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Million Dollar Movie: Gorgo, Warhol, Rocky, and Me

The final episode The Night Of, HBO’s engrossing eight-part series co-created by Richard Price, airs this Sunday and if you have not been watching, have a little binge and catch up—you’ll dig it. Price is a distinguished novelist and screenwriter—I love the talk in movies like The Color of Money and Sea of Love—and one of my favorite Scorsese flicks, Life Lessons. Like many of us—thank you, P. Kael—he lost it at the movies. Back in December 1982, American Film magazine published Price’s charming essay about some of his favorite movie theater memories, and, with the author’s permission, we’re happy to now share it with you. Dive in, this will make you happy.—Alex Belth  

“Gorgo, Warhol, Rocky, and Me”

By Richard Price

Over the marquee of a beat-up two-dollar movie house in Times Square, there’s an ancient faded sign: “Get More Out of Life—See a Movie.” The visual contrast between that sentiment and the desperate seediness surrounding it would yield, in its bitter irony, a photograph worthy of Walker Evans.

Nonetheless, the sign gives solid advice. Movies have always been a source of self-realization in my life; from Jerry Lewis to James Dean to Woody Allen, the shock of recognition has always signaled the Big Change for me.

But there’s another source of epiphany in a movie house, one much more profound and subtle than the screen—and that’s the audience. And I’ve always felt that the action in the seats was the greater teacher.

Rebel Without a Cause was pure bush-league in the life-lessons department compared with the ever popular torture of trying to worm a finger inside a steel-trap bra while keeping a two-hour, eyes-ahead poker face, or compared with the frantic in-crowd scrambling for who-sits-next-to-whom seating among a group of thirteen-year-old boys. Deep Throat was a rambling, flatulent dirty joke compared with the awesome sexuality of first tongue kiss while watching Topkapi. Psycho was so much “Mister Rogers” compared with the torture of sitting in front of six greaser cretins, who, after ordering you not to turn around, amused themselves through Viva La Vegas by treating your skull to sporadic slaps and buttered popcorn.

Everything—sex, power, kindness, cruelty, love lost and found—was acted out in the dark, no “The End,” and nothing could be exorcised by chanting, “It’s only a movie.”

The following memories are selected from my personal Book of Revelations.


1961—Growing Pains


From the age of five to eleven, the highlight of my week was spending Saturdays with my grandmother, who lived in what is now known as the South Bronx. Our itinerary never varied: a double monster-movie matinee at one of the local theaters, dinner at a deli, and then back to her place for an evening of pro wrestling, roller derby, and “Zackerly’s Shock Theater” on the ole Emerson. But the crème de Ia crème was the monster-movie outing. She’d load up a shopping bag with sandwiches, fruit, and a few thermoses, and we’d head on out—nothing could be finer.

But it all began to fall apart two weeks before my twelfth birthday, when we went to see Gorgo.

Seated in the theater, surrounded by kids howling and yowling for the picture to start, my grandmother muttered her usual, “Animals,” a few times, jerking her head in annoyance to all points of the compass. One kid ten rows down from us got dragged out even before the lights dimmed. An eleven-year-old with a cigarette, dragged up the aisle by the tall, bony, gray-haired, tomahawk-faced matron in a white uniform like that of a school nurse, her eyes razors of determination, the kid trying desperately to be cool, trying to drag on his cigarette as he was hustled by his neck and armpit out of the theater, his friends laughing and whooing in a wolf chorus: “Efram, man, she too bad for you.” “Bite her, man.”

My grandmother squinted in admiration at the matron. “She’s a tough one.”

The kids were my age, but in every way it seemed like no contest; they were bigger, badder, louder, definitely not College Bound. As the matron came back down the aisle slightly huffing, my grandmother nodded to her. The matron smiled back a “How are you, dear,” then continued down to Efram’s friends brandishing her flashlight like a nightstick: “An’ if I see anybody else light up a cigarette, ya’s gonna get the same treatment.” That got a chorus of “whoos” as she tromped up the aisle, her face in an “I ain’t kiddin’” expression.

“Watch ’em,” my grandmother murmured. “I see two packs… these little bastards… just let ’em light up… they don’t think anybody’s watchin’.”

Halfway through Gorgo, while a mother dinosaur destroyed London in a search for her baby, one kid bent over the crotch of his friend for a light and both of us caught the brief orange flare reflected off the seat back in front of him.

She grabbed my arm. “We got him!”

The kid sat back in a low slouch, casually checking out his sides, the cigarette cupped inside his palm, lit end between his legs.

“Go get the matron!” my grandmother said, her eyes widening. I hesitated, not wanting to rat on another kid and not wanting to get beaten up. “Go, go! He’s almost finished!”

The matron was lounging against an archway, arms folded across her waist, eyes scanning the crowd. “Excuse me, miss? My grandmother wants to talk to you.”

She tromped down to our seats and bent over my grandmother, who didn’t say a word, just raised her eyebrows, made a slight motion with her head in the direction of that row of kids, and pressed two fingers against her lips as if she were dragging on a butt.

I saw all this from where the matron had been standing. I knew there was a chance that she would hustle this kid past me, that the kid would get a good look at me, and that maybe my ass was grass, but I didn’t really feel that worried. What I felt, more than fear was deep sorrow. For the first time in six years of movie outings with my grandmother, I found myself wishing I was one of her “animals,” wishing that I was sitting right in the middle of those kids, cupping a passed butt, taking a drag, and passing it on.

Much to my relief, the matron decided to lay off. When I sat back down, my grandmother was sitting hand to mouth, eyes wide, staring down at those kids. “Oh, honey, what a world,” she whisper-moaned, shaking her head behind her fist. “What a world…”

For the next several hours, I ate, she drank black coffee, too aggravated to eat, and we watched the kids. Every time one would come up the aisle to go to the john or get candy we would stare at him until our heads were almost completely turned around. We would do the same when he came back down. And we watched the movie. It struck me that my grandmother was a very lonely person and that in the very near future she would get a lot more lonely.

When we got out, it was twilight. The kids streamed around us, my grandmother’s tottering, arthritic bulk like a rock splitting rapids. One kid locked eyes with her, caught her death-ray sneer, and nudged his friend. My heart stopped. I envisioned my grandmother and me back to back fighting them off, but nothing happened, and I wound up watching them bop down the street, counting how many of them wore Keds and how many Converse.



the day mars invaded the earth

When we were all thirteen years old, my friends and I would go see any film anywhere at any time. We didn’t go to watch, we went to hunt. We knew that in every movie crowd there was at least one eighth-grade girl just sitting there waiting to put out. We’d go in, take a row, hiss, elbow each other, and snigger for two hours, then head on home calling each other faggots.

Everybody was pretty happy with the arrangement, but during Christmas break, early 1963, things were thrown into chaos at a neighborhood kiddie matinee of The Day Mars Invaded Earth.

Surrounded by seven-year-olds, we scoured the darkness, muttered variations on “I was up for it, too, man” and settled in for a few hours of wisecracks. At some point during the first hour of the movie, I was lurching down the aisle on my way back from a popcorn run when I heard someone hissing out my name. It was my main man, Howie, who, obviously out of his mind, was sitting in between two teenage girls. Giving me a look like he was sinking in quicksand, he said, “Hey, yo’, this is Jackie; she thinks you’re cute.”

Too freaked to think up an out for myself, I took the offered seat and concentrated on the movie. I had never wanted to be sitting next to a guy so badly as I did at that moment. The other girl was Jackie’s sister, Carol. Like the sluts they obviously were, they both had plucked eyebrows and more eye makeup than Cleopatra.

