Legendary Alabama Football Players Part Two
My apologies for the extended delay and the fact that I "shorted" readers a player. My previous article promised a top 10 list, five before the Bryant coaching era and five after. It was only after submitting the article and reading it that I realized my mistake.
I commend those who were able to notice the error and comment on the mistake. Nobody gets the prize. I don't know if anyone noticed, but no one commented if they did.
To begin this half of the article I must go back and complete the first. I think any article about famous Alabama football players must include the most famous of all, Paul "Bear" Bryant.
We are nearly 30 years removed from the unfortunate demise of the icon and his legacy has not diminished. Alabama football will always be connected to the Bear.
Paul W. "Bear" Bryant (E) 1933, 1934, 1935.
Born Sept. 11, 1913 in the community of Moro Bottom, outside Fordyce, Ark. Paul was the 11th of 12 children. He earned his nickname at age 13, when he wrestled a bear for the $1 prize. Despite being injured by a bite to his ear Bryant reportedly never got his reward.
His football career began as an eighth-grader playing for Fordyce High School. It's said he had never even seen a game when he played in his first, as an offensive end and defensive lineman. That didn't deter him; in 1930 the senior player earned All-State honors and led Fordyce to a state championship.
Bryant accepted a scholarship to play for the University of Alabama in 1931. Because he left Arkansas before graduating high school he enrolled at Tuscaloosa H.S. He was actually still in high school while practicing with the University of Alabama.
His legendary toughness is founded in fact. Bryant was so tough, and proud, that he played with a partially broken leg in a game against Tennessee. His play also helped the Crimson Tide earn the school's 1934 National Championship.
Although he never played professionally, Bryant was selected in the fourth round by the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1936 NFL Draft.
Instead he chose coaching, and took a job at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He left that position when offered an assistant coaching position under Frank Thomas at the University of Alabama. Over the next four years the team compiled a 29–5–3 record. In 1940 he left Alabama to become an assistant at Vanderbilt.
After the 1941 season, Bryant was offered the head coaching job at the University of Arkansas. But fate, and WWII, interfered and Bryant joined the United States Navy. There's nothing good about war, but Bama fans should be thankful. Nobody knows what might have been if Bryant had ever started coaching for his home state Razorbacks.
Before becoming the head coach at Alabama he led Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M. After only one season at Maryland he spent eight years at Kentucky (1946-1953). Bryant's Wildcats went 60-23-5 and earned four bowl berths.
Kentucky made its first bowl appearance (1947) and won its first Southeastern Conference title (1950). The 1950 Wildcats ended their season with a victory over the No. 1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners in the Sugar Bowl, ending their 31 game winning streak. It was Bud Wilkinson's second longest winning streak.
That 1950 season earned Kentucky's highest rank (No. 7) until it finished No. 6 in the final 1977 AP poll. Most people don't know, but the living players from the 1950 team were honored during halftime of a game during the 2005 season. At the event, the NCAA retroactively recognized the team as co-national champions for the 1950 season. So, instead of only the six championships he won with Alabama, Bryant could be said to have won seven total national titles.
Bryant coached four years at Texas A&M, 1954-57. His first team, that would become known as "The Junction Boys," had the only losing record in his head coaching career. The 1-9 season was probably a result of losing most of his players during the infamous preseason training camp.
Two years later, the Aggies won the Southwest Conference championship with a 34–21 victory over the University of Texas at Austin. In 1957, Bryant's star back John David Crow won the Heisman Trophy (the only Bryant player to ever earn that award).
After that, he left Texas A&M to coach at Alabama. He would coach there 25 years, from 1958 to 1982. After the initial 5-4-1 season, he would lead Alabama to a record 24 straight bowl appearances. He won six national titles (1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, and 1979) and 13 SEC championships.
Ten times he was honored as SEC coach of the year. He was named the national coach of the year in 1961, 1971, and 1973. The national award was subsequently named the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award in his honor.
In Feb. 1983, President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded Bryant the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On Nov. 28, 1981 Alabama beat Auburn 28-17, marking his 315th win. This topped A.A. Stagg's 314 wins and Bryant was recognized as the all-time winningest coach in college football. He retired after the next season with 323 wins, 85 losses, and 17 ties.
