Jesus came up in Jupiter.
At the celebration of Burt Reynolds’ 80th year of life on this planet, former Florida State head football coach Bobby Bowden asked him the most important question in life.
“Burt, do you know Christ?”
The two longtime friends had carved out a moment the afternoon of the birthday party in Jupiter, Florida, to talk and swap stories like they always had. Across the years, a genuine friendship between Bobby and Burt developed around their common love for Florida State football. Bobby thoroughly enjoyed the times Burt, an FSU alum and former star halfback, would drop by for his annual visit to the athletic complex. “When he and I would get together, we’d tell story after story after story. He would laugh, and I would laugh, and we spent a lot of good times together,” Bowden reflected.
Now as the two men sat on Burt’s living room sofa, the discussion turned to a more serious theme. Bowden knew that as an actor much of Reynolds’ life was spent in Hollywood bliss, but now he wanted to be certain of where Reynolds would spend eternity.
Sue Hall, Bowden’s football secretary, said that Bowden had specifically asked to ride with her to the birthday party in order to share the Gospel with his good friend. Between Burt and Bobby, there had been many conversations throughout the years, but Burt’s faith was not one of them. “Coach Bowden told me, he said, ‘The main reason I want to go is I want to make sure that Burt is saved,” said Sue.
Before Bowden ever met Burt Reynolds, he’d heard stories about him from Vince Gibson, a teammate of Reynolds in the 1950s and a high school friend and coaching partner of Bowden. “So I would hear his tales, talking about Burt,” Bowden said. At the time, Reynolds was a rising star playing Quint in the TV series Gunsmoke.
But the two men didn’t meet personally until many years later, after Reynolds had taken Hollywood by storm and Bowden had gone through West Virginia to get back to Tallahassee—this time as the head coach of the ‘Noles. “When I had spring training in 1976, he came down to Tallahassee, and I took him out on the field and introduced him to all the players. That’s the first time I met him,” Bowden said.
Thus began Burt’s annual or biannual pilgrimages to Tallahassee to visit his friend, Bobby Bowden. In many instances, a fellow Hollywood star or starlet would tag along. Bowden remembers saying hello to Ann-Margaret, Sally Field, Loni Anderson, Dom DeLuise, and Nick Nolte.
“When he laughed, it just made you laugh. He was just an exciting individual—smooth, sharp, and good looking.” – Bobby on Burt
Each visit to campus created a frenzy. When Reynolds would arrive at the football office, often Bowden would lock the door behind them so the two men could have some privacy from adorers. “He and I would be talking, and there’d be five or six girls outside screaming to get in ‘cause they heard he was there,” Bowden recalled. “You had to keep him away from everybody. He couldn’t just go out and stand on the corner, ‘cause they would swamp him. They would swamp him, wanting autographs.”
Theirs was a friendly banter, a light sparring between two greats at their profession. Though the two men came from vastly different backgrounds—Bowden was an aw-shucks folksy boy from Birmingham and Reynolds a thespian from coastal Florida—they shared common interests and were master raconteurs. Bowden liked that Reynolds was straightforward and pulled no punches. He says there was little discrepancy between the Burt of the Big Screen and the Burt of real life. “My opinion was what you see in the movies is what you get,” Bowden said. “He plays himself nearly. His personality and everything was just about what you saw in the movies—real likable, easy to talk to, had a good time. He had a great laugh. When he laughed, it just made you laugh. He was just an exciting individual—smooth, sharp, and good looking.”
Burt became an important benefactor for the FSU athletic program in more ways than one. Bowden remembers a phone call he received from Reynolds in December 1982. “I was sitting in my living room in Tallahassee, and it was a long-distance call,” Bowden said. “It was Burt. He said, ‘I don’t like our uniforms.’ I said, ‘Burt, I don’t like them either.’ He said, ‘Let’s buy some new ones.’ I said, ‘They cost too much.’ He said, ‘Well I’ll buy ‘em!’”
Flabbergasted by Reynolds’ generosity, Bowden had to first make sure he was compliant with NCAA rules. So he phoned Hootie Ingram, FSU’s athletic director, who confirmed that it was legal for alumni to buy uniforms. Bowden and Reynolds then collaborated on a new design. Previously, the uniforms were a dull gold, and Bowden wanted the pants to mimic the team he’d admired as a child. “I called Notre Dame and said, ‘where did you get those pants?’ So I ordered about 150 pair,” Bowden said. “Then we decided the jersey and the colors. And the gold helmet with the arrow. So we broke that uniform out that year in the Peach Bowl against North Carolina.”