After a debonair half-hour pause to show her I was no beggar, I draped my hand along the back of Jackie’s seat and caressed Howie’s similarly outstretched arm. Howie responded by diddling the hollow of my elbow. I was in stud heaven for fifteen minutes before I glanced down and saw that both of Jackie’s hands were in her lap. Whipping my arm away from Howie’s like it was touching something with teeth, I sat reeling in retroactive revulsion, then made my move. I scored waist right off the bat. After what seemed like days later I made it up to the edge of her bra. Suddenly she hunched over and drawled out, “Hey Carol! I got another rib counter here.”

Carol had a look on her face as though she was at the end of a line at the Motor Vehicles Bureau; Howie was sitting there with his hands tucked in his armpits.

Turning back to me, Jackie grabbed my hand and planted it on her small left breast. My forehead tingled like a tuning fork. Now what? My hand lay on top of her sweater inert and splayed like a starfish until Jackie got up, gave her sister the high sign, announced a trip to the bathroom, took her umbrella and shoulder bag, and vanished forever.

When we all got outside, Howie bolted for a cab and rode alone the three blocks back to his house.

I walked home like Moses returning from a conversation with the Burning Bush. Oblivious to the frantic six-man press conference that circled me from the theater to my building, I was obsessed with trying to keep my wrist curled and my fingers spread in “the exact shape of Jackie’s breast. It had taken thirteen years for me to score, and, fearing that it would be another thirteen before I saw some action again, I felt that I had to preserve the mold of my conquest to tide me over the years.

But by the time I got inside my apartment, my hand was killing me. I began to panic. My first thought was to trace it on paper. Photograph it. Plaster of Paris. Luckily it was too late by the time I noticed the baby shoes on top of the family television. Before I realized that I could have bronzed it, my cramped hand had become unbearable and I had shaken it out.


1964—Career Counseling


The T.A.M.I. Show was a rock concert filmed in 1964, at the dawn of the British invasion and the California sound. It was also the epitome of the racially integrated rock show, an amazing mix of three worlds—White America, Black America, and Liverpool—your hosts, Jan and Dean.

I saw The T.A.M.I. Show with three friends and our girls, all of us fifteen years old. My girl friend didn’t really love me, but in our crowd, if you weren’t part of a match, you might as well have a bell around your neck, and I was the only guy available. Unfortunately for me, I loved her madly.

All through Lesley Gore, the Supremes, Gerry and the Pacemakers, I sat there in the Saturday-matinee darkness totally focused on Mary’s hand, which lay in mine like it was carved from wax. Everybody around me was screaming and bouncing, and it pissed me off. I hated surfing music. I hated the British sound. And although I loved Motown, not even the synchronized svelteness of the Miracles could pull me away from agonizing over the implications of Mannequin Hand.

But suddenly, without warning, James Brown came flying across the screen, shrieking like he was on fire, and, without thinking, I found myself standing in a half crouch, pulling Mary’s hand over her head. Backed up by the Famous Flames, he seemed like the Devil in a doo, screeching and doing splits in celebration of his own bad-ass status. I’d never seen such a ferocious refusal to compromise, to “make nice,” and for twenty minutes he turned the world into something best seen from the portal of a Sherman tank.

The crowd was enjoying his set, but with a slight pall of wariness and detachment. There were no teen screams for “Please, Please, Please” or “Night Train” as there had been for “It’s My Party” or “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” James Brown was definitely not cute; no fantasy escort for a sweet sixteen. I felt as if all through the movie I had been at odds with the crowd and now we had just passed each other again. My girl friend stared at the screen like she was being forced to watch a massacre. She pulled her hand out of mine and crossed her arms in front of her chest. To hell with her.

At fifteen I had already established myself around school as a poet, but I was more into the wrapping than the gift. I wrote poems because it made my run-of-the-mill adolescent mooniness seem romantic and intriguing, elevated me from loner to lone wolf. Persona was everything because, allegedly, girls are suckers for uniforms.

But James Brown was a true outlaw artist, and sitting there watching him crooning and yowling, tearing up the boards with the smoking intensity of a flamenco dancer, face twisting and writhing into a catalog of passions, I found myself exhilarated by the making of art rather than the posing of the artist.

Walking out of the theater at two-thirty in the afternoon, I was astonished that it was still daylight.

I still wanted “poet” to shelter me from Mary’s coolness, still wanted “artiste” to rationalize my lovesickness as part of the forging process, but as I walked home, filled with the sights and sounds of James Brown, for the first time in my life I found myself wondering if I had any talent.


1970—Being in Love Means Never Having to Sit Through Andy Warhol


Trash Andy warhol

During the late sixties and early seventies, my college years, movies were divided into two categories: “Amerikan propaganda” and “surreal.” Any movie where the cowboys, the cavalry, or the GIs won the battle was Fascist and sinister. Same for anything heartwarming or corny—all “part of the problem.” Surreal became synonymous with Good: Fantasia,Betty Boop cartoons, Medium Cool, Easy Rider, Zabriskie Point, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Bergman, Putney Swope, Mickey One,anything low-budget or starring mainly unknowns or shot in black and white—all surreal, all good.

I saw all the required movies, in part because I was enjoying my new role as a hippie aesthete, but also because I was a devout believer in “no pain, no gain”—Sugar Pops tasted better, but oatmeal made you strong. Outside of the hip comedies, most of what I found myself buying tickets for seemed to me boring, pompous, or just plain incoherent. In my heart of hearts I was still a Sands of Iwo Jima junkie, but I restrained myself for the good of the Movement.

When I was a junior, I had a first date with a coed whom I didn’t know if I really liked or not. Date meant movie. Our choices were The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Nazi Sex Crimes in Third Reich Love Camp Number Seven, Slaves,and Andy Warhol’s Trash.

Five minutes into Trash I felt myself going into a coma. In the first forty-five minutes I left to go to the bathroom three times. I would have died before admitting I was stupefied with boredom. I wouldn’t even turn to my date for fear that she would see my eyes rolling up into my head. An hour into the flick she touched my arm and asked me what time The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly started. I was embarrassed to know, but when I told her she looked at her watch and said, “That’s in five minutes; if we run we can make it.”

I said, “This is starting to mesh,” nodding toward the screen, amazed at my own cowardice.

She sighed and whispered in my ear. “Last year I was handing out flyers for a student-worker alliance rally at some construction site in New York. Some Puerto Rican guy in a hard hat—we’re talking prime-target minority labor here—he took the flyer, read it, and gave it back to me. He said, ‘If you don’t like it here, go back to Great Neck.’ Now we have only three minutes to make it.”

Two blocks into our dead run for the Strand I was in love.

1976—Just One of the Boys


rocky movie still

In 1976 I had my own apartment. Being a self-supporting writer and having just finished a novel, I found myself with too much free time on my hands. It was a restless, boring time for me, and I filled in a number of empty afternoons by going alone to the movies. These solo excursions didn’t bother me, because I didn’t really consider myself a lonely person. I rarely had dinner alone.

But I always hated seeing other people sitting in the dark by themselves. Anybody, young or old, three-piece suits or babushkas. I could account for my own circumstances, but I always saw the others as tragic loners, destitute hearts doomed to a life of Chock Full O’Nuts counters.

On one Tuesday morning a few months into my “fallow” period, I woke up with a bad case of the Gregor Samsas. I felt lethargic and aimless; the refrigerator was stocked, the rugs vacuumed, the roaches in temporary retreat. I had nothing to do and the day yawned open ahead of me like a stretch of Kansas highway. A movie day if there ever was one.

