It almost didn’t happen. Just a few months after American troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, Bobby Bowden enrolled at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham. Bowden, who had grown up a sports fanatic, had been, at thirteen, diagnosed with the then-arduous disease of rheumatic fever. “I had to stay in that stinkin’ bed,” Bowden grumbled in reflection. “I had to use a bedpan. I had to have every meal brought in. I never got up.” For a period of time, it appeared that Bobby would never have the opportunity to play sports at Woodlawn, as doctors expressly forbade him from gridiron pursuits.
After convalescing for three months, Bowden eventually recovered. His athletic career in flux, Bobby instead took up the trombone and joined the band. He played in the high school orchestra and even performed a solo at a band camp at the University of Alabama one summer. “For a while I also played in a Jazz group called the Lee Jordan band,” Bowden said.
Eventually, the Bowden family sought out another opinion, and a second doctor cleared Bobby to play sports– a declaration that was met tears and huzzahs. “I remember feeling like a heavy burden had just been lifted from me,” Bowden said. “I remember crying in that doctor’s office, and my mother was crying, too. After waiting so long, I was finally getting the chance to do what I loved most.”
But an unfortunate setback would put Bowden’s football career on hold. Two weeks before the season began, he broke his thumb in practice. “After waiting so long to play again, I never even got into a game that first season at Woodlawn High,” Bowden remembered. “I was heartbroken again.”
The next season, Bowden was installed at halfback but saw limited action. His senior year, he was moved to right halfback and was named the team’s co-captain.
Harold “Red” Drew, who, as position coach at Alabama, had instructed Bear Bryant and Don Hutson, was promoted to head coach of the Crimson Tide in 1947. Drew soon tabbed Malcolm Laney, Woodlawn’s head coach, as one of his assistants, thereby facilitating the connection with young Bobby.
Bobby had dreamed of playing football at Notre Dame, had mimicked the great backfield of Army’s Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard on his electric football set, but in the end, his love for Alabama football was the deepest persuasion. “When I was sick as a child,” Bowden said, “I spent every Saturday afternoon in the fall listening to the Crimson Tide’s football games on the radio. My father took me to Tuscaloosa for a football game at least once every season. As I child, I had a scrapbook filled with newspaper stories and photographs of the Crimson Tide.”
Bobby once admitted that he would pray for Alabama to win and cry when they didn’t.
The dreams of boyhood would soon come true, as Bobby was given the opportunity to play football at Alabama.
But a greater love won out, and Bobby would leave Alabama after only one semester.
He first spotted her at a church barbeque in Woodlawn. Ann Estock: a straight-A student of high moral character and the prettiest girl Bobby Bowden had ever seen. Ann sang in the church choir at Ruhama Baptist Church, and Bobby would frequently sit in the back with his buddies and ogle at the object of his affection.
Soon Ann and Bobby began a courtship. From time to time, they would break up, like many high school romances do.
When Bobby moved to Tuscaloosa to play football, he missed Ann fiercely. But things seemed to be going smoothly until one day Bobby’s roommate, Paul Crumbley, suggested that Ann had another suitor. “I thought you and Ann were going steady,” Crumbley said.
“Yeah, boy,” Bowden replied. “Why do you say that?”
“Because I saw her on the streetcar with Shorty White.”
Bowden was aghast.
White, a football player at rival Phillips High when Bowden was at Woodlawn, had befriended Bobby and traveled with him to Panama City the summer previous to Bowden’s enrolling at Alabama. But it was precisely the beach trip that led to Ann’s date with Shorty.
After Bobby’s exchange with Crumbley, he telephoned Ann. As the story goes, Ann was working at the local five-and-dime, selling records and goldfish, and that’s when, “Shorty White had come into the store where she worked and was flirting with her,” Bowden said.
“He found out she was from Woodlawn High School and asked her if she knew Bobby Bowden. She told him I was her boyfriend. She asked Shorty White what he knew about me. Shorty told her that he and I had been down to Panama City Beach, Florida, together the previous summer and that we all went out with some girls at the beach. Ann was so angry she decided she was going to get even with me, so she went to see a movie with Shorty White.”
Though Ann had given a reasonable explanation, the thought of Ann with somebody else grated on Bobby. “I went home right after that and just dropped everything at Alabama after only one semester,” Bowden said.
Bowden would later star for Howard College (now Samford University) and marry Ann.
And although his love for Alabama football would remain and he would flirt with becoming the head football coach at Alabama on at least two occasions, life always seemed to steer him in another direction from becoming the coach at the school he loved.
In the end, Bowden preferred to follow Ann than follow the ghosts of his childhood, and Bear.
“I wouldn’t want to follow Bear Bryant,” Bowden once said, “…it’d be mighty hard to copy.” H&A
Cover photo by Al Blanton.
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Bowden, Bobby and Mark Schlabach. Called to Coach: Reflections on Life, Faith, and Football. New York: Howard Books, 2010.
Brown, Ben. Saint Bobby and the Barbarians: The Inside Story of a Tumultuous Season with the Florida State Seminoles. New York: Doubleday, 1992.