of soda crackers and walk two blocks south to the railroad station to watch the afternoon train rumble through town. There was a water pump at the livery stable next door for when he got thirsty, as he always did after devouring his cheese and crackers. From the top of an old boxcar, he could see the courthouse clock; at four o’clock, he would head back to the wagon to help his mother load the supplies she had bought and head for home. Until then, he could dream about becoming a railroad man and riding one of those trains out of town for good.

•  •  •

When the older boys came of age and started moving away, the Bryants hired a man to help around the farm. Mr. Dukes was a big, strong man in his forties who had his mind set on winning the affections of a teenage farm girl down the road. When he wasn’t busy riding past the girl’s house and enduring the wrath of her father, Dukes became an uncle of sorts to the youngest Bryant son. Bryant later credited the farmhand with teaching him the facts of life and how to cuss, among other skills. “He would teach me a few words, then he’d go tell Mama and she’d whip me,” Bryant said. Though he never said so, it seems clear that Dukes was more of an influence on him than his own father.

As a timid young boy, Bryant believed in the existence of ghosts and goblins. He was extremely fearful of graveyards and tombstones, especially the century-old marker that stood no more than fifty feet from their back door. Whenever he walked on that side of the farm, Paul always cut a wide swath around the grave, as if its inhabitant might rise up out of the ground and drag him under, as in one of his brother Jack’s scary stories. One night when Jack was a teenager and Paul was six or seven, Jack told Paul he would give him thirty-five cents to walk up to the grave and slap the tombstone. Naturally, Paul was scared, but thirty-five cents was thirty-five cents; in those days a man would work all day in the fields to make fifty cents, so thirty-five cents was a lot of money for a poor boy with no dependents.

After working up his courage, Paul accepted the challenge and walked slowly toward the grave as Jack watched. He was scared, but he just kept thinking about that thirty-five cents, which bought an awful lot of courage in those days. Just as he reached down to slap the gravestone, he saw something covered in white rise up from behind the stone. With a look of utter terror on his face, Paul started running for the house. He didn’t stop to get the ghost’s name. He just ran.

On the way back to the house, he slipped. So complete was his fright that instead of taking the time to get up off his knees, he simply crawled the rest of the way home. Later, of course, he learned that the ghost he thought he had seen had really been Mr. Dukes under a white sheet. Jack and the farmhand enjoyed quite a laugh over their little prank. But Paul got the last laugh: When their mother found out about the stunt, she made Jack give him the thirty-five cents.

The old Bryant homestead was demolished decades ago, but the gravestone remains on the edge of the woods near the modern brick home owned by small businessman Ray Bryant, Jack’s grandson and Paul’s great-nephew. The few people who live in Moro Bottom now mostly work in nearby Fordyce, or twenty miles away in Warren. Moro Creek, once a barrier too deep for some wagons and early cars to traverse, now is crossed by a bridge so small as to go totally unnoticed by most motorists. After inheriting the old farmland from his family, Ray Bryant erected a large wooden sign that proclaims Moro Bottom, “Birthplace of Paul Bear Bryant.” Occasionally, a car will stop, and if he has time, Ray will take the tourists to see the grave and recount the infamous story. “When I was a boy and Uncle Paul would come to see us, he liked to tell that story on himself,” Ray told a visitor one winter day in 1995.

When Paul was eleven, Ida moved the family to a small house in Fordyce, where she took in boarders. They kept the farm, but they stayed in town during the week so the children could benefit from the better education offered the students of Fordyce. It was a move that would change Paul’s life. Had he not moved to Fordyce and attended Fordyce High School, he might never have played football—and he might never have escaped Moro Bottom. The transition to life in what still seemed like the big city sometimes left him bewildered. One time he was walking down the street with classmate Jack Benham. “This car came barreling down the street and he started running from it,” Benham said. “It was the first car he’d ever seen, and it scared him half to death.”

