Few if any could dish out and accept punishment better than these two. Read why. (Photo AP)
Alabama Player Punishment – Nobody Took it Better Than Joe Namath
By: Larry Burton
In 1963, Joe Namath was already an established star with ever increasing national notoriety. He was not just a star on a great Alabama team, but was loved by all on his team after a rocky start. Joe didn’t know anyone on the team when he came to Tuscaloosa, was considered by most of his teammates a “Yankee” with a funny accent and he just didn’t fit in with most of these good old Southern boys at first.
Joe was raised in an area of Pennsylvania that was mostly black. In fact most of his teammates in football, baseball and basketball were black. Joe was the only white kid on the basketball team, so when he saw his white teammates joking and picking on blacks, who were just being integrated into Alabama as students at that turbulent time in history, Joe would get into fights taking up for the blacks. He just didn’t understand why folks just couldn’t get along from different races. In 1963 Alabama was still about seven years away from integrating the football team, but Joe’s views became known to other student’s, not just those on the team and it helped a bit. You have to remember that in 1963, George Wallace stood in Tuscaloosa at Foster Auditorium and said blacks would never attend the university. But as we all know, they did and it started that year.
Even before Joe became known as the guy who wouldn’t lie to avoid trouble, who wouldn’t rat out his teammates or trivialize his own mistakes, he was known by his teammates and close friends as someone who just wanted everyone to treat each other with respect.
Joe just had a sense of justice that was very strong in his life, but according to Mary Harmon Bryant, Joe could have a little difficulty with right and wrong from time to time. Mary Harmon was the wife of Alabama’s head coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, and I met and talked with her in her home while a college student in Tuscaloosa. This was long before I thought I’d ever be a sports writer and I met her selling cookware and cutlery door to door as a part time college job. She didn’t treat me like a salesman making a call, but a grandson coming to by for a visit.
I asked if she had a favorite player and I expected her to be like any other mother, but she quickly said that she and coach Bryant considered Joe “like another son” and that she had a very special relationship with him. She said she knew early on that Joe was sort of a “fish out of water” tying to blend in with Southern culture and this team and might need some special attention.
“Joe needed looking after a little more looking after than some of the boys”. Mary Harmon told me. “He wasn’t a bad boy at all, but he could get into trouble over little things and he was a little homesick at first.”
One of those little things was during Joe’s junior season in 1963 when with two games left to go in the season, Alabama had a bye week. Now even today, coaches hold their breath when players have time to themselves. That just always seems to be time they find trouble and that was the case with Joe that week.
He and some friends went out to a local place, the Jungle Club, where Joe, against the rule of no alcohol use during the season, took a few sips of beer. Just as today, it’s hard for a star athlete to go out in public without his actions being noticed. So when Coach Bryant heard of Joe drinking, he came and sought out Joe and asked him face to face, man to man if it was true.
Of course Bryant already knew the answer as Joe and his buddy Jack “Hoot Owl” Hicks, a student manager on the team had been caught by the Tuscaloosa police with the remnant half drank cans of beer they left the diner with. They were taken to jail over this so there was no need in denying it.
“He told Paul (coach Bryant), that yes he had just a few sips of beer at the diner, but just a few.” Mary Harmon told me. “And Joe said when he saw the look on Paul’s face he knew he disappointed him and hurt him. He said that hurt worse than the punishment he got from it.” Mary Harmon said.
Bryant, more than most men, could understand what a trivial infraction this was. Bryant himself had struggled with alcohol for most of his life. But he was wise enough to realize it was a serious problem and perhaps he just didn’t Joe to go down that path himself. So like Joe, Bryant had times when did things he knew he shouldn’t be doing. But in the end, Bryant knew what he must do.
Bryant explained to Joe that he was suspended from the last two games of the season. Coach Bryant further explained to Joe that while he could allow Namath to continue to play, doing so would violate Bryant’s principles and everything he stood for and he would have been obliged to resign. Joe was now going to miss the final game of the season and the big Sugar Bowl game with huge national attention. That’s quite a penalty for such a small transgression.