I went downtown to see what all the hoopla was about with Rocky. I was supposed to go to the movies that evening with a girl friend, but I knew she’d rather see Scenes From a Marriage minus the subtitles than submit to two hours of Meatball Ascending.

From the moment I sat down in the half-empty theater I knew I was in trouble. I found myself surrounded by lone men, and from the screen credits on, my attention kept shifting from Rocky to the 3-D sad sacks in the seats, all of whom seemed to be perfectly self-contained and enjoying the show. Nonetheless my heart went out to them.

Whenever I concentrated on the movie, I found myself getting hot eyes and golf-ball throat at the most embarrassingly inane moments: Rocky not having the heart to break a longshoreman’s thumbs, Rocky doing push-ups, Adrian slaving over kitty litter in the pet store. It wasn’t Rocky,it was all those guys around me, kicking my ass with their painful solitude.

And then the whole thing blew up in my face.

During the final round of the climactic fight, when Rocky and Apollo Creed were pounding each other to pizza, the Bill Conti score pulsing with Rocky’s superhuman efforts, the audience lost control and people started yelling and cheering for the Italian Stallion, egging him on; a few were on their feet ducking and weaving and throwing punches at the screen. Suddenly, the guy to my left, an enormously fat black man nursing a tub of popcorn, belted out, “For God’s sake, Rocky, you can do it,” his cheeks slick with tears. My first reaction was shock that he wasn’t rooting for the black fighter.

Embarrassed by his outburst, the fat man looked around to see if anybody was laughing at him. When he turned in my direction, I was waiting for him with a commiserating basset-hound face, but when our eyes met, the contact was more than I had bargained for. Neither of us could turn away. We sat there, entranced with each other’s grief, pop-eyed, our mouths working wordlessly like beached fish; then we simultaneously burst out crying. Afraid that he would offer me some popcorn, I bolted from the theater.

Two weeks later, I moved into a huge apartment, splitting the rent with three roommates.

1979—What Ralph Ellison Meant by “Invisible Man”


james woods the onion field

AII my life I’ve gone to movies in the Times Square area. The crowds are ethnic mix ’n’ match, the fare usually critical crap, but the action is nonstop. If the movie is going over, the house is pure empathic Sensurround; if it’s a dud, everybody just turns to each other for their five dollars’ worth. People bring in grass, radios, babies, and portable televisions. There are always a half-dozen flakes arguing with the screen and another bunch who have no idea where they are. For years I saw that scene as a major goof; I was proud of my ability to feel at ease in any movie crowd in New York, from the Gold Coast theaters near Bloomingdale’s to the two-dollar roach sanctuaries on Forty-second Street. Mister Manhattan..

One evening I went down to Times Square to see The Onion Field. It was a Friday night and the house was packed. I could have caught the movie in the Village or on the Upper West Side, but I wasn’t in the mood to sit there with people who might applaud cinematography credits. I wanted audience juice.

At first the crowd started out with the usual woofing and cackling, goofing on everything from John Savage’s glasses to Ted Danson’s bagpipes, but as the focus shifted to the relationship between the two cop killers, white James Woods and black Franklyn Seales, the party mood began to fade. Woods played a cool and domineering psychopathic con man, Seales a quivering, spineless petty thief, and every scene between them hammered home their master-slave relationship.

At first, the mainly black and Puerto Rican crowd responded with sullen silence, but after a particularly degrading exchange, someone lost control and yelled out, “Stand up for yourself, chump!” and the audience erupted, cursing out Seales. A spray of popcorn landed on the screen, but nobody laughed. No one cursed out Woods, like I expected. No one cared about the dead cop or John Savage’s slow breakdown. I was amazed at the fury around me, but I didn’t feel it in myself. I felt like a social scientist, an outsider. I realized I was surrounded by people who had no addresses, no childhoods, and no names for me. I was slumming. Always had been.

When the two killers came to trial, Seales finally rebelled. He started cursing out Woods—even tried to physically assault him, and the crowd cheered with humorless encouragement.

But the rebellion was short-lived. Once Seales got to jail, his lawyer informed him that unless he and Woods cooperated in court, they’d both end up in the gas chamber. Blubbering and shaking, Seales confronted Woods in the prison shower room to beg forgiveness, but Woods had his price, and as the black man slowly slid to his knees, the white man’s hand on the back of his neck, the crowd was on its feet shouting, “No!”—pleading and threatening.

A young black guy standing in front of me wearing a knit skullcap bellowed, “Be a man, you punk!” At the end of the scene he remained standing, heaving with outrage, staring’ wildly around the theater. He saw me sitting behind him, slouched down, my face partially obscured by my hand, and before sinking back into his seat, he glared at me and drawled, “You enjoying the show?”

* * * * *

And there are any number of Honorable Mentions:

mean streets location

◻︎ I was taken to see The Ten Commandments for my eighth birthday and experienced my first religious crisis when my father told me that not only was Charlton Heston just an actor playing Moses, but that the guy wasn’t even Jewish.

︎ Experienced another religious crisis years later when I found myself sitting through The Bible a second time just to see the Sodom and Gomorrah part again.

︎ Sat through three consecutive showings of Mean Streets one afternoon, then went home, rifled through a box of family photos, and started the first chapter of Bloodbrothers that same night.

︎ Realized that I was no longer part of the youth vanguard the day I found myself in a revival theater surrounded by a roomful of punky-looking kids cackling at the horrifically dated slang of Easy Rider and Woodstock.

︎ Saw a sneak preview of Bloodbrothers booed by a full house because everybody was expecting the sneak to be Superman.

But the strangest of all my movie house experiences had to be the night I sat in a huge theater and watched myself up on the screen in The Wanderers. I was on for two minutes, playing a lounge lizard in a bowling alley. I talked, I sneered, and I got strangled with my own tie.

Sitting there, I felt absolutely no connection between myself on the screen and myself in the audience; no excitement, embarrassment, anger, or giddiness. I became so unnerved by the numbness of it all that I had to turn my head away from the screen, and in an effort to come back into myself, I put all my energy into watching the crowd watching me.

The Art of Fiction


Over at Fairfeld Writer’s Blog, Alex McNab does a nice job of curating some cherce quotes from Richard Price:

“Part of the jam that I was in as a novelist [after his fourth novel, The Breaks], was that I kept going back to my autobiography for material. . . .Life is hard enough without it having to be perpetual material, too. I felt like a cannibal eating his own foot. Once I became a hired pen out there [in Hollywood], for the first time in my life I was forced to leave my own autobiography to research my characters’ lives, and I learned, with great gratification, that talent travels. If you have enough imagination and empathy, you can write about anybody. That was probably the only good thing, tangible good thing, that came to my writing through screenwriting; knowing that I could go anywhere and learn and bring it back home and turn it into art.”


Night in the City


Richard Price and David Simon schmooze:

David Simon: I’ve seen you answer this question before, but I’ve decided to ask it using my wife, who is a genre writer of some repute. So, Laura Lippman’s take on this was, “Let me understand this: when he was going to write genre, he had to change his name? Is it that bad to write genre? I’ve been doing it for years and I felt no shame until this moment.”

Richard Price: Well, I knew Laura was pissed at me. When I started this book, The Whites, what I intended to do was write a strictly genre book that was going to be an urban thriller—although the problem with thrillers is they are thrilling. It’s like the problem with horror stories is that they are really horrifying. I just thought it was going to be such a departure for me that I wanted to create a persona for this separate type of writing I was allegedly going to do, so I came up with this Harry Brandt.