Soon after the Bryants moved to Fordyce, Paul took a part-time job in his cousin’s general store after school and on Saturdays. Typical of the country stores of the day, the Kilgore Brothers store was an odd amalgamation of groceries, meats, vegetables, farm supplies, pharmaceuticals, and sundries. Cooled by ceiling fans in the summer and warmed by a potbellied stove in the winter, the place always smelled of roasted coffee and smoked meats. Always big for his age, Paul was then uncoordinated to the point of clumsiness. “He could mess up faster than I could clean up behind him,” said his cousin and boss, Dean Kilgore, who was eight years his senior. “He tried so hard, but he was always spilling sugar or flour or something.” Around the same time, Jack became a sharecropper on a patch of land in Moro Bottom, and when school closed for the fall harvest he hired his little brother to chop cotton for fifty cents a day.

Over time, the shy, insecure boy grew into a large young man who cast an intimidating shadow. As an adolescent, Bryant’s temperament often got him into trouble; although he was as big as a full-grown man by his early teens, he was immature and often belligerent. The young man who was still struggling with the boy’s feelings of inadequacy sometimes went looking for fights. “I guess you could say I had a chip on my shoulder,” he once said. At the ripe age of thirteen, when he stood six-foot-one and weighed 180 pounds, Paul got into a fistfight with a grown man who refused to pay him for some groceries he had delivered.

He was meaner than hell growing up,” said Joe Rummel, who was about Paul’s age and lived down the road from the Bryants. “He was tough, too. One day we were going to Fordyce in a wagon. We hit a chuckhole and the wheel ran over his head and pushed him down in the mud. Mashed his head to where it looked like a butter bean. We thought it had killed him.”

Not long after the family moved to Fordyce, a man rode into town on a wagon trailed by a black bear in a cage. The man was offering a dollar to anyone fool enough to wrestle the bear for a minute on the stage of the Lyric Theater. After convincing old man Smith, who owned the theater, to let his friends in for free (everybody else paid a dime), Bryant stuck out his barrel chest and said he’d do it. Years later he told People magazine, “I would have wrestled King Kong for a dollar a minute.”

Those were the days of the silent movie. In a world before television, when a radio was still too expensive for most people to own, the nightly parade of stars such as Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, and Gloria Swanson at the Lyric represented the town’s only real connection to the outside world. It was a small theater by the standards of the grand picture houses of the day, with no more than two hundred seats arranged on a sloped floor. Hillbilly musicians sometimes performed on the small wooden stage. By the time Bryant walked onstage that night with the man and his bear, the place was packed.

“Half the people in there probably wanted to see him get torn up by that bear,” said his friend Clark Jordan, who sat in the second row, hoping the bear wouldn’t kill him.

As soon as the bear reared up to face him, Bryant pulled him to the ground and played a little prevent defense. The animal was muzzled, so Bryant figured all he had to do was to keep the bear from squashing him like a bug. Eventually, though, the bear worked itself free and they rolled around on the stage for a few moments. Sensing the need for a little more drama, the bear’s owner walked over to the beast and yanked off its muzzle. They tussled around some more, and then Bryant felt a burning sensation on his right ear. The bear had bitten him and he was dripping blood all over the stage. Having earned his dollar, he didn’t feel the need to become permanently maimed, so he jumped from the stage and crash-landed in the front row of seats. The whole bout lasted no more than two or three minutes.

“You should have seen him jump off that stage when he realized that thing had bit him,” said his sister Louise, who sat mesmerized in the second row. “He was brave enough to get up there and wrestle that bear, but he wasn’t about to let it eat him alive.”

The bear and its owner skipped town before Bryant could get his money. “Paul was awful mad about that man cheating him out of his dollar, because a dollar was a lot of money,” said his cousin Dean Kilgore. But he acquired a nickname and a reputation that day; henceforth and forever he would be known as Bear Bryant. His participation in the stunt said something powerful about his need to attract attention, and it spoke volumes about the tenacity and self-confidence that would carry him a long way in the world from the Lyric Theater. One day, the fearless kid from the sticks would be a legend, and those few moments of combat with a wild animal would define him for the ages.

