The Running Back

 

He’s been running for most of his life. For a time, he ran away from tacklers in the SEC and the NFL. He also ran away from his faith. Now the 48-year-old banker runs for another type of goal line. This is the incredible story of Bobby Humphrey.

by Al Blanton

 

Bobby Humphrey back in the Alabama backfield…Penn State changing its front. Going to an odd. It is Humphrey…cutting back and a TREMENDOUS hole as he breaks free. Bobby Humphrey’s loose! They won’t catch him! Bobby Humphrey breaks a tackle and carries it in for the evening’s first touchdown!


He ran. Seventy-three yards of turf, gobbled up by the running back with a high-top fade hairdo beneath his scuffed crimson helmet. Announcer Brent Musburger made the call that immortal night in State College, Pa., when Humphrey toted the mail 36 times for 220 yards and completed a 57-yard halfback option pass, as Alabama beat Penn State, 24-13.

That was 1987. Today, Bobby Humphrey lounges back in a chair at his favorite restaurant in Birmingham, Surin West, imitating Clint Eastwood as he checks his phone between questions and a disappearing plate of Thai Noodle.

“Go ahead, make my day.”
“You feel lucky punk? Well do ya?” (gritting his teeth).

Humphrey’s Eastwood imitation is not bad, and if you’re wondering, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is his favorite.

“I like Denzel and Morgan Freeman, but Clint Eastwood…shoot man!” he says with a kidlike grin, leaning back further in his chair as if he’s just made the greatest statement in the world.

When you eat with Bobby Humphrey, expect a long lunch. The folks at Bryant Bank, where he works, don’t seem to mind. His official title is long, too: “Vice President of Business Development & Community Reinvestment Act Officer.”

His high-top fade is now sheared to an almost-nothing trim, and a hint of white stubble peeks out from his face. Behind the façade of a many-button suit and a power tie, Bobby Humphrey has a story to tell.

Growing up in Elyton Village 

He walked. Bobby’s story begins in a little borough in west Birmingham called Elyton Village, where his family lived in government housing. It was a multifamily affair, the projects, and Humphrey lived with three brothers, a sister, and his mother. Five people shared three beds. Bobby’s mother and father were separated.

Back then, the Humphreys measured distances by how long it took to walk. They walked everywhere. To church. To the store. Marlene, Bobby’s mother, didn’t work because she had to take care of the children, the first of whom was born when she was only sixteen.

“Mom raised us,” says Humphrey. “She did a pretty good job. Two years ago, she graduated with her Doctorate in Psychology. She is a special lady, and that’s who you really need to write about.”

Marlene spent much of her time trying to shelter young Bobby and the other children from the travails of the world. She took the family to church, Greater Emmanuel Temple on Graymont Avenue, and encouraged Bobby to play the trumpet and not go out for football. She knew without the first, Bobby wouldn’t stand a chance. As far as the second, Marlene didn’t stand a chance, given that Legion Field loomed a stone’s throw away from the projects the Humphreys called home.

“I could get from my front door to Gate 1 in one minute,” says Humphrey. “My goal was to play at Legion Field.”

Photo by Karim Shamsi-Basha

Humphrey attended Graymont Grammar School, approximately a 20-30 minute walk from the projects. Athletically, he later flourished at Glenn High School, where he became one of the top prospects in the state by imitating his hero, USC tailback Marcus Allen. To help with family finances, he also sold Cokes in the Upper Deck of Legion Field. After his senior year, Legion Field called.

Alabama

Bobby enrolled at Alabama as a highly-touted runner, but it was not until his sophomore campaign in a game against Tennessee that he found his form. “That Tennessee game in ’86 gave me confidence,” recalls Humphrey. “I was in a zone that I’d never been in before. When I was in high school, it was like everything was redundant. But that night, a light bulb went off. It was almost like an out-of-body experience. It was the arrival of Bobby Humphrey.”