Perhaps his highest honor was with a U.S. postage stamp in 1996. The University of Alabama has opened the Paul W. Bryant museum on campus. And their campus stadium is named the Bryant-Denny stadium in honor of the coach and a past president of the school. Bryant was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
Joe Namath (QB) 1962-63-64
"Broadway" Joe Namath was born May 31, 1943 in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Joe played for the Tide from 1962 to 1964, when he was named All-American. Along with Bart Starr he helped Alabama alumni win the first three Super Bowl MVP honors, his being the third.
Partially due to a knee injury, his 1964 season was the least productive of the three years at Alabama. After winning the National Championship that year, the Tide was invited to the Orange Bowl.
Bryant benched his starting QB for missing curfew, but Namath came off the bench to throw 18 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns. Despite his efforts, Alabama lost to Texas, 21-17, but he earned the Orange Bowl MVP award.
Joe was drafted by teams in both the AFL and the NFL, which were totally separate leagues at that time. He chose to sign with the Jets as the first overall pick in the AFL, for a then record $400,000. Joe was an immediate success, becoming the AFL Rookie of the year in 1965.
Of course, he is most famous for his confidence before Super Bowl III. This was before the leagues merged and many wondered if the AFL even deserved the right to play on the same field as the NFL. The Colts were heavy favorites and Colts coach Norm Van Brocklin actually ridiculed Joe, saying "This will be Namath's first professional football game."
The lack of respect frustrated Namath more and more as the game drew close. Finally, in response to a heckler, he promised "We'll win the game. I guarantee you." It was a kneejerk reaction that would help make him arguably the first professional sports superstar.
In 1967, Namath would be the first quarterback to throw for over 4,000 yards in 14 games. That record stood until Dan Fouts topped it in 1979, playing a 16 game season.
While his career statistics don't set any records, Namath was named a four-time American Football League All-Star, in 1965, 1967, 1968, and 1969. In 1968 he was AP and UPI AFL Player of the Year and was awarded the Hickok Belt as top professional athlete of the year. Other AP awards were AFL POY in 1969, and in 1974 they named him NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Woodrow Lowe (LB) 1972-1975
Lowe, a native of Columbus, Ga., was the first Alabama player to be named All-American for three years, 1973-74-75. During his tenure, the Tide won four consecutive SEC titles and one National Championship, in 1973.
Those four years were some of the most successful in Tide history. His first year was their worst, if a 10-2 season can be placed in a "worst" category at all. 1973-74-75 were consecutive 11-1 seasons. Only La. Tech and Miami-Ohio posted a better winning percentage those years. Among teams in major conferences, Ohio State and Oklahoma (tied with .88043) were closest to Bama, who registered .89583 over those four years.
Lowe still owns the Alabama record for most tackles in a season with 134. His 315 career tackles remains third most in Tide history.
Somehow he was undrafted after four rounds, when San Diego picked him 131st overall in 1976. Over the next 11 seasons he proved to be an NFL Iron Man, reportedly missing only one game in his career.
Among his accomplishments in the NFL are 15 total sacks and 21 interceptions. Collecting a total of 343 yards and four touchdowns is pretty good for a linebacker. Unfortunately, his tackle information is not available as NFL.com doesn't have those stats prior to 2001.
Cornelius Bennett (LB) 1983-1986
Bennett is only the second Alabama player to earn All-American honors three years, 1984-85-86. He was also winner of the Lombardi trophy, SEC Player of the Year, and seventh in Heisman balloting.
His most memorable moment as an Alabama player can be seen on YouTube.com. The player receiving the crushing blow, Steve Burlien, has been quoted saying it was the hardest hit he ever took. It also inspired a painting by Daniel Moore, a noted artist who creates paintings immortalizing famous plays in Bama history.
Although he was chosen second overall in the 1987 draft by Indianapolis, he refused to sign a contract. He was traded to the Bills late in 1987 and he began his NFL career in 1988.
On the Bills defense he was somewhat overshadowed by Bruce Smith. However, he managed to make an immediate impact, sharing the UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year award with Smith in 1988. He would go on to win the award outright in 1991, and be named to the 1990s NFL All Decade Team.
