Joe Willie, Forrest Gump, The Bear, The Snake, and The Governor
Like Proust be an old teahead of time. (Jack Kerouac)
I have to admit I love bookstores but they should be required to post a sign stating: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. I think bookstores of the adult variety already have that sign. You see bookstores have a habit of causing me major ADD. I see the latest books on whatever subject and I want to dive right in and bombard my brain cells with the latest knowledge. So many books, so little time. But first things first, I have to get my super caffeinated frappacrappalocamochajava and find one of those nice comfy chairs the bookstores are known for. When all the chairs are full I sometimes resort to waking up this one snoring fat guy and tell him they're offering free coffee cake samples at the cafe. He falls for it every time. I then have my chair and a stack of books. I'm on my way to information overload. But on this particular outing, I spy an autobiography by Joe Namath. That's all it took to set the wheels in motion. Flashes of memories came forth followed by linkages and connections only my mind can make (although several delusional individuals from certain institutional facilities can make the same claim.) You see it all goes back to a piece of real estate they call Alabama.
Before he was Broadway Joe, he was Joseph William Namath: a talented, skinny, athletic Hungarian kid from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. And when his high school football days were over, who came a courtin'? None other than the man himself: legendary U. Of Alabama head coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant. Now Coach Bryant was one tough son of a bitch. He earned his nickname honestly as a teenager in Arkansas wrestling a bear. As a coach at Texas A & M in the summer of 1954, he subjected his players to a brutal football training camp in the unforgiving Texas heat. The survivors (which were few) were called "The Junction Boys" which is also the name of a recent film which depicts their ordeal. Alabama in the 1960's was the place to be if you loved football and/or were talented enough to actually play there. That is if you were white. Segregation would keep African Americans off the football field for several years still. The campus itself would begin to be integrated in the summer of 1963 as Vivian Malone defied Gov. George Wallace and registered for classes. Namath himself was there that day as Wallace made his "political stand in the schoolhouse door". Though he deplored segregation, he was a football player, not a civil rights activist. This Yankee boy would soon develop a southern drawl and become Joe Willie Namath. Before I could get too lost in my thoughts about Joe Willie, my mind wandered again. I suppose the sight of a box of chocolates distracted me.
Forrest Gump, the character created by brilliant Alabama writer Winston Groom has long fascinated me. Who could not fall in love with the simple everyman who found himself in the midst of the most important historical events of the latter 20th century. And just like Joe Willie, Forrest played football for the revered Bryant. The quarterback on Forrest's Alabama team was not Namath, but a character called "Snake". Obviously to those who know their Alabama football, this is a reference to another lovable rogue - Kenny "The Snake" Stabler. The novel mentions the famous tower Bryant would oversee practices from his unique vantage point. In real life as far as anyone knows, Namath was the only player ever invited up to that tower. After getting kicked out of school due to poor grades, Gump is inducted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. One has to believe Groom used his own experiences in shaping the Gump character. Groom was a student at the University of Alabama (a classmate of Namath) and saw action in Vietnam. Ironically, Joe Namath as well as other football players of that era were deemed unfit for military service due to football related injuries yet they continued to play the game. After Vietnam, Gump would find himself in one madcap adventure after another, giving us all a history lesson along the way.
Like Forrest in the movie version of the book, I believed "my magic shoes could take me anywhere". And while they could have taken me to New York, LA, Nashville, Dallas, or any number of exotic locales, they took me to the only place I wanted to be at 18 years of age - Alabama. A generation after Joe Willie first enrolled at the University of Alabama, I decided to do likewise. I was also able to see what others had seen before me - Coach Bryant in that mythical tower. Though it was toward the end of his life and career, I got to see first hand what all that fuss was about. I finally understood how a man could blend football and the cult of personality and turn it into a near religion.
And while racial tensions had dramatically eased by the time of my attendance there, there was only one African American in my dorm and he was my roommate. We were bound together by our shared poverty. Trips to the day old bread store were made to supplement our lean diets. We shared a small black and white television in which we used a pair of pliers to change channels due to a broken knob. Yep those were the days. But somehow we felt Tuscaloosa was the center of the universe and we were glad to be a part of it all.
So what became of all these folks populating my head? Joe Willie? Well we all know what became of him. He went on to play pro football in New York, a city made to order for this epitome of 60's cool, swagger, and bravado. Some may have hoped that he would use his celebrity to change the world and though he would dabble in acting and various business enterprises he was and always will be a football player. He never pretended to be anything else. That's what I like about Joe. The Bear? Coach Bryant passed away a month after coaching his last game in 1983 after winning several national championships. The Snake? Well, he had an impressive pro career himself. He now does color commentary for U. of Alabama football broadcasts. Fitting indeed. Forrest Gump? It seems Forrest went on to more madcap adventures chronicled in the novel Gump and Co., hopefully the movie version coming soon to a theater near you. What about Governor Wallace? The man who vowed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever", would later renounce his racist past and win a final term as governor with the unprecedented support of black voters. And what about me? I had long given up on an athletic career and my stay at the University was brief but indelible. Though I have let myself become soft by sitting in bookstore comfy chairs and sipping frappacrappas, I like Forrest Gump, am just waiting for the next adventure to immerse myself in. Before I got too comfortable, I heard someone yell out that there were more free samples of coffee cake at the cafe. I got up. You see, I fall for it every time too.