Instead of begging Bryant to change his mind, Joe simply apologized and told his coach and mentor how sorry he was. He didn’t throw anyone else who was with him under the bus and he didn’t tell Bryant that most of the team had gone to an off campus party that night and done things like that on a much bigger scale. He just took his punishment. But what is most striking is that Namath didn’t lie about it or try to sugar coat it when asked. He had too much respect for Bryant to lie to his face when asked man to man.
Joe was not upset at Bryant for benching him, but being kicked out of the football dorm was tougher. He considered leaving Alabama because he knew that a suspension could cost him money in a future NFL draft or that the publicity from his benching would ignite the media and everyone would want to talk to him negatively.
He considered taking up offers of playing professional baseball, he was quite a good baseball player or take an offer to play football in Canada. But in the end, he swallowed his pride and vowed to stay at Alabama and earn his spot back on the team next season. But more importantly, he wanted to earn the respect of coach Bryant.
Not knowing what to do immediately after the suspension, getting kicked out of the football dorm and having no place to go right away, he turned to one person he knew he could count on, his “other mother” Mary Harmon Bryant.
“Joe came to the house (the Bryant home) and hid out in the basement so he wouldn’t have to face the media and all. I had to mother him and console him and convince him that we (coach Bryant and her) still loved him, but that he was just going to have to work this out and not do these kinds of things again.” Mary Harmon told me. “After a few days, it died down a little and he left after a big hug. He got settled in another student dorm and I didn’t tell him, but I think Paul took this harder than Joe did. When I asked when Joe would be allowed back on the team, Paul just said, “We’ll see Mama”. ” she said.
Joe’s stats for that 1963 season were good but not great. In 1962 his completion ratio was 52.1% and he had 321 rushing yards. In 1963, those numbers dropped to 49.2% and just 201 yards rushing.
But in 1964, Joe took the Crimson Tide to a national championship with a 64% completion ratio while only having to run for 133 yards. There were no more suspensions for Joe at Alabama. He took care of himself and his teammates and in doing so, took care of the coaches and especially one coach’s wife. “I believe Joe knew that he hurt Paul as much as that thing hurt him.” Mary Harmon said. “I was sure he didn’t want to make a mistake like that again.” she concluded.
Whenever Joe Namath is ever asked about that fateful time in his college career, he has never offered excuses, blamed the rules or trivialized the incident by explaining it was just a few sips of beer after all. Namath has been quoted many times on the subject and the most used is, “I broke a training rule and I got what I deserved.”
How refreshing it would be today to have a star athlete not try and lie to his coach to cover his butt, not try and make excuses and not to blame someone else. While Alabama has a coach in Nick Saban, who believes in second chances much like Bryant did, you have to wonder how many Joe Namath type players they have on the field who would face such a hard action over such a relatively small transgression and not bat an eye and just own up to it and own it in every way.
Bryant would later say that Joe was “The greatest athlete I ever coached.” But it was not a one way street of admiration as Namath said of Bryant, “he was not only the smartest coach I ever knew, but the man who taught me the meaning of integrity.” Clearly, given the emotion the Bryant’s both had for Joe, according to the warmth and love in the stories told to me by Mary Harmon Bryant herself was not one way either. Bryant’s death was very emotional for Joe and continued for years. Even two years after Bryant’s death, Namath was inducted into the NFL Football Hall of Fame. During his acceptance speech, the mere mentioning of Bryant’s name caused Namath to break down in tears and pause talking.
These were two men who in some ways were very different, but in the end, they both had very similar traits where it mattered. Bryant could certainly hand down some tough punishment, but Namath proved to be a man that could not only take it, but understand why it given. Both men proved themselves to have some faults, but both proved that integrity was the best path to chart their ultimate course.
This is a lesson one can only hope that this generation of players embrace.
Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter
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