The phone rang in the late afternoon of October 18, 2003. Alabama had just lost to Ole Miss, 43-28. Dad and I talked about what the team needed to do and how much things had changed since Bear died. Then he told me he thought he had cancer. He brushed it off as something unworthy of concern but said he was ready to die if it came to that.
I smiled a little to myself. My dad wasn’t afraid to die; had been content with his fate for a long time. A strong faith made the process nothing more than a change of address. But he was also renowned for exaggerating his illnesses. At 81, he had been afflicted with, and survived a lot of things. We had played golf together weeks earlier and I was planning on doing the same at Thanksgiving.
Over the next week I called him three times. He was too tired to talk on each occasion. During a routine doctor’s visit, I asked my own physician what he would do. He told me pancreatic cancer was serious and fast acting. He wouldn’t wait until Thanksgiving. It might be too late.
Thirteen days after our conversation I headed to south Alabama. When I walked into his room I felt like someone had slammed me with a tire iron. Daddy was in a coma and nearly unrecognizable. By any reasonable measure he was already gone. Like a football game long since decided, we were just waiting for the timer to run down to zero and make it official. That happened the next day.
My father was one of the great Alabama fans of all time. He celebrated the glory of past victories but also remembered sitting in Denny Stadium in the mid fifties and cheering for first downs, because that was all there was to cheer about.
He and I watched the parade celebrating Bear Bryant’s first National Championship a half a block from our house. The players were on a float sporting black loafers, white socks, and flattops.
We were together in New Orleans when a goal line stand kept Penn State out of the end zone. He was the first person I called from the French Quarter in 1992 when Bama won their most recent national title. George Cox was the reason I was an Alabama fan.
My dad and I grew up in different worlds and didn’t agree on much. But we both roared with pure joy when Alabama beat Auburn and got chills when the team ran through the tunnel while the fight song played.
Few things in life link parents with their offspring like sports. That bond is especially strong in the South and manifests itself best where fathers and sons are concerned. College football was that link for my father and me.
As I watched this Alabama season unfold, I thought a lot about my dad and how much he would enjoy this. I watched every game in seclusion; locked in the Man Room. I didn’t celebrate like the old days; I was more subdued for some reason. The SEC Championship gave me a lump in my throat rather than laryngitis.
Last Thursday, I watched as my team, the team my father gave me, won another title. At the end of the game, Heisman winner Mark Ingram was allowed to give his incarcerated father a message. He said, “We did it Dad, I love you.”
Sitting alone I felt much the same.
I hope they have Hi Def in Heaven.