I have always been someone who pulls for the “underdog,” therefore it may seem strange that I am such a huge Alabama football fan. But my sympathies for the “underdog” go much deeper than sports. They are rooted in my passion for justice, equality, and truth. The people of the state of Alabama have suffered from the social upheavals of segregation, economic depression, and cultural prejudices. And their suffering has been compounded by unfair and misinformed stereotypes promoted by the national media.
As a state, Alabama certainly has its history of inhumanity, injustice, and sins. But to isolate Alabama as an island of social injustice amidst a shining sea of American utopianism is historically inaccurate and grossly unfair. The people of Alabama – White and Black together – have struggled collectively to overcome the sins of the past. Through the cornerstones of confession, forgiveness, and unconditional love, Alabamians have demonstrated a spiritual and cultural resilience that is well represented by the statue of Vulcan (the Roman god of steel) which overlooks the city of Birmingham. But perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the state’s spiritual and cultural progress than a stadium of 100,000 people of all races and diverse socio-economic status cheering for their beloved football team – a team comprised of White and Black players and coaches.
The legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant played no small role in Alabama’s cultural transition. Bryant left his coaching job at the University of Kentucky because he abhorred its racist basketball coach Adolph Rupp. After coaching Texas A&M for a few years, Bear Bryant became the head coach at Alabama in 1958. During the next three decades, he led the Crimson Tide to 6 National Championships, three of them with integrated teams. Throughout the social turmoil of the 60’s, Coach Bryant refused to bow to the demands of racist politicians. He refused to allow the culture of segregation to determine his values or dictate his coaching ethics. Against pressure not to do so, Bear Bryant recruited two African American players in 1970: John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson. Mitchell was the first African American to play in a football game for the Crimson Tide, and Wilbur Jackson became one of the greatest running backs in Alabama history. Another little known fact is that Alabama’s basketball coach, C.M. Newton, had also recruited an African American athlete – Wendell Hudson – that same year.
But in spite of these realities, the media perpetuated the shameful lie that Coach Bryant did not want to recruit Black players until BAMA was easily defeated by USC in 1970. Southern Cal was led by running back Sam Cunningham, an African American, who rushed for 135 yards and scored two touchdowns against the TIDE. The myth is that after Bear Bryant witnessed the prowess of Sam Cunningham, he decided that he needed to recruit Black players in order for Alabama to remain competitive. In other words, Coach Bryant was unfairly portrayed as a racially insensitive individual who was a pure pragmatist that viewed Black athletes as mere commodities that could help him win football games. While this myth weaves a provocative story and conveniently fits every negative stereotype about Alabama, the truth is quite the opposite, and actually far more interesting.
As I mentioned, Bear Bryant recruited two African American players in 1970, and they were both members of the football team when BAMA faced USC and the great Sam Cunningham that year. The only reason they weren’t on the field is because freshmen were ineligible to play at that time. The truth is that Bear Bryant had not only already recruited Wilbur Jackson, but he had also convinced USC coach John McKay to schedule the game between the TIDE and the Trojans in order to help advance race relations in Alabama. Coach Bryant presciently understood the power of football to help eliminate racial prejudices and accelerate social healing. This is the part of Bear Bryant’s genius that is sadly overlooked, even by those who rightly acknowledge his unparalleled coaching skills.
Rather than allowing himself to be co-opted by political agendas, Coach Bryant instead focused on teaching core values that are essential for all people in all walks of life. Teamwork, brotherhood, individual and collective effort, discipline, preparation, and equality were the principles he imbued in his players, his coaches, and his teams. Rather than using football as a political platform (as political extremists wanted him to do), Coach Bryant chose to simply be a teacher and a coach. And by being a teacher and a coach, Bear Bryant instilled indispensible principles that indelibly molded his players’ character on and off the field. The Bear famously said, “I don’t have White players, I don’t have Black players. I just have football players.”
Can there be a more succinct and profound statement of equality than this?
