The backyard of my University of Alabama fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta, was just a few feet from the athletic dormitory, the “Ape House,” as we “superior” frat boys called the dorm.
One night behind the fraternity house, a bunch of Phi Gams, probably fueled by bourbon and Coke (Yuck!), were yelling at the athletes’ dorm, “Hey, Apes, come on out. Come out, Apes.”
As I recall, I wasn’t one of the brothers doing the yelling, but I am certain that I would have been one of the out-of-shape frat boys who’d look for a place to hide if well-tuned athletes had actually come out to confront the hecklers.
This was in the mid-1950s before the team was integrated, so there were no racial connotations to the slurs, just a bunch of boys with booze-heightened courage asserting superiority of an “educated” class to knuckle-dragging athletes.
With images of the magnificent performance of the Crimson Tide Monday night still fresh in my mind, the false bravado and snobbery of the remembered scene is even more embarrassing.
Not that the Crimson Tide of that era bears any resemblance to the three national BCS championships won by the contemporary team. Neither was the Phi Gam house a citadel of scholars. I certainly wasn’t one.
The team in those years was coached by J.B. “Ears” Whitworth, and it was bad. In 1955, the record was 0-10 — a record of infamy not matched in the 20th and 21st centuries.
As to the quality of scholarship in the Phi Gam house that year, speaking only for myself, I was coasting on the intellectual fuel of a first-rate New England prep school, showing up for class infrequently, except for exams.
My grades were a little better than a gentleman’s “C,” but these were the days of “in loco parentis,” Latin for the college as substitute parent. The university invited me on a cruise to help focus my attention — a two-year cruise, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.
There I learned how to throw 100-pound sacks of potatoes on a cargo net in the bowels of a grocery ship, how to write and edit a base newspaper with no staff, and finally, write speeches and press releases for a vice admiral who avoided the press and never gave speeches.
Having investigated those career options, I returned to the university with a renewed enthusiasm for class — at the same time Paul W. “Bear” Bryant “heard Mama calling” and began coaching the Tide.
The next 25 years were historic highs for the team.
As to the supposed superiority of frat boys over knuckle-dragging athletes, I give you Barrett Jones, All-American center for Alabama. In graduate and undergraduate studies, he maintained all A’s.
He is the scholar who had the courage and skill to occupy Notre Dame’s fearsome, 300-pound nose guard Louis Nix by himself, allowing other linemen to knock holes in the Irish line for Eddie Lacy to run through.
Jones was able to accomplish this impressive feat though he had torn ligaments in his left foot, which will require surgery.
The theologian, writer and football fan Michael Novak could have been describing quarterback AJ McCarron and the Tide in a transcendent moment of perfection when he wrote the following in his Joy of Sports: “To keep cool, to handle hundreds of details and call exactly the plays that work, to fight one’s way through opposition to do what one wills to do, against odds, against probabilities — these are to practice a very high art, to achieve a few moments of beauty … a form eternal in its beauty. It is as though muscle and nerves and spirit and comrades were working together as flawlessly as God once imagined human beings might.”
When Michael was researching Joy of Sports, I invited him to an Alabama-Auburn game in the era when Legion Field was divided into two equal and equally hostile crowds facing each other across the field. Afterwards, he said that Big Ten games were like attending a Unitarian Church service, but “this was evangelical.”
There was a moment of angry miscommunication during the title game between Jones and McCarron, roommates and close friends, which reminded us that those large shapes in the outsized shoulder pads are actually just boys.
But what those boys did — prove they are the best of the best in the whole nation — demonstrates the mysterious transformation in a competition of muscle and mind whereby boys perform manly feats.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.