Reynolds wasn’t done. A few years later, Bowden received a similar long-distance phone call. This was probably around the time Burt was working on a movie called Switching Channels with Christopher Reeve and Kathleen Turner. “Let’s get some white uniforms,” Burt suggested. “Now, he wanted white uniforms because that’s what he played in when he was there,” Bowden said. “So, we bought all-white uniforms” As Bowden recalls, the ‘Noles debuted the whites the night FSU played Clemson on Sept. 17, 1988. Clemson, coached by Danny Ford, was ranked No. 3 in the nation and Florida State was 10th. “That’s when we had the puntrooskie and beat ‘em,” Bowden said. “We wore [the white uniforms] until we lost. Burt bought those uniforms and helped us design them.”
Burt was always giving but rarely asking. But in the early 1990s, he did ask one favor of his friend. By that time, Burt had resurrected his TV career and was starring alongside Marilu Henner in the successful TV sitcom, Evening Shade. Burt needed someone to play a college football coach for one episode, and who else to call but his friend Bobby Bowden. Before flying to Los Angeles to film, Burt wired Bobby his script while Bobby was in New York receiving an award. “And that script was a dadgum four inches thick!” Bowden said. “I looked at that thing and said ‘no way I can remember all that. No way! I can’t do it.’”
Bowden hopped on a plane to California and worried the whole way there. Once he touched down in L.A., he phoned Burt. “I said, ‘Burt, I can’t remember all that,’” Bowden said. “He said, ‘Well do it just like you’d do if it was really happening.’”
That relieved Bowden temporarily—until he arrived on the set with the other actors and noticed the large audience just beyond the curtain. “There were a whole lot of people out there in the stands watching, and I’m thinking gah-lee what am I going to say?” Bowden said. “So, it finally time came for me to walk out, and I just bluffed my way through it, boy. It worked out OK, thank goodness. It was fun. It was a great experience.”
Reynolds even presented Bowden a trophy for his performance. After all, he deserved it. “You know, that might have been the scaredest I’ve ever been?” Bowden said. “But Burt was a great actor and great director. He knew how to get along with people, and he knew how to get the best out of them.”
But there was no fear in Bowden when he presented the question to Burt in the living room of his home in Jupiter, Florida. When Bobby asked to ride to the party with Sue, he also suggested that he wanted Sue to be present with him when he discussed matters of faith. As it turned out, Sue provided a perfect segue for the conversation. Before Burt and Bobby retired to the living room, Sue pulled the actor aside and said, “Burt, Coach Bowden and I want to talk to you about your salvation. We love you. Your life matters, and when we go to heaven, we want to make sure you’re with us.”
After that encouragement, Sue felt like Coach Bowden and Burt needed to talk privately. This time, there was no need to lock the door. There were no adorers standing outside, no cute co-eds clamoring for his autograph and attention. “I asked him the questions, ‘Do you believe in Christ? Is he your Savior?’” Bowden said. “He just said, ‘yes, yes, yes.’ He was very sincere about it. He said he accepted Christ and shed a few tears. I was so happy.”
Sue said that later, Coach Bowden told her that he and Burt got down on their knees and Burt did accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Bowden then presented Burt a medallion cross to wear on his lapel.
Although Sue, who had become close to Burt over the years, was elated over Burt’s salvific change, she noticed that Burt’s health seemed to be failing, and she quietly wondered how much longer he had to live. “When we were there, Burt looked very ill, crippled,” she said. “I said in my heart, ‘Is this man going to live much longer?’”
Three months later, Burt was doing a promotional for Trans Am in Tallahassee, when he crossed paths with Sue and Coach Bowden. “He was wearing his cross,” Bowden said. “He was real proud of it. And I was proud of him.”
Sue remembered the frail shell from Jupiter, and was shocked when she laid eyes on Burt that April. “The man was totally changed,” she said. “His face, the happiness in his face, the relief of something. He was totally transformed to me. He was standing up straight. I said to him, ‘Burt, what happened?’ He said, ‘What do you mean what happened?’ I said, ‘You look wonderful! You don’t have your cane, your face is glowing.’ He said, ‘Sue, you know what happened to me.’ I said, ‘No I don’t.’ He said, ‘What you and coach said to me.’ And we just let it go at that.”
Burt Reynolds died on Sept. 6, 2018. Bobby Bowden, his longtime friend, spoke at his funeral.
“I really feel that today he’s in heaven,” Bowden told Hall & Arena. “That’s what I believe, based on the Bible.”
For 80 years, Burt Reynolds took on the rapids of life. Only in the Gospel of Jesus Christ did he find Deliverance. H&A
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Cover photo courtesy FSU Athletics