As the two-time All-American reflects on his Alabama career, he gives more credit to his teammates than praise for his ability or stats. Almost thirty years later, he can list his entire offensive line and their backups. “Joe King, Wes Neighbors, Bill Condon, Roger Schultz, Mike Zuga, Hoss Johnson, Howard Cross…those guys believed in me. There was a bond we had that was pretty special.”

But the stats were profuse: 3,420 yards rushing and 40 touchdowns. Enough to earn the trust of the Denver Broncos in the first round of the 1989 Supplemental Draft.

NFL

Bobby played two seasons for the Broncos, taking handoffs in the gut from John Elway and garnering a Pro Bowl selection in 1990. But soon, it was over.

Bobby held out for a larger contract in 1991, allowing startup running back Gaston Green to secure the starting job that was once Humphrey’s to lose. Bobby returned in Week 14 a shell of the player he was just months previous; he was out-of-shape and overweight. That spring, he was traded to the Miami Dolphins, where he spent two unremarkable seasons before his retirement in 1993. He rushed for 2,857 yards and 15 touchdowns in a four-year NFL career.

A New Identity 

After retirement, Bobby began to search for a new identity. “Sometimes, athletes feel like they are trapped in sports. They feel like sports is all they can do. They try to find themselves after they retire. I kinda got bummed out. My love for the game went dormant. I didn’t even watch it for two or three years,” he says.

He admits that, starting at Alabama, he had made some pretty serious backward steps that included drinking and partying. “Booze and women, at the same time, is not a good combination,” he says. “It just leads from one thing to the next. I felt like I had begun to drift out into the ocean. A new contract, another million—that couldn’t have helped me. For a long time, I forsook God. I ventured off. I fell into the trickery of the enemy. I looked up and said ‘Good God Almighty! How did I get this far down the road?’”

But in 1993, that road led to Damascus—an eye-opening moment that ushered in the best run of Bobby Humphrey’s life. “For me, it was instantaneous,” Bobby says. “I got into some trouble, and God got my attention. I rededicated my life to Him in 1993. He saved my life from destruction and opened up my mind to discover what true happiness is all about.”

People soon mistook the former NFL and troublemaker retiree for a pastor. “All of a sudden, all of these people wanted me to come speak,” he says. “I wasn’t ordained, but I became a youth minister with the Episcopal District of Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.”

Bobby went back to school and got his degree in Social Work. He flipped houses. He got into coaching at Brookwood High School. He helped at-risk youth. And at a celebrity golf tournament, he was recruited (unbeknownst to him) as the head coach of the upstart Birmingham Steeldogs arena football league team. “What I learned from that is that you never know who’s interviewing you,” Bobby says.

He loved coaching the Steeldogs, particularly because it was a family affair. His kids would come to the field. His wife would sew on uniform patches. He loved entertaining fans. His love for football was back again.

Photo by Karim Shamsi-Basha

Now Bobby works at the bank, watches his kids play sports, mentors young athletes, and speaks to various groups. “I like to spend time with youth,” he says. “Teach them good thinking patterns and to have resolve in certain situations. Teach them that you can disagree without hurting anybody.”

He also loves chess (“I’m pretty decent”), deep-sea fishing, spicy food, and watching Clint Eastwood movies.

But what defines Bobby Humphrey more than anything now is his faith in Christ. “Let me tell you somethin’ man,” Bobby says. “I don’t try to go back and redirect my path. We’ve got to move forward. Jesus works through our desperateness. I just try to enjoy life every day. I find my inward peace with the Lord.”

Inward peace. Something that playing football could not supply. Something partying could not supply. That riches and fame could not supply.

For much of Bobby Humphrey’s life, he thought running forward meant being a running back. Now he believes that there is only one way to run forward in this life:

By running back to God. 78

 

This article was originally published in 78 Magazine in 2015. All photos by Karim Shamsi-Basha.

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