I use this line all the time, so why not use it again: I know how to dress down, but I don’t know how to write down. And the book kept expanding on me, and the characters kept becoming more, and all of a sudden I was writing about family dynamics in a way that I’ve never done before.

It turned out to be a Richard Price novel after all, and it took four years, just like any one of my cinder-block books, and at this point, I regret using the pen name, because I was foolish to think I could become another person. Laura is still going be pissed at me.

David Simon: To give you some small history in this preamble here: Richard and I have the same editor, John Sterling. He’s here tonight. When I was working on Homicide, he was working on Clockers, and to me at that time Richard Price was The Wanderers; I was like, holy shit, this is otherworldly. Then I was a police reporter in Baltimore, and John laid the manuscript of Clockers on me. Not even the reader’s copy, but the manuscript. I remember reading through it and thinking, “My God, he got to everything.” He got to everything the way it actually is in the project stairwells, on the corners. The Wanderers, I never imagined that it was researched. I imagined it was conjured the way I imagine literature to be conjured. I knew he knew the people of Clockers. They had been transformed to literature, but I knew you knew it, and I don’t think until that moment I had really seriously given thought to the notion that novelists love research.

[Photo Credit: Bruce Davidson]

Hatpin Mary

Check out this excellent Paris Review interview with the novelist/screenwriter, Richard Price:


I want to apologize for asking a personal question, but would you tell me about your hand?


My hand? Well, I was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy. It’s no big thing on a day-to-day basis; mostly people get uncomfortable when they have to shake hands with me. What the hell . . . of course, I’d like to be a weight lifter, but I can’t.


You’d like to be a weight lifter?


Anybody who has something wrong with them physically is kind of obsessed with their appearance, so I’m always dabbling with weight lifting. My left hand’s twice as strong as my right hand, so I never get anywhere with it, but…


I don’t want to get too abstruse here, but do you consider there’s any connection between all this and your becoming a writer?


If you’ve got something obviously awry in your appearance people treat you differently, like you’re a special case. It never stopped me from playing sports. I played handball for my high-school team. You have to be ambidextrous to be a good handball player. I developed a backhand to compensate. It was no big deal. But, then there would be all this drama. The gym teacher would see me playing with that fouled-up hand and he’d call me over with tears in his eyes and he’d say, Son, you can always play on my team.

It’s not like you walk around thinking about it all day. But as you grow up with this sense of yourself being singular, in some way you get hooked on the singularity of yourself. To be an artist is to be singular. I think, in some people, before the desire to write there is the desire to be special. That’s not exactly healthy, and there’s nothing relevant to creativity in that. Maybe I was just trying to maintain that sort of special thing by writing.

My grandmother, who was a big influence on my life, would take me under her wing because there was something wrong with my hand. She was a very unhappy person herself, very heavy, about five feet tall. Really overweight. Like two hundred pounds or more. It was her against the world and she saw me as her ally. I think she tended to see herself as a freak. There was something wrong with my hand, so we were fellow freaks . . . although she never said that to me. To go to her house on a Saturday was like getting parole for a day. I didn’t understand how unhappy and isolated she was, but she’d be all filled with this melodrama about everything. We’d sit and look out her Bronx kitchen window and watch the East 172nd Street follies. She’d see a black man who lived across the street and she’d say, Oh, this one is a gentleman, married to this white piece of trash. She goes with anything in pants. She has him wrapped around her little finger. Do you know how much of a gentleman this man is? If he goes into his building lobby to go into the elevator and he sees a white woman there who’s gonna get spooked by him because he’s a black man, do you know what he does? He steps out of the lobby so she can go up the elevator herself. Now, this is a gentleman. But that whore he’s married to . . . ?

Then there’d be some other guy: Oh, this son-of-a-bitch, he’s a junkie. Every time he sticks a needle in his arm it’s like sticking a needle in his mother’s heart. She comes to me, she says, Mrs. Rosenbaum, what can I do! What can I do! Richard, what am I going to tell her?

It was this constant rat-tat-tat. I’m six and I’m with the fattest, biggest ball of love to me. This is my grandmother. Then we’d go all day to monster movies. She’d be talking back to the screen the whole time.


Monster movies?


In a neighborhood you wouldn’t go into with a tank. We’d watch The Attack of the Praying Mantis, along with The Crawling Eye and The Creature From Green Hell. She’d be the only person over fourteen in the whole theater. Not only that, the only person over one hundred and fifty pounds. She’d pack up these big, big vinyl, sort of, beach bags. She’d make sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and chocolate milk, and bring plums and nectarines. If there was a turkey carcass, she’d wrap it in silver foil so we could pick on the bones. We’d go into the movies with all this. We were ready for anything. And when we came out of the theater we’d have those little light dots in front of our eyes because we’d gone in at noon and we’d be coming out at five o’clock. Coming out, she’d walk all hunched over. She was only in her fifties, but she was so arthritic and rheumatic and heavy. We’d walk all the way back home, about one block every twenty minutes with that nonstop commentary about everybody who crossed our path. She lived on the third floor of a walk-up, so that took another hour, one step at a time. Then we get up there, and even after the triple horror feature we’d watch Zacherly’s Shock Theater, pro wrestling, Roller Derby—everything—drama, stories, tragedies, drama, drama.

One time she took me to a wrestling arena in the early fifties in the height of summer. She had me on her lap and when one of the villains walked by she jabbed him with a hatpin. She was what was known as a Hatpin Mary. So, for the next match, when Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, this peroxide pompadoured villain, who wore a leopard-skin Tarzan getup, came strutting down the aisle, people were looking at my grandmother and they started chanting, Stick him! Stick him! He heard the chant and stood right over us, daring her. She was paralyzed, so he took her hand with the hatpin, a woman who probably felt very unloved by the world, bowed down and kissed it, said, “Madam.” And then he continued walking toward the ring. At which point my grandmother dropped me, just dropped me on the floor. I remember ten, fifteen years later, when I would watch wrestling with my grandmother, every once in a while she’d say, I wonder how Nature Boy Buddy Rogers is doing. He’s such a nice guy.

[Photo Credit: MPR]

The Banter Gold Standard: Bear Bryant’s Miracles

In this piece, published by Playboy in 1979, the author of such street-sharp novels as The Wanderers, Blood Brothers, and Clockers detours from the city to the unfamiliar terrain of Alabama where he is to meet with a Southern deity named Paul “Bear” Bryant. The imposing stature of one of college football’s most fabled coaches has Price contemplating a haircut and a quick perusal of the scriptures before his scheduled audience with the man in the houndstooth hat.

“Bear Bryant’s Miracles”

By Richard Price


Because l grew up in a multiethnic environment in New York City, the South has always conjured up some bad news reactions on word-association tests for me: Klan, lynch, redneck, moonshine, trap towns and death . . . lots of death.

As the years have passed, I’ve started hearing some flip sides. There’s the “New South,” with Atlanta as cosmopolitan as New York. I’ve heard that, despite the headline horrors, Southerners get along socially better than Northerners. And that foreign blacks prefer the upfrontness of the South to the hypocritical liberal bullshit of the North.

But despite all my revisionist thoughts, the only good images that have held up in my head are Southern novelists and the University of Alabama football team. The novelists because they are good or great and the Crimson Tide because, like Notre Dame, they are the New York Yankees of college football. I don’t give a rat’s ass about football, college or otherwise, and I’m not crazy about regimentation or bullet-head activities. But I do admire winners.

And as ignorant as I am of the “real” South and football in general, even I know that the man behind the winning tradition at Alabama is a magnetic, scary John Wayne type named Paul “Bear” Bryant. I would see him every few years on a televised bowl game, standing on the side lines, craggy-faced, in that houndstooth hat. I figured he was some kind of coaching genius. I also got the notion that he was somebody I very glad not to have as a teacher in any course I was flunking.