By the time he retired, after the 2000 season, he had earned five Pro Bowl trips and was three times a First Team All-Pro selection. His 26 fumble recoveries was third best at the time. He was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
Derrick Thomas (LB) 1985-86-87-88
In his senior season, the native of Miami and All-American would cement his name in the Alabama record books. The 1988 Butkus Award winner would smash his own record of 18 sacks, set the year before, with 27 sacks for minus 204 yards. He would tie the record for sacks in a game with four against Kentucky and set a game record with five versus Texas A&M.
He would surpass everyone in Alabama history in career sacks (52), sacks in a game (five) combined sacks and tackles for loss in a game (seven), season (39) and career (72). If quarterback hurries had been recorded before 1988 he might have had the career record. But they were not, so he only has the Tide record for the most of them in a game (nine) and a season (44).
Drafted fourth overall in 1989 by the Kansas City Chiefs, he would be named The Sporting News and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. That same year he was named the UPI AFL-AFC Rookie of the Year. Before his untimely death in 2000, Derrick Thomas would become one of the Chiefs greatest players of all-time.
Among his accomplishments were nine Pro Bowls, three First team All Pro, and seven First team All-AFC. The 1993 Walter Payton Man of the Year winner also holds the NFL record for sacks in a game, with seven against the Seattle Seahawks in 1990.
He is fifth among the Chiefs in all-time tackles with 649 in his career, and is credited with an NFL record 45 forced fumbles. Among the Chiefs he is still first all-time in sacks, safeties, fumble recoveries, and forced fumbles.
On Jan. 31, 2009, it was announced that Derrick was selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Among Crimson Tide and Chiefs fans he has held that distinction for quite a while now. Whether you prefer to call him D.T., Sackman, Sargent, or Mr. Thomas, he was first a legend at Alabama.
Shaun Alexander (RB) 1996-97-98-99
Shaun came to Alabama following his high school career in Kentucky, where he was named the state's Mr. Football. That came on top of his rushing for 6,657 yards and 110 touchdowns in three years. Both of which were in the top 10 all-time records for prep players.
In his debut season as a redshirt freshman, Alexander set a Bama record for most rushing yards in a game. He rushed 20 times for 291 yards against LSU. That feat also has him atop the Tide records for rushing average with a minimum of 20 carries at 14.6 per attempt.
Shaun also stands No. 1 in Tide history for touchdowns in a season, with 24 in 1999. For his career at Alabama, his 50 touchdowns is second only to the great Harry Gilmer. If not for a sprained ankle against Tennessee in 1999 he might have set the career record.
He was able to become Alabama's career leader in total rushing yards (3,565) and attempts (727), as well as season rushing attempts (302). The injury effectively ended the hope that began with Alabama posting their first known campaign for a Heisman Trophy. Alexander came in seventh place for the award that year.
He did, however, win the equivalent in the NFL when he was named MVP in 2005.
His NFL career began after being picked 19th overall by the Seahawks in the 2000 draft. He saw little action his first year as he played backup to Ricky Watters that year. In his second NFL season, he became a starter after Watters was injured. That year he finished with 14 touchdowns, one behind Marshall Faulk for the rushing touchdown crown.
In 2002 he set his first NFL record, scoring five touchdowns in a half against the Minnesota Vikings. After starting all 16 games, he set a Seahawks record and the NFC best with 16 touchdowns.
Alexander almost rose to become the top rusher in the NFL in 2004, when he was one yard shy of tying for the league lead, which Curtis Martin won with 1,697.
He finally rose to the top of the NFL in 2005, winning the rushing title and MVP honors. Shaun became the first Seahawk to earn the honor, and he broke the NFL touchdown record with 28.
So far he has been a three time Pro Bowl selection (2003, 2004, 2005), First-team All-Pro selection (2005), and Second-team All-Pro (2004).
In addition to his 2005 MVP and rushing title, he had the most rushing touchdowns, Pro Bowl votes, and points.
Hopefully there will be more honors in his future if he can avoid injuries that have plagued him thus far. His brilliant smile and wonderful attitude is something that Alabama fans miss, and the NFL needs more of.
Other players that were considered include Ozzie Newsome, Dwight Stephenson, John Hannah, Siran Stacey, Jay Barker, David Palmer, and DeMeco Ryans.
If you feel others deserved inclusion, let me know; they may be featured in upcoming articles.
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