•  •  •

When he was in the eighth grade, Bryant happened to walk past the field where the Fordyce High School football team was practicing. Bob Cowan, the head coach, couldn’t help noticing such a large physical specimen, so he walked over to him and asked if he wanted to play football.

“Yessir, I guess I do,” Bryant said. “But how do you play?”

“Well, you see that fellow catching the ball down there?”

Bryant nodded.

“Well, whenever he catches it, you go down there and try to kill him.”

Bryant’s basic football philosophy never deviated very far from those simple instructions. From the beginning, he impressed the coach with his aggressive approach to the game. The next Friday, Bryant played in the first football game he had ever seen. His parents thought sports, especially sports involving a certain kind of violence, conflicted with their religious beliefs, but they didn’t try very hard to stop him from playing. Neither of them would ever see him play or coach, however. His first week on the team, Bryant took his only pair of shoes to the town cobbler and had him screw cleats to the soles. He wore those black hightops everywhere, and they made a terrible racket.

In those days of two-way football, when the helmets were made of leather light enough to squeeze in your hands, Bryant proved to be only an average pass receiver, but he quickly developed a reputation as a player who would knock the hell out of anyone in his path. His size, strength, and tenacity made him an outstanding blocker on offense and a feared tackier on defense. “He was the most aggressive player I ever saw,” said his teammate Jack Benham. “The coach liked to use him as a model: ‘Here, watch Bryant show you how to block.’ And Bryant would knock a guy five yards off the line.”

Even then, he played with a ferocity that suggested he knew it was his ticket out. “All I had was football,” he later said. “I hung on as though it were life and death, and it was.”

No joy to coach, Bryant often got into fights during games, and in his junior year, the principal suspended him from the team for cutting classes. But his teammates loved him. He connected with them in a way that foreshadowed his success as a coach. Though not the best athlete on the team, he was certainly the meanest, and his tenacity helped him earn All-State acclaim. In his senior year, 1930, when the Redbugs finished undefeated and won the state championship, they were leading in a close game with a team from Hope one night when Fordyce quarterback Clark (Click) Jordan—one-half of the famed Jordan twins who later starred at the University of Arkansas—was tackled late and way out of bounds. Jordan limped back to the huddle with a sprained ankle. It was obviously a cheap shot.

“Don’t worry, Click, I’ll get that sonofabitch,” Bryant said.

In this age before scoreboard clocks, the officials kept the time on a stopwatch. After Jordan was hit out of bounds, Bryant bided his time. He didn’t want to do anything to cost his team the game, so after every play, he went up to the official and asked him how much time was left. Finally, when only a few seconds remained and the game appeared in the bag, Bryant lined up opposite the Hope player who had taken the cheap shot on his friend. An instant before the snap, Bryant started swinging. He went right to the Hope player’s head and then wrestled him to the ground, and he didn’t stop swinging until the officials pulled him off and threw him out of the game.

“You could say Bear had more loyalty than judgment in those days,” Jordan said.

Football gave Bryant an identity. For the first time, he wasn’t simply that mama’s boy or that invalid father’s son or that rube from the sticks; he was one of the heroes of Friday nights who rode off to places like Little Rock and Hot Springs on specially chartered trains to represent the folks of Fordyce. His mama always tried to teach him to be proud of himself, but nothing she said could ever instill self-respect quite as well as those people cheering for him and calling his name.

As difficult as this immature and belligerent adolescent must have been to raise, Ida was responsible for instilling in Paul many of the important values that would help him succeed. She was a stickler for manners, and the effects of her teachings can be seen throughout his life. His language could be as crude as a sailor’s in private and especially on the field, but from the time he exorcised all his teenage demons, he was always a gentleman in public and especially around women. Nearly a half-century after he left Arkansas, Bryant was leaning against a goalpost of the Louisiana Superdome before the first Sugar Bowl played indoors, when Joe Paterno, the coach of the opposing Penn State Nittany Lions, walked over and asked him why he wasn’t wearing his trademark houndstooth hat. Without missing a beat, he said, “My mama always told me to take off my hat inside.” Not all of her teachings took, of course; she forbade him to smoke or drink, but he consumed both cigarettes and liquor from an early age. However hypocritical it may have been, his inability to smoke or drink in front of her—till the end of her life—suggested an old-world respect for her wishes. She tried to instill in him a religious fervor to match her own, but while he clearly harbored certain core religious beliefs and became a man of extreme charity who was capable of tremendous kindness, the premature death of his father—who refused medical treatment because he believed it violated the teachings of his church—left Bryant with a lifelong ambivalence toward organized religion. The most valuable lesson she gave him, however, lay in her struggle through the day-after-day hardships of her life without ever giving up. This experience fostered a sense of independence and determination that would form the foundation of his life.