On the plane headed for Birmingham, I am armed with two documents: Bear, coach Bryant’s autobiography; and the 1978 Alabama Football Crimson Tide Press Guide. Bear doesn’t do much for me—it’s little too cagily humble. The Press Guide, on the other hand, has me freaking out six ways to Sunday. These guys are monsters. Even the handsome fraternity types have that combat-veteran look about them.

The other things that are dizzying in the press book are the win-loss stats. They’re almost pornographic. Since Bryant went to Alabama in 1958, the Tide’s record has been 193–38–8. In the past eight years, try 85–11—that’s almost 11 wins per season. They were in 20 bowl games in a row, won all but one Southeastern Conference title since 1971 (’76 went to Georgia), won five national championships since 1961 and have a home record of 60–1, with 45 straight victories.

Bryant is the winningest active coach, with 284 victories in 34 years at four schools, and is third in total wins only to Amos Alonzo Stagg and Pop Warner as far as the history of the game goes.

At the Birmingham airport, I start wondering why the hell I am keying in so much on the hairdos I see all around me. The Dolly Parton pompadours, the rock-a-billy duck asses, the military knuckleheads. Then I look in a mirror. With the possible exception of a photo of Duane Allman, I have the longest hair of anybody I’ve seen all day. I start getting visions of rusty scissors in a sheriff’s office. Ah, that’s all Hollywood horseshit, I tell myself. But I do go into a men’s room and remove earring.

Bryant Hall is where all the players have to live for the four or five years they’re at Alabama. It was among the first sports dorms in the country and it received a lot of flak for special treatment, pampering athletic elitism. Since then, sports dorms have popped up all over, but the controversy still goes on.

In any event, as I go there for lunch with Kirk McNair, Alabama’s sports information director, I expect to see something between a palace and a beachfront condominium. What I see is more like a cross between a dorm and a housing project. The place looks like shit. Off the lobby is a TV room and the dining room. Players walk by. Some are mammoth, with roast beef shoulders and ham hock thighs, and they shuffle sway-backed into the dining room; others aren’t much bigger than I am. Alabama opts for quickness over bulk; consequently, it’s not that big a team.

I eat with McNair and a Birmingham sportswriter, plus a short, heavy Italian guy who runs a restaurant in town, is a freak for the team and supplies everybody with food. He just likes to hang around with the boys.

From where we sit, I can see the guys taking the empty trays to the disposal area. They all seem to shuffle, drag their feet like they’re saving it up for practice—or else they have that sprightly pigeon-toed jock walk, as if they’re about to sprint across a room keeping a soccer ball afloat with their toes and knees.

I don’t hear anybody mention Bear Bryant. In fact, he doesn’t have that much personal contact with his players. He’s got a huge staff of coaching assistants who get down in the dirt with them.

But he’s there. He’s in that room. He is the team and everybody knows it.

A football is laid out with a white pen by the tray disposal area, and the players sign the ball after they get rid of their trays. Some kid is going to get the best birthday present in the entire state. Or maybe it’s for his old man.

Later that afternoon, I’m taken to the grass practice field. The sports offices are in the coliseum and there’s a long underground walkway that connects with the closed-to-the-public Astroturf practice field. The first thing I notice as I come up to ground level, slightly drunk on the waft of freshly cut grass, is a tower. A huge 50-foot-high observation post.

And up there is my first shot of Bear, slouched against the railing, wearing a beat-up varsity jacket, a baseball cap, a megaphone hanging from one wrist. He doesn’t move, just leans back like he’s lost in thought. Below him, there are maybe 100 guys running plays, mashing into one another in the dirt, attacking dummies. A massive division of labor of violence, speed and strength. Assistant coaches are all over, screaming, barking, shoving, soothing (though not too much), encouraging. A sound track of grunts, growls, roars and commands floats in the spring air. And above it all, Bear doesn’t move, he doesn’t even seem to be interested. It’s as though he’s a stranded lifeguard, six months off season, wondering how the hell he got up there and how the hell he’s gonna get down.

The most terrifying workout I see that day is called the gauntlet drill. You take three linemen, line them up one behind the other about ten feet apart. Then a relatively small running back is placed five feet in front of the first lineman, and at the sound of a whistle, he tries to get past the first lineman. If he does, the lineman gets the shit chewed out of him by the defensive coach. If he doesn’t, the running back gets dumped on his ass by an enormous amount of meat and gear. Either way, he has to set to, go around the second lineman, then the third. Somehow, with that coach bawling and shoving the lineman who fucked up, I feel more anxiety for the lineman than I do for the halfback.

On the Astroturf field, there are two practice scrimmages referees. I sit on the sideline bench with a number of pro scouts, a few privileged civilians and a bunch of shaggy-haired 12-year-olds who walk up and down the side line imitating that pigeon-toed jock walk, chewing gum and trying to look like future prospects. Like me, every few minutes they sneak a glance at the tower to check out the big man.

The players are wearing jerseys of one of five colors. Red jersey—first-string offense. White—first-string defense. Blue—second-string defense. Green-second-string offense. And gold. Gold signifies “Don’t tackle this man,” which means the guy is either a quarterback (quarterbacks never get tackled in practice) or nursing an injury.

I look up at the tower. Bear is gone.

The bench we’re sitting on divides the pits and the Astroturf from a long, flat grassy field with just a few goal posts at one distant end. Bear makes it down to earth and, head still down, slowly ambles over to the grassy field. Some of the 12-year-olds notice and nudge one another. He’s walking away. Going home. Hands in pockets. The bench divides the two shows: the number one college team working out to the west and the coach slowly walking alone to the east.

I turn my back on the players and watch Bear walk. He gets out about 50 yards toward the walkway back to the coliseum when a player on crutches, hobbling toward the Astroturf, meets him at midfield. They stop, exchange a few words (the crutches do not fall away as I would prefer) and the wounded player swings along toward the crowd.

Bear stands there, staring at his shoes, scratching his nose. Then, without looking up, he puts a whistle in his mouth, shoots a couple of weak toots I think only I can hear, and suddenly the earth is shaking and I’m caught in a buffalo stampede. Every player has immediately dropped everything and is tearing ass over to Bear.

They say no one ever walks for a second from the beginning end the of an Alabama practice. Within 20 seconds of his whistle, Bear is surrounded in a square by four perfect lines. Blue jersey, south; white, north; red, east; green, west. Bear squints into the distance. A player leaps forward out of the tense and taut blue south—they’re all in a slight crouch, eyes on the blue leader, who jerks his hands toward his helmet and, in a twinkling, they follow suit; he jerks his hands down to his flexed thighs, halfway up to his chest, a half jerk up, down, a feint, finger tips to the helmet. The entire blue squad is frozen except for its arms. Back and knees bent, eyes and neck straight ahead, they play flawless follow-the-leader for 15 seconds, then stand up straight, arching their backs, and clap and cheer for themselves.

As soon as they applaud, the leader of the green west leaps out and leads his squad through a perfect 15-second drill. The green applaud themselves. Bear stands alone in the center of all this, a deity, a religious rock being rapidly salaamed by an army of jocks. The green cheer is immediately followed by the white north, then applause, then red east. Fifteen flawless seconds each of heart stopping precision—Bear Bryant the centerpiece, looking nowhere, everywhere, watching or lost in thought.

