It took me 34 years, but I have proof that Bear Bryant was, in fact, mortal. At least as much proof as I can have without getting grisly and breaking a few laws. During a brief visit to Birmingham last weekend, I paid a visit to Elmwood Cemetery and, on a gray, rainy Saturday afternoon, found the resting place of college football’s greatest legend, certainly as measured in the state of Alabama.
Legends, they tell us, never die. But men do. And Paul W. Bryant did on January 26, 1983, four weeks after coaching his final game, a Crimson Tide win over Illinois in the 1982 Liberty Bowl in Memphis. He took to his grave the most wins in the history of his sport at the time (323) and six national championships as coach of his alma mater. But Bryant’s numbers are but dressing to his legend, one built on the kind of toughness a man displays in wrestling a bear at age 13 or incorporating methods just this side of institutional abuse in building a team. (Read The Junction Boys, the story of a 10-day summer camp conducted by Bryant his first year as coach at Texas A & M.)
To be clear, I’m no fan of the Crimson Tide and will never sport a houndstooth hat in honor of a football coach, living or dead. But Bear Bryant’s legend is that big. So I paid my respects.
I was born in Knoxville, the son of University of Tennessee alumni. (My dad was a junior halfback at Central High School here in Memphis in 1958 when Bryant took over in Tuscaloosa.) The third Saturday in October was rarely pleasant in Big Orange country during Bryant’s tenure at Alabama. His teams went 17-6-2 against the Vols, enjoying one 11-game winning streak (1971-81) during which they allowed UT as many as 20 points just once.
Cry me a river, say fans in Oxford, Baton Rouge, and Auburn. The Bear dominated throughout the SEC, helped integrate the conference, and did it all with a cigarette and stiff drink nearby. If we could wake the dead for one quote and one quote only, I’d like to ask Bear Bryant what he thinks of Twitter.
Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery is enormous: more than 400 acres with more than 120,000 human beings interred. There is but one gravestone for Bear Bryant, though, and it attracts so many pilgrims that red stripes (crimson stripes!) have been painted along the narrow roads leading to Block 30.
Even upon locating Block 30, I needed some direction to find the Bear’s resting place. The man coordinating a grave-digging crew kindly directed me: “He’s over there, across from that tree in a triangle.” (This was an awkward inquiry, a person much more recently deceased than the Bear being laid to rest as I pursued a personal mission. But it was taken with grace — he’d answered this question before — and note the present tense in the directions I received. Bear Bryant was the coach at Alabama . . . but he is still “over there,” near a tree in an Alabama graveyard.)
Near a large marker with the family names Bryant and Folmar, I finally found Bryant’s marker. And that’s all it can be called: a marker. No larger than two feet by one foot, the granite stone is inscribed, “Paul William Bryant, Sr. / Sept. 11, 1913 / Jan. 26, 1983.” It is almost precisely the size and style of my father’s marker in Jackson, Tennessee. By this measure, the Bear and my dad are equals. Dad would chuckle at the notion and point out that he was, in fact, a better fisherman than the coaching legend. Bryant’s stone had several coins on it, and a single red flower. Never forgotten, to say the least.
Each of us can become a legend, if only to one other family member, friend, or beneficiary. It’s the numbers we reach — and how we reach them — that make a legend grow, and Bear Bryant’s is beyond measure. (Schools in Alabama were let out on the day of his death, a Wednesday.) I’ll relish my journey to the Bear’s resting place for the irony of that tiny headstone representing a man so tremendous in the memories of so many. Measure a man not by the size of his tombstone, but by the endurance of his impact. For some, there’s no cemetery large enough.