•  •  •

His newfound status as a star athlete gained him plenty of attention from the opposite sex. The once timid boy was growing into a handsome young man with broad shoulders, smoldering eyes, and a charisma that defied description. In affairs of the heart as in the rest of his life, he sometimes pushed too hard. One night when he was staying with his cousin Dean, he came in from a date with his face scratched and bloodied. Bryant’s hormones had been raging that night, and he had not wanted to take no for an answer. “That girl fought me off like crazy,” he told his cousin, shaking his head.

His background and his reputation as a hell-raiser rendered him off-limits for some girls. Just as the boys and girls had once teased him, no small number of fathers and mothers looked down on him because of his modest origins, branding him a loser in their small-town caste system. “My mother and daddy didn’t want me to date him, so we had to sneak around,” said Julia Sparks, one of his high-school girlfriends. “Even when he was a big football star, a lot of people—including my parents—looked down on him because he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.”

A poor student who cared little about his studies, Bryant was not the type of young man of whom great things were expected. In fact, he failed to graduate with his high-school classmates in the spring of 1931 after flunking a language class. Ike Murray, his classmate and sometime romantic rival who later would become attorney general of the state of Arkansas, once remarked, “If I had been writing the class prophecy for our senior class, I’d have written this about Paul: ‘He’ll be lucky to stay out of the penitentiary.’ ”

But a life can be altered in the blink of an eye. In the spring of 1931, at the depths of the Great Depression, an assistant coach from the University of Alabama arrived in Fordyce to attempt to sign the Jordan twins. After he realized he was going to lose both of them to Arkansas, Hank Crisp asked the high-school coach if he had any more college prospects. Yes, the coach said, I have one who will fight till he drops. That fall, Bryant climbed into the rumble seat of Crisp’s car and rode off to his future in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but he would never shake the dust of rural Arkansas from his soul. The cruel voices of his youth pushed him to get out and achieve, but the family and friends he so treasured always brought him back—first, as an impoverished college student, by hitchhiking or hopping a freight, and then, when the money and fame started to flow, in his own private airplane.

The louder the world cheered for him, the more often he returned to his roots. Sometimes he flew into the tiny airstrip outside Fordyce and stayed just long enough for a double helping of his mama’s black-eyed peas and cornbread; as much as he craved the spotlight, he enjoyed the reality check that his visits provided. The man who played golf with the president of the United States also enjoyed going bird hunting with his brother Jack, the farmer; the man who watched the Kentucky Derby as the governor’s guest was once so touched by the sudden death of his niece’s horse that he took her out and bought her a replacement just to see her face light up. Success afforded him the opportunity to build his mother a nice little white cottage on the road to Fordyce, and she never wanted for anything for the rest of her life.

As much as he craved an escape, he could never completely shake football from his mind, even when he returned to the only place in the world where everyone called him “Paul.” The game was never any farther away than the yellow legal pad he kept at his side on such trips, just in case a sudden inspiration presented him with a new way of burning Auburn for six.

About The Author

Keith Dunnavant is a leading American sports writer and historian. His books include definitive biographies of football icons Paul “Bear” Bryant (Coach) and Bart Starr (America’s Quarterback) and two other classics about the sport, The Missing Ring and The Fifty-Year Seduction. A native of Alabama who spent most of his career in Atlanta and New York, he covered sports business for BusinessWeek and was also a magazine feature writer.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 2, 2018)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501183447

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