Athens, Ala. – As he laid there in Athens-Limestone Hospital, a nurse walked in and introduced herself as Pam Gaston. “I’m one of the nurses here and patient liaison…” Daddy interrupted, “Are you related to Greg?” She responded, “Which one?” Daddy said, “The one with one eye.” Pam said, “Yes, that’s the one. He’s my husband. We’ve been married 34 years.” As daddy enjoyed doing, he began to tell a story. “I guess we were about 15 or 16 when Greg and I went down to The University of Alabama…” I knew this story. Daddy had told it many times before, but this time seemed more special. Daddy continued, “Greg and I were in the Athens High School Concert Band together and we went down there for a concert. We both played football for Athens too and decided to run all over the college until we found Paul “Bear” Bryant’s office. We went through every building and opened every door until I saw that ol’ checkered hat. I told Greg, ‘This is his office! This is his office!’ I asked the secretary if it was Coach Bryant’s office and she said, ‘Yes.’ We asked if we could see him and she said, ‘Yeah, you can see him.’ She opened the door and we sat down and talked to him.” Daddy paused and told Pam, “Ask Greg if he still has that autograph.” I knew daddy had saved his. Daddy said, “Dan Havely, the band director, gave us a paddling over that, but I met Coach Bryant and got my autograph!”
Three days later, daddy was diagnosed with Stage IV gallbladder cancer. While it was suggested that he might have months to live, he actually had less than a month. He had a few more stories to tell, but that would be the last time he would tell his Coach Bryant story.
On September 3rd, Alabama was set to take on USC. Daddy woke up asking, “Where’s the counter?” I asked, “What counter?” Daddy responded, “The counter to sell tickets at the door! Ten dollars to get in and five dollars for popcorn!” We had a laugh. He was in good spirits that morning and ready to watch the game that evening. By kickoff time, daddy had the “death rattle” coming from his chest and wasn’t alert enough to watch the game. Laying in his Hospice bed, with family by his side, we watched the Tide roll against the Trojans. Two days later, on September 5th, daddy was gone. For the next several weeks, I had no interest in football and I had no interest in going on the radio show I co-host called, “Applebee’s Tailgate Talk”. While he was sick, daddy had asked me why I was missing the show. I told him that I was going to stay with him. He wanted me to go on, but I also knew I’d have very little to contribute with daddy’s condition. Although I felt like I was drowning, the Crimson Tide kept rolling.
Here we are 14-0 about to take on Clemson for the second time in two years for the College Football Playoff National Championship. Win or lose, it will be a season I’ll always remember.
Like Coach Bryant, daddy had his own style of checkered hat. I wear it now in my daddy’s memory. I’ve worn it around town, I’ve worn it on the radio show, and I’ve worn it to a couple of Alabama ballgames this season. At the Alabama vs. Auburn game, an older gentleman sitting behind me asked, “Where did you get that cap?” I told him it was my daddy’s.” He said, “It’s a cool hat.” I said, “My daddy was a cool guy.”
I never met Paul “Bear” Bryant, but I knew Mark White, Sr.
As with any of us, he had his flaws, but he was a good daddy. Football was one of our many common interests, namely Alabama Crimson Tide football. On Monday night, I’ll have daddy right with me in my heart. You can mark it down. Roll Tide Roll!