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Hunting with "Bear"

It was 1949 and Paul "Bear" Bryant was lost in the Bronx. He'd just watched the Yankees beat the Red Sox in the Stadium, where he'd been a guest of Mel Allen, the legendary New York sportscaster, who was an Alabama graduate and my boss at the time.

"Uh, Curt," he asked. "How do I get back to Manhattan where I can get a drink?" I took him down the ramp from the booth and out of the Press Gate to the Jerome Avenue El, and we rode the D train down into the bowels of the city. That night we had dinner at Al Schact's Steak House and hoisted a few to our mutual friend Bud Wilkinson, with whom I worked during his glory days as head coach of Oklahoma.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

True, Bear was bigger than life. But on a personal level, his depth of humanity is what is remembered. On Saturday night on ESPN, I advise you to watch a terrific new movie called "The Junction Boys." It depicts Bryant in his first year as coach of the Crimson Tide, when he ran what amounted to a Marine Corps boot camp in the outback of Texas. It was August and it was dusty. And in the end less than 30 of the original 70 football recruits were left standing. One was sophomore end Gene Stallings.

Fourteen years later, in early January of 1968, I sat in a bass boat with Stallings, who only days earlier had coached Texas A&M to a 20-16 victory over Bryant's Crimson Tide in the Cotton Bowl. I had called the game for NBC, and Stallings, with love in his eyes, spoke of the post-game moment he walked down the sidelines to shake hands with Bryant, only to be lifted by the Bear onto his shoulders in a teacher's tribute to a former pupil.

In late December of 1971, Bryant was to be my guest on a quail hunting show for the "American Sportsman." The national field trials had just ended in Selma, Alabama, and we were going to hunt over a champion pointer named Wrapup. But we got shut out by four days of heavy rains and Bryant had to leave because his boys were playing Nebraska in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day.

Knowing that I was out some money if we didn't get the show in the can, Bryant promised to return to Sedgewick Farms immediately after the game. But when Nebraska rolled over Alabama, 38-6, I wondered if Bear would be in the mood for quail hunting.

On January 2, 1972, Bryant kept his promise and flew into Selma from Miami, and for the next five days we hunted quail at Sedgefield in grand style, riding a horse-drawn buckboard over the plantation with Wrapup pointing quail coveys with phenomenal efficiency. The dog showed his championship colors when he disappeared in the tall grass, and when we found him two hours later he was still on point. Bryant suggested that perhaps he might recruit Wrapup as a cornerback.

Once we sent off the film crew, Bryant and I sat down in the lodge at Sedgefield Farms and cracked open a bottle of bourbon. After pouring about four fingers of the amber spirit into a water glass, he stared out the big window. It had started to rain again. Bear fell silent, and I wondered if he was replaying the loss to the Cornhuskers.

Bryant's concern was more personal. His son, an attorney, was looking to be appointed a state judge, and Bryant wanted to help him by putting in a word with the governor. But the governor was George Wallace and there was a movement to convince Bear to run against the arch segregationist.

After some thought, some drinking and more talk, I urged Bryant to call Wallace. I said to forget politics, this was his son's future at stake. Bryant looked at me for a long moment and told the state trooper who always accompanied him to bring him a phone. Bryant called Wallace in front of me and, a few minutes later, he hung up and smiled. It was a done deal.

"Gowdy," he said, lifting the glass and toasting me, "You're good."

Good perhaps, but Bear was great.

Tight lines, folks.