Then every one of them is running back to where he came from. Back to the dirt, the Astroturf, the tackling sled. Back over my head and shoulders. And once again, Bear is alone on the field, hands in pockets just like 120 seconds before. He has not said a thing, seemingly never looked at anyone. Behind me, the practices are in full swing. I watch coach Bryant amble over to his tower and slowly ascend the 50 feet to his platform, resume his slouch against the railing and check out whatever those flinty eyes deem in need of checking out. Holy shit and kiss my ass. That was known as a quickness drill.

In terms of glory, there are no individual stars at Alabama. It really is a team. It has had plenty of All-Americans, plenty of pro stars such as Lee Roy Jordan, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, but by and large, you don’t hear that much about individuals besides the coach.

How does he do it? The team is composed predominantly of home boys, who must have grown up worshiping Bear Bryant. I think of those 12-year-olds cock-walking the sidelines, one-eying the tower. Every year, the coach gets a batch of players who have been spoon-fed Bear stories and glories all their lives. So for an adolescent athlete from Birmingham, Florence, Demopolis, Bessemer to hear “Bear wants you”—it would turn him into a raving kamikaze, or at least a stout and loyal fellow. I don’t think Bear has to try very hard anymore to get players with the right “attitude.”

My first interview the following morning is with Steadman Shealy. We meet under the chandelier in the football dorm. Shealy isn’t much bigger than I am, but he’s a lot blonder and tanner. He also has a firmer handshake, better manners and a neater appearance. Shealy’s the first string quarterback.

We go up to his room and I get my first gander at the living arrangements. The dorm rooms are tiny, with two beds, cinder block walls and the usual campus bookstore assortment of banal posters. Shealy, at least, is average-human-being-sized. I try to imagine two nose guards sharing a room this narrow.

Shealy sits on his bed, confident, serene, courteous, helpful and cheerful. And he’s not putting me on. I ask him why he chose to go to Alabama, assuming he could have played anywhere in the South. I expect him to rave about Bear, but instead he says, “I really thought this was where God wanted me to come.”

I sit up a little straighter. At first I don’t know if he’s talking about the Lord or Bear, but then he says the second reason was the opportunity to play for coach Bryant—that Alabama has “something extra” in its winning tradition. And then he says something I will hear in the next several interviews: “And I want to be a winner.”

On the cover of Bear is the quote “I ain’t nothing but a winner.”

Shealy talks of Bear’s father image, of how the coach applies football to life (another thing I’ll hear again), of what it takes to win. All hokey stuff in the abstract—but not to Shealy or the others. The guys talk about these bland notions as though they were tenets of radical politics.

Shealy’s religiosity, as exotic to me as Bora-Bora, seems a natural extension of the team spirit. He is a Christian soldier, a leader and a follower. Not many of the guys say they’re religious, but—at least in interviews—there are no wise guys, no cynics. Frankly, all this clear-eyed devotion makes me extremely uncomfortable, but maybe that’s my problem.

And where does Shealy see himself five years from now? “Coaching or Christian ministry…it all depends on what doors God opens up. ” None of what he says about the coach, about winning and life is all that insightful, but his eyes and chin tell the story. He has no room in his face for sarcasm, despair or doubt. He loves the coach, he loves the team, he loves Christ: a clean-cut, all-American, God, Bear and ‘Bama man if ever there were one.

Attitude. I know Bryant doesn’t tolerate any guff from anybody. He suspended two of his most famous players, Namath and Stabler, for infractions. No matter who you are, if you don’t toe the line, the man will personally clean out your locker for you. Bear says in his book that works best with the kid who doesn’t know he’s not terribly talented but plays his heart out. He’s more attuned to that kind of athlete than to the hot-dog natural. Sort of like making the New York Yankees out of a bunch of Rocky types. The great American combo: underdog, superstar.

My next interview is with Don Jacobs, the second or possibly third string quarterback. He picked Alabama because, growing up in north Alabama, that’s all you hear: “Alabama this, Alabama that.” He says in the southern part of the state, boys are partial to Auburn, but Alabama is the “number-one university in your mind.”

“The first time I talked with coach Bryant,” says Jacobs, “I was scared to death. I was afraid to say anything at all. But he was real nice. He talked about Pat Trammel [a star on the 1961 championship team], ’cause Trammel was from Scottsboro, my hometown. Said he hoped I was good as Trammel.”

Bear, I’m thinking, is a frightening man, but from what I gather of the impressions and memories of players, he’s not a screamer, puncher, growler. He’s a man of few words, not even one for pep talks. Jacobs has never seen him get really angry, never lose his cool, never jump on anybody’s case.

I ask Jacobs how I should conduct myself when I meet Bear. “Be real courteous,” he says. “Say ‘Yes, sir, no, sir.’ Just be yourself.”

“Should I get a haircut?”

“I dunno. I wouldn’t go in there like that. When you go see him, you always shave, look real nice, don’t wear sloppy clothes. Lots of players tell you there’s a lot of things you don’t do when you see coach Bryant. It’s been passed down through history. You always take your hat off in the house, stuff like that.”

Awe and respect. Dedication and honor. And, oh, yes, talent.

In the early afternoon, I see a few players hanging out with some girls in front of Bryant Hall. A big dude comes walking in with his dad, mom, sis and his pretty gal. The father looks like a big baggy version of his son. Maybe the present son will come to this dorm 20 years later with his son. Football is a family sport. Everybody is proud of everybody. Bryant pushes that a lot in his talks to his players.

This is from a midweek, midseason talk to his 1964 national champs:

After the game, there are three types of people. One comes in and he ain’t played worth killing, and he’s lost. And he gets dressed and out of there as quick as he can. He meets his girl and his momma, and they ain’t too damn glad to see him. And he goes off somewhere and says how “the coach shoulda done this or that,” and “the coach don’t like me,” and “I didn’t play enough.” And everybody just nods.

And the second type will sit there awhile, thinking what he could have done to make his team a winner. And he’ll shed some tears. He’ll finally get dressed, but he doesn’t want to see anybody. His momma’s out there. She puts on a big act and tells him what a great game he played, and he tells her if he had done this or that, he’d be a winner, and that he will be a winner next week.

And then there’s the third guy. The winner. He’ll be in there hugging everybody in the dressing room. It’ll take him an hour to dress. And when he goes out, it’s a little something extra in it when his daddy squeezes his hand. His momma hugs and kisses him, and that little old ugly girl snuggles up, proud to be next to him. And he knows they’re proud. And why.

That afternoon, I have an interview with one of the black players, a nose guard named Byron Braggs. I have seen only a small photo of him in the press book and know that on the first day of practice his freshman year, he almost died of heatstroke but came back to be a top lineman.

I’m checking out my biceps in the empty lounge of Bryant Hall when I look up and jump 90 feet—there’s Braggs, 6’6″, 260 pounds, wearing a Cat-tractor hat. We go up to his room, which consists of a large roommate, a TV, a stereo and a full-size refrigerator. They must sleep standing up.

Braggs is a little different from the others I’ve talked with—a little less awestruck, more blasé. He came to Alabama because his “folks picked it for me. It’s near home.”

What does he think about Bryant? “A lot of guys are scared of him,” says Braggs. “They’re in awe of his presence. But I just look at him like anybody else. I’m just happy he can remember my name. He mixes up a lot of names and faces, but two minutes later, he’ll remember and apologize.”

Ten years ago, Alabama was segregated. When I ask Braggs if prejudice lingers, he just shrugs. “It doesn’t bother me,” he says. “There were times when things looked shaky, but there are no major problems.”

