On New Year’s Day the sports world will be focused on the College Football Playoffs. The first game has the Number One ranked Alabama Crimson Tide playing the Number Four ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. I will be pulling for my native Alabama to win, but my heart and my mind will be going back 47 years to December 31, 1973 when Number One ranked Alabama played Number Three ranked Notre Dame for the National Championship in the 40th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic in New Orleans.
The game was played in historic Tulane Stadium, the world’s largest double-decked steel stadium. The official capacity of the stadium on the campus of Tulane University was 80,985, but on that night the venerable old stadium set an attendance record that was never surpassed; 86,598, of which I was one.
It was billed as the “Game of the Century,” featuring two of the greatest coaches in college football history, Paul “Bear” Bryant and Ara Parseghian. The game was so big that ABC brought in their Monday Night Football star, the legendary Howard Cosell, to help with the broadcast. It was the first time that the two legendary schools with the richest football traditions in college history ever met on the gridiron and Super Bowl tickets were easier to find that year. Which made it even more remarkable that my Daddy was able to come up with the tickets to the biggest game of our lifetime.
The reason that my heart and mind will go back to the 1973 Sugar Bowl has nothing to do with the game itself, but it has everything to do with my Daddy who was sitting beside me on that drizzly New Year’s Eve night in that massive stadium as we witnessed history together.
People who didn’t grow up in Alabama can’t really understand the significance of Alabama football. It’s not just a game, not just a sporting event. . . it is a defining exercise in life that teaches the importance of dignity, respect, equality and, most importantly, relationships.
In the 1950s and 60s, the state of Alabama was often the laughing stock of the nation. We were behind almost every other state in education, industry, and opportunity. We had a governor who was on the wrong side of history. People looked down on the state of Alabama, but there was one place where we excelled. There was one area where we were not number 50, but Number One.
My mother dressed me in a coat and tie to attend my first Alabama football game in 1963. When I asked her why I had to get dressed up just to go to a football game she responded, “But you are not going to just a football game, you are going to see the Bear.”
Bear Bryant brought dignity and respect back to the state of Alabama on the football field. He was revered because he lifted us all up when everybody else was tearing us down. He did it with homegrown talent and without superstars. His winning football teams were the product of hard work, discipline, sacrifice, and teamwork.
Daddy was a hard-working man. I know my parents struggled to make ends meet. But somehow, he always managed to get us tickets to Alabama football games. We would sit there in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa or Mobile, proud as we could be, rain or shine, as we watched the Bear take down another giant and pull off another miracle—they said he could walk on water and we believed he could—we were there.
When Alabama won, order was restored to the universe. Righteousness and justice were vindicated. Losing, which didn’t happen very often, was a reminder that chaos and disorder could still invade our fragile world. That was when we would cling to every word from the Bear who would explain what went wrong and promise that it would be corrected through hard work, pain and sacrifice, so the good guys would prevail once again.
We looked forward each year to games with our local rivals: Tennessee, LSU, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and of course, Auburn. We would venture outside of our region for bowl games when we would play schools like Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska. All of these schools had great football traditions. But there was one school that seemed to be beyond reach, outside of our orbit . . . and that school was Notre Dame. If there was one school with a greater football tradition than Alabama it was Notre Dame, but the two schools had never met on the football field. For years, Notre Dame refused to go to bowl games. There was little opportunity to play.
For the Alabama faithful, Notre Dame was the Darth Vader of the football world. Alabama fans were still fuming over the 1966 season when Ara Parseghian famously played for a tie with Michigan State and was awarded the National Championship anyway, even though Alabama was 11-0 and destroyed Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl. If the two schools ever had the opportunity to oppose each other, it would be a colossal clash with apocalyptic implications.
I didn’t miss an Alabama home game in 1973. This was one of Bear’s best teams ever with running back, Wilbur Jackson, an African-American who was welcomed to the family by the Bear with open arms. “I don’t have white players or black players,” the Bear said. “I have football players.” The Bear advanced racial equality in the state of Alabama when the Governor was trying to tear it down.
We were on a mission as we made the long drive to New Orleans. My brother, Robert, and I rode with my Daddy. My sister, Nancy, was a student at the University and also attended the game. The night before the game Daddy saw a friend, who was also friends with the Bear. “He’s worried about this game,” his friend said. Our anxiety increased exponentially with this revelation.
It was one of those games we should have won. Alabama missed an extra point, gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown, and let Notre Dame out of deep hole on a long 3rd down pass late in the 4th quarter. Notre Dame won by one point. We were shocked and stunned. This was not supposed to happen. Darkness descended. Chaos ruled.
We drove back to Tuscaloosa in silence. Nothing could be said that would make things right. The earth had tilted on its axis and it didn’t look like anything could correct it. Alabama always found a way to win games like this one. It was not just that we lost or how we lost, it was the fact that we lost to the arch-enemy, the ever-present nemesis, the long-despised antagonist of the football world.
We stopped in Tuscaloosa to pick up my youngest brother, Jon, who was visiting with our great-grandmother. Daddy thought it would be good to have lunch at a steak house. We found a booth and looked at the menu. The mood was still somber, the atmosphere heavy with grief and regret. A rotund waiter who called himself T-Bone came to our table and asked what we would like to order. What happened next has lived forever in the annals of the Howell family history.
I don’t know how to put this delicately, but there was a sound. It could not be described as a gentle breaking of the wind, but more of a turbulent flatulence, the rush of a mighty wind. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comprehension.”
At first, we thought T-Bone was the culprit, but then we realized it was our benevolent father. The whole world stopped.
Now, you must understand that we had all been schooled in our grandmother’s academy of proper decorum and table etiquette. Such an action at the dinner table would have resulted in solitary confinement for any of us children. My father would have been banished for an indefinite time if we had been at home.
But it happened and just like that our universe that seemed on the verge of extinction, had come alive again in the most unexpected, improbable and serendipitous manner. My brother and I started laughing and we couldn’t stop. T-Bone also thought it was grand entertainment. We laughed through our meal and all the way home.
There were times when my Daddy was larger than life. My memories of him are tied to our love for Alabama football. But for one moment in time, my father was fully human. Suddenly, the game that had seemed so important didn’t matter as much. Life went on, at least for a while.
That’s why I will remember that game 47 years ago. Football is not just a game, it is grounded in relationships. Daddy died some 23 years ago. My brother, Robert, is also gone along with my sister and my Mother who attended the 1948 Sugar Bowl with my Daddy. The Bear and Ara Parseghian are now coaching on the celestial gridiron. My youngest brother, Jon, and I are the only ones left in our family. I don’t know about T-Bone. But 47 years ago, when we were all together, there was one human moment that turned our darkness into light.
An interesting sidelight to this story was that while the football game was the main event, it was not the only event. The Sugar Bowl Classic included tennis, an intercollegiate sailing regatta, and a basketball tournament. There were four basketball teams in New Orleans for the 1973 classic: LSU-New Orleans, Memphis State, Villanova and North Carolina State University. This was the NC State team of David Thompson, Tommy Burleson, and Monte Towe. They would not only win the Sugar Bowl Classic, but would continue to win all the way into the NCAA tournament. After taking down mighty UCLA in 2 overtimes, they would beat Marquette to claim the 1974 NCAA National Championship.