So, as someone who is endeared to the “underdog,” I feel a profound allegiance to Alabama football. I have utmost respect for a football program that represents the profound heart, soul, and values of a collective people and an entire state. I have deep sympathy for a University, a people, and a team that continues to be maligned, mocked, and disparaged for the sins of its past. And nothing is more indicative of true character than proving you can win in spite of the money, the media, and the myths that are all levied against you.
Presently, we have a coach - Nick Saban - who embodies the principles and spirit of Alabamians. Coach Saban emphasizes discipline, honesty, work ethic, integrity – and perhaps most importantly – the two mantras that he incessantly echoes: “Focus on the process,”
and “overcome adversity.”
An whether it’s the process of forging iron in the furnaces of Birmingham’s steel mills, or overcoming the adversity of segregation and racial injustice, Alabamians understand that their current football coach represents their values and struggles quite well.
Coach Saban came to Alabama at time when our football program was at its ebb. We were becoming the laughingstock of college football. We had been through scandals, losing seasons, and NCAA probations. Our once proud program was at its nadir. The BAMA haters were rejoicing. The national media couldn’t spend enough time discussing how Alabama football was finished. But there was one man who understood what Alabama football is about. And that man was not even a Southerner. He was from West Virginia. However, true and lasting values are not limited to locality; they are universal and timeless. And Nick Saban was raised in West Virginia by the same values and the same work ethic that permeates the people of Alabama. So, he was up to the challenge; and he knew that his principles and standards would be welcomed and embraced in Tuscaloosa and beyond.
Nick Saban brought Alabama our 13th National Championship in only his third season as head coach. Last year (2011), he led us to National Championship #14. And tonight we will play for another National Championship against another storied football program- the University of Notre Dame. But regardless of the outcome this evening, it is clear that Alabama is unquestionably a proven winner – as a football program, as a university, as a state, and as a collective people.
I am a son of the South, and the South is still my home today. My childhood heroes were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Muhammad Ali. Those men defined justice, character, and perseverance. I am a White man who has been married to an African American woman for 16 years. We have three beautiful children. My late mother-in-law worked as Bear Bryant’s secretary while she was earning her Master’s Degree from the University of Alabama. My mother-in-law was a brilliant woman who was an excellent judge of character. She told me that Coach Bryant was one of the finest people she had ever known, and that there was not racist bone in his body.
I loved Alabama football as a child, and admittedly for many childish reasons. I loved their uniforms. I loved their fight song. I loved the wishbone offense. But I also loved and admired Walter Lewis, the great Alabama quarterback who was one of the few African American QB’s playing in the early 80’s. In spite of criticism from a few fans, Coach Bryant did not hesitate to make him the starter. As much as anything else, Walter Lewis is the reason why I am an Alabama fan today.
There will always be those who prefer myth to fact. There will always be those who choose perception over reality. There will always be those who disparage excellence while they wallow in mediocrity. But I admire those that embrace the truth and are willing to alter their opinions and lives accordingly. I admire true winners – not because winning comes naturally to them, but because they are willing to embrace the principles, values, and character that are essential to enduring success both on and off the field.
Alabama fans are not just fans. We are a family. We are one. We embrace each other and we love one another. We are Black and White. We are rich and poor. We are University alumni and we are blue collar diehards. We know our past but we embrace our future. We wear our BAMA colors with the understanding that this deep Crimson represents depth of suffering, depth of struggle, depth of pain, depth of character, depth of resilience, and depth of our indomitable spirit. We do not strive to win merely for “bragging rights.” We strive to win in order to prove that the universal values of hard work, brotherhood, perseverance, and integrity can never be permanently extinguished.
It is impossible to have a tradition of excellence without tradition. And tradition stands the test of time because it is forged by timeless values. At Alabama, we did not create our tradition; we gave birth to it through trials and tribulations, through blood and sweat, through failures and redemption. This Crimson Tide may ebb and flow, but it can never be permanently repressed.
GEBRE MENFES KIDUS