And is state-wide football fever a white fever, or does it affect black Alabamans, too? “Up until about eight to ten years ago,” says Braggs, “It was mainly white. I didn’t even know about Alabama. I would watch Notre Dame, USC with O. J. Simpson. I didn’t really notice Alabama until they beat USC out there. That was the first time I knew they had a team. And since they had black players, a lot more people became fans of the team. My folks and others follow the team now. In my home town, people have become real fans.”

How about those things Bryant teaches—about character and football and life? “It’s life and death out there on the field sometimes. It all ties in. Some coaches like Bryant, John McKay, Ara Parseghian tend to have a definite pull on which way you’re looking after you graduate. They’re sort of like the last shaping process that someone is going to do you. From then on, you do it from within.”

Bragg’s advice on how to relate to the coach? “Talk to him straight. Don’t beat around the bush. He’s not impressed with slickness or guys trying to fool him.”

Taking a breather between interviews, I walk around campus a bit, grooving on the coeds in their summer dresses, the chirping of the birds, the flora of the South. Old brick and columns. There’s not one physically ugly person on the campus.

Back on campus that afternoon, I interview defensive end Gary DeNiro. The reason I pick him is that he’s from Youngstown, Ohio, which is definitely Ohio State turf.

He went to Alabama, he says, because he “didn’t like Woody Hayes’s coaching that much” and was “always an Alabama fan.

“‘I like that the coach plays a lot of guys who are small [DeNiro is sex feet, 210 pounds]. Up North, they play bigger people. Coach Bryant plays the people who want to play.”

“How about your Ohio State buddies? What was the reaction when they found out you were going to play for Alabama?”

‘”They thought I made a big mistake. That I’d come down here and they’d still be fighting the Civil War. They were wrong.”

DeNiro’s first impression of Bryant?

“‘He’s a legend. Like meeting someone you always wanted to meet. Once Alabama wanted me, I didn’t have no trouble makin’ up my mind. I remember one time I was loafin’ when I was red-shirted, which is a hard time, ’cause you practice like everyone else, but come Friday night, when the team goes, you stay home. Anyway, I was ‘puttin’ in a day,’ as coach calls it, and he caught me and yelled, ‘DeNiro, who you think you’re tryin’ to fool?’ And from then on, l never loafed. There’s really no place for it on the field.”

“How about contact with the coach?”

“Maybe two or three times a year. He says his door is always open, but I’ll go in just maybe to say goodbye before I go home or something—nothing more. He has coaching meetings every day. He tells the coaches what he thinks, then we’ll have meetings with the coaches in the afternoon and they’ll tell us what we’re doing wrong. And then about three, four times a week, we’ll have a meeting with coach Bryant. We’ll all go in as a group. He’ll tell us what he sees overall. I imagine he gets more contact with the upperclassmen, because they’re the leaders and they’ll get it across to the team.”

“Where do you see yourself five years from now?”

“Hopefully, with a lot of money. Maybe pro ball if I’m not too small—coach Bryant proved the little man can work out. Or maybe I’ll coach. Coach Bryant is the legend of all coaches. If he is behind you, no telling how many doors can open for you.”

No telling is right. There’s a club based in Birmingham consisting of all Bear Bryant alumni now in the business world. They meet with graduating senior team members and help them find both summer and career jobs. Many kids want, if not to play pro, which most of them do want, to take a crack at coaching. There’s also a big business school down there and a strong education program. But whatever they do choose, if they stay in Alabama, playing for Bear and then going into anything in athletics or business is like graduating summa cum laude. Even outside Alabama, the alumni network is nationwide. I hear that one of the biggest diamond dealers in New York’s 47th Street district is an Alabama grad.

These interviews are frustratingly inconclusive. All this nonsense concerning life, character, winners’ attitudes—of course it’s going to come across bland and boringly obvious on a tape recorder. But it’s really a combat camaraderie, a brotherhood of suffering and surviving, a growing together in a violent, competitive world. And being rewarded by being called best. Call it character, call it chicken soup, but it’s really love. Love of the boss man. Love of one another and love of victory. All this hoopla about football applied to life comes down to this: I was the best in the world once. I know what that tastes like. I want more. Roll, Tide!

In areas of rural poverty, football is the American passion play, the emotional outlet for all the rage, boredom and bad breaks—just as basketball is in urban areas.

In The Last Picture Show, an entire Texas town lived for high school football; and that’s a common phenomenon. In our dissociated culture—despite whatever grace, glory and beauty they evoke in the best teams and players—contact sports serve two functions: They allay boredom, divert people from thinking about the dreariness of their lives; and they help people channel their rage.

You can go to a revival in Selma on Friday or you can scream your lungs out in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. The bottom line at both is transference of a lot of anger into a socially acceptable outlet.

Like in football, there’s a lot of beatific beauty in Gospel, but it’s a bit beside the point. As coach Karl Marx once said, football is the opiate of the people. And not just here: There are soccer riots in the Third World stadiums. Christs for a day bloodying themselves in Latin-American pageants. Millions marching to Mecca. A lady in Selma once told me, “People leave Bryant stadium like they’re in a religious trance.”

It’s my day to interview Bear, and, to be honest, I’m scared. I consider giving myself a haircut with nail clippers. My heart is calling Kong to the gates.

McNair takes me up to the offices on the top floor of the coliseum, where I sit in the spacious waiting room. The walls are covered with floor-to-ceiling black-and-white blowups of every major bowl stadium—Rose, Orange, Sugar, Bluebonnet, Gator, Tangerine, you name it.

Everybody walking around is named Coach. It’s like sitting in a room with all the tall, stately, aging cowboys of Hollywood. A room full of Gary Cooper-Ben Johnson look-alikes, all nodding to one another. “Mornin’, coach.” “Hey, coach.” “Nice day, coach.” If I were to scream out “Coach!” there would be a ten-way collision. And everybody looks like Bear Bryant.

Several times I see someone walk in and hear someone say, “Hey, coach,” and I jump up, drop my tape recorder and extend my hand. After the fifth false alarm, I ignore the next look-alike. Too bad. That one is the mold.

I walk into his office, a large wood-paneled room with a color TV, a massive cluttered desk and a view of the practice field. Coach Bryant is cordial—patient but distant. He has been interviewed perhaps six times a week since coming to Alabama.

He looks all of his 66 years—his face is like an aerial shot of a drought area. His eyes are glittering hard. His hands are huge and gnarled. He needs a haircut himself.

As I fumble around with the tape recorder, explaining that I’m not a sportswriter, he opens a pack of unfiltered Chesterfields. He’s dressed like a retired millionaire entertainer—casual natty. A pale blue sweater, checked blue slacks and spiffy black loafers. When he laughs, all the creases in his face head toward his temples and he lets out a deep, gravelly “Heh-heh.” When he’s annoyed, his eyebrows meet over his nose and I feel like jogging back to New York. His movements seem slow; he seems almost phlegmatically preoccupied.

All in all, I like the guy, though I couldn’t see being in a sensory awareness class together.

The interview is a bit of a bust. I’m glad I have the tape recorder because I can’t understand a damn thing he says. He sort of mutters from his diaphragm in his artesian-well-deep Arkansas drawl and it’s like listening to a language you studied for only a year in high school.

Bear sits sideways in his chair, legs crossed, elbow on the backrest, absently rubbing his forehead and smoking those Chesterfields. I sit a few feet away in a pulled-up chair, a spiral notebook in my lap open to my questions. I tentatively slide my tape recorder toward him from the corner of his desk.

“Coach, you’re pretty much an American hero these days. I was wondering who your heroes are.” (Please don’t kill me.)

He pouts, shrugs. “Well, my heroes are John Wayne, Bob Hope, General Patton . . . J. Edgar Hoover, although he ain’t too popular, I guess….” He mentions various sports stars through the ages—from Babe Ruth to contemporary players—then he nods toward the tape recorder and says, “I suppose you’d like me to say Einstein.”

“Nah, nah, nah. Einstein, no . . . no, not at all.”

“Of course, with my heroes, as I get older, they get older.”

“Yeah, ha, ha.”

I ask a few boring questions about defining character, defining motivation, defining a winning attitude, none of which he can define but all of which he can sure talk about.

“I cain’t define character,” he says, “but it’s important, especially to those who don’t have that much natural ability—on the football field or elsewhere.”

Next comes my New York hotsy-totsy question.

“In Bear, I read about how you motivate players, psych them up. I also read that you understand people better than any other coach. Comprehension like that seems to be one of the attributes of a good psychiatrist. What do you feel about the field of psychiatry?”

He gives a chuckle. “Well, I don’t know nothing about psychiatrists. I prob’ly need one, but I don’t know the secret of motivatin’ people—an’ if I did, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

Then he goes on about motivation. At one point, he says, “I remember one time. . . .” And about five minutes later, he says, “That was the damnedest . . . heh-heh,” in that noble garble of his.

Then his face darkens and he says, “I guess that ain’t funny to you.”

I almost shit. A joke! He told me a joke! Laugh, you asshole! Fake it!

I haven’t heard a word he’s said. I give a sick grin, say, “Naw, that’s funny, that’s funny!” and give my own “Heh-heh.” My armpits feel flooded.

For a while, I go sociological and nonsports, thinking maybe I can get him to admire my sensitive and probing mind—or at least throw him some questions that are a little more interesting than the traditional Southern sports groupie journalist fare.

“Are your players . . . uh . . . afraid of you?” (‘Cause I’m about to do a swan dive out this window, coach.)

He sits up a little.

“Afraid of me? Shit, heh-heh. I’m the best friend they got. Some haven’t been around here much. They might be a little reluctant. I dunno. But if somebody’s doin’ poorly, I’ll come after him. But I dunno what they’d be afraid of me about.”

One period in college history that has always fascinated me is the late Sixties—mainly because it was a transcendent radical bubble between the Fifties and the Seventies, but also because that’s when I was an undergraduate. I wonder what it was like to be a football player then, when regimentation was so reactionary—when long hair and a taste for dope were de rigueur. I know that Bryant’s worst years since coming to Alabama were 1969 and 1970. Is there any connection?

“I did a real poor job of recruiting and coaching,” he says. “Every youngster in America was goin’ through a rebellious period. Nobody wanted anybody to tell ‘im anything. I remember a boy sittin’ right there an’ tellin’ me, ‘I just wanna be like any other student.’ Well, shit. He can’t be like any other student. The players have to take pride in the fact that football means that much to ‘em. That’s where the sacrificin’ comes in. That they are willin’ to do without doin’ some things. Without having some things other students have, to be playin’ football, to win a championship.”

“What was the campus attitude toward football at that time?”

“I really don’t know that much about what goes on over there [nodding toward the window]. I always tell ‘em they’re the best in the world, at pep rallies and all. Whether they said anything about me I don’t know. I was just doin’ a lousy job then.”

“As an Alabaman, how do you feel about the image that your state has in the national eye, which is mainly a negative or fearful one?”

He doesn’t like that question. His eyebrows start knitting a sweater.

“I dunno if that’s true or not. I traveled all over the country. A large percentage of Alabamans consider the Yankees their baseball team, or the Red Sox. The only difference I see is that it ain’t as crowded down here, people aren’t in such a hurry. I’m afraid of New York City. It ain’t just what I heard, it’s what I seen. I dunno if we got as many thieves, crooks and murderers down here percentagewise, but, hell, it’s so many of them in New York. I don’t care to leave the hotel—alone or money in my pocket.”

“How about the football-dorm system? Is it still under fire for separatism?”

“Naw. About ten years ago, we were the first school to build one. They called it Alabama Hilton, Bryant Hilton. But everyone’s built one since then.”

“Is there any criticism because the players are segregated from the rest of the campus?”

“Well, a lot of coaches don’t do that, but I was brought up on it and we’re gonna do it. If anyone rules against it, we won’t, but I know that’s one of the ways that help us win. You live under the same roof together, fightin’ for the same thing. If you don’t see one another but occasionally, you have other interests, you don’t know what’s goin’ on. And I can see ‘em over there, too. I like to see ‘em. If one of them lives in an apartment and’s sick for a week, his mother’s not even there. I want ‘em where I can find ‘em, look at ‘em.”

That’s it. Bear doesn’t move, just gazes out the window. I don’t move. I feel stuck. I don’t know how to say goodbye. I ask about Astroturf. About the coming A Day game. Bear says that he’d rather not even have it, but the alumni have things planned around it.

Outside the office, he signs my copy of Bear. I say “Howdy-do” and split.

Later in the week, I get a note from Bear via McNair that he wants to add Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to his list of heroes—all American fat cats who made it through personal enterprise and charisma.

McNair says he’s never heard Bear mention Patton before and makes the analogy that in World War Two, to die for Patton was an honor and that the coach is the only other person he knows of whom people feel that way about.

Days later, I’m still smarting about that missed joke. I feel I’d understand something then about why this man is successful. There is something about him—about me in that moment when I blew being an appreciative audience—that goes past embarrassment. I feel like I let him down. I feel like I could have pleased him by laughing, made him like me for a moment, could have broken through the interviewer-interviewee roles for a few seconds in a way that would have made me feel like a million bucks because it would have given him pleasure. There is something in Bear’s subdued dignity, his cordial distance that got to me. He is a man of character. I could see myself having done Mexican tailspins during that interview to get his admiration or just his acknowledgment. And this was just a magazine assignment. If I were one of his five-year players, I could see myself doing 90 mph through a goal post to get a pat on the back. And, frankly, I can’t define motivation, either, but whatever it is that he lays on his boys, I got a tiny ray of it myself. The man could literally crush you by letting you know you were a disappointment to him. Shit, maybe I’ve just seen too many John Wayne movies.

I did go down to McNair’s office, though, with the queasy feeling that I’ve blown it. Not the interview so much, but I’m left with the feeling that if Bryant had to go over Pork Chop Hill, I wouldn’t be his first choice in the assault squadron.

“I didn’t understand a damn thing he said!” I half complain to McNair.

“Listen to this!” I play back Bear’s joke-anecdote for him and two other guys in the office. Instead of commiserating, they are all on the floor, howling with laughter.

“I never heard that one before!” says a trainer, wiping tears from his eyes.

“That’s the funniest thing I ever heard!” says McNair.

“Yeah, well, I think you guys are a little funny, too,” I mutter.

McNair translates the joke for me. Bear was recalling an old Kentucky-Tennessee game, a real “bloodletter.” During the half, a guy named Doc Rhodes (I can’t figure out what his relation to the team was) went into the Kentucky locker room and delivered “the damnedest talk I evah heard.” He had one big old boy just slobbering at the bit. The only problem was that big old boy wasn’t playing.

In the last quarter of the game, Tennessee was down on the Kentucky 15 and the coach finally sent the big old boy in. He ran halfway onto the field; then he went running back to the sidelines and “Coach, can Doc Rhodes talk at me again?”

I guess you had to be there.

Bear Bryant’s Miracles” by Richard Price.
Copyright (c) 1979.
Reprinted by permission of Playboy Magazine.

[Drawing of Richard Price by France Belleville-Van Stone]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver