Of Doctors and Hustlers — Alabama’s Greatest #12

#12 PAT TRAMMELL and #12 JOE WILLIE NAMATH

When Joe Willie Namath showed up in Tuscaloosa in 1961, he had raccoon eyes, a watch with a chain, and a shaggy head of Hungarian hair beneath a blue straw hat.  He was there because he could not go to the school he wanted.  Instead of studying for the SAT the summer between high school and college, the cool-kicking Namath drank whiskeys with the hustlers of his West Pennsylvania town, some of whose shoes he’d grown up shining.  So he couldn’t achieve the score to get into Maryland, his first choice.   The opportunist Paul Bryant came hard at the amazing Yankee athlete.

In Mark Kriegel’s biographical saga, Namath, Bryant’s secretary says nearly 50 years later she still remembers exactly what the shadowy kid, whose grandparents were full-blood Hungarian and floated on a boat to the States, was wearing the day he showed up in the Alabama coach’s office.  ”He had long hair, blue jeans, z-ring zipper boots, and a men’s undershirt with the sleeves rolled up.  I thought, My goodness.  We are scraping the bottom of the barrel.”  Joe Willie was a fish out of water, less than comfortable, and it would take him a good while to feel welcome.

Four years earlier, when Pat Trammell stepped onto campus, he was not such the oddity.  He sported crew cut hair and dripped confidence.  Former Tide defensive back “Brother” Bill Oliver told Richard Scott, author of Legends of Alabama Football, that on a recruiting weekend before the ‘58 school year, he overheard the bold kid from Scottsboro, Ala., talking with some other recruits about what positions they may play in college.  ”Well,” Trammell told them.  ”Y’all can just forget about quarterback.  I’m going to be the quarterback.”

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As a quarterback, Pat had no ability.  He was not a great runner, but he could score touchdowns.  He didn’t pass with great style, but he completed passes.  All he could do was beat you.”

Paul Bryant
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Where he lacked the raw talent wizardry to run the ‘Bama offense, as Namath would later, Trammell made up for it by being a pure-natural  leader with the brains and the guts.  ”I’ve never known of a smarter player,” UA assistant Jimmy Sharpe once said.  Teammate Billy Neighbors (’59-’61) said his QB being the “smartest” made him the “best football player [he’d] ever played with — and I played with some great players, like Bob Griese and Babe Parelli.  Pat Trammell was still the smartest football player I ever played with.  It was just the way he ran the team, the offense.”

A doctor’s son, he was elite in the classroom as well and planned to attend medical school if he didn’t go pro.  Namath’s old man worked in a Pennsylvania steel mill and was praying his son soaked up whatever education he could in Tuscaloosa, or else play his way into the big leagues — ’cause if not, the SAT flunky would be right back in Beaver Falls, busting it in the mill alongside his father.

A member of Bryant’s first signing class at UA and the leader he needed to win that first national title in 1961, Trammell was the Bear’s favorite player, a fact obvious to the other players by the way the two interacted.  They weren’t just player and coach, they were the best friends.  So when Joe Namath, a phenomenal athlete who seemed like the type the coach would despise for slacking, came to ‘Bama as heir apparent to the lead role, it might seem a little strange how much Coach Bryant liked him.

In high school, the rebel Namath did have a hero.  Johnny Unitas, pro football’s golden arm in those days, was from Pittsburgh, about 45 minutes from Beaver Falls.  Along with most football kids, Joe wanted to be the next Johnny U.  In fact, he wore Unitas’s #19 jersey for home games and #29 away (that was the closest away jersey number his school had in stock).  People around town even called him “Joey U” for a while.  So in 1961,  #12 Trammell’s senior year as the Alabama varsity conductor, Namath geared up to lead the freshman team (back then freshmen had to play on their own squad before graduating to the varsity as sophomores).  He casually told the team manager he’d like to wear #19, not expecting  issue on the matter.  Carney Laslie, the assistant athletic director, quickly denied that modest request:

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Laslie… didn’t care what number Joe wanted or Johnny Unitas or any of that. The University didn’t have a number 19 jersey, and Laslie was too damn stingy to buy one. The boy would get number 12.

“I think Coach Bryant had something to do with that,” says [former Tide assistant] Clem Gryska.

Unitas might have been a great quarterback, but he wasn’t Pat Trammell.  A shining exemplar of Southern virtue, [the Tide’s senior QB] seemed to have little in common with the young Yankee wearing 12 for the freshman team.  But they shared a talent for victory, and in Bryant’s scheme of the world, victory was virtue.

As Bryant’s feelings toward Trammell were well known, Namath’s new number evoked the greatest of expectations. “Word spread,” remembers Clyde Bolton of The Birmingham News. “It was kind of like a beautiful girl had moved to town.”

Namath
by Mark Kriegel
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Trammell certainly wasn’t the type to be jealous by all the attention this new kid on the block got from his coach or anyone else.  Beside, he was ‘Bama’s undisputed field general, and a fierce one at that, having led the Tide in passing, rushing, and scoring as a sophomore in 1959 and rushing and scoring in 1960.

Bryant was maturing as a coach, and he knew a great football team needs not only a strong leader on the sidelines but also someone to call shots, roll heads, on the field.  His valiant and vocal – now veteran – quarterback fit the role from the first day he strapped on a crimson helmet.

“With the intense future doctor in the huddle,” writes Allen Barra, author of The Missing Ring, the Bear didn’t have to worry about kicking [butt], because Trammell’s footprints could often be seen on the other players’ pants.”

Somehow the cocksure Tide QB, a genius of both school and football, even managed to blur the distinction on who, in fact, was the squad’s ranking shotcaller, him or Bryant.  “He was the only guy I knew that could talk back to Coach Bryant,” says Billy Neighbors. ”They’d send in plays and he wouldn’t run ‘em because he knew more about what was going on than the dang coaches.  And Coach Bryant never would say anything to him about it, because he knew Pat was right.  Every time I can ever recall, he was right.”

Pat Trammell was the model quarterback for a championship-caliber football program.  Such natural leadership instinct is rare, and Bryant knew finding a replacement for following seasons would be tough.

He also knew — before he even met Joe Willie Namath face-to-face — that the hustler prince of West Pennsylvania could be one of the greatest players he’d ever put behind center.  Namath once told a man photographing him for his high school football media guide that either he’d have sunglasses on for the snapshots or the man could sit on a tack, so to speak.  So, as of 1961 and with the bulldog Trammell still barking signals for the Crimson Tide, the team’s future quarterback fell short of the standards for leaders or role models the senior #12 had established.  And the other players sure didn’t seem to respect this woppy young greaseball when he showed up looking like S.E. Hinton’s Muse.

Maybe that’s why Bryant shocked to the bone every ‘Bama player and coach when, on Namath’s first day in Tuscaloosa, he invited the 18-year-old into the pit of his practice Tower, where only a governor, a university president, and a comedian whom Bryant enjoyed, had previously been — and nobody to this day can confirm those other invitees.  But all at practice that day remember the time Joe Namath joined Bear Bryant in the Tower.  When the Tide rookie, quite clearly per coach’s orders, was more-or-less commanded to wear #12, every person in the program, whether they realized it or not at the time, began to recognize their next field leader.

That season Trammell flawlessly guided the varsity to 11 wins, zero losses, and both the SEC and national titles while Namath wowed crowds on the freshman team.  As the elder studied medicine instead of playing professional football (his decision to do so was heavily influenced by his former coach and confidant), the younger lived up to expectations, becoming “the greatest athlete I ever coached,” as Bryant would later say, and reeling in All-conference and All-America honors and piles of victories over the next three seasons, which included the ‘62 Orange Bowl, the ‘63 Sugar Bowl,* and the SEC and national crowns in ‘64.

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Broadway Joe was the coolest kid in America, an object of affection for girls and gangsters, a source of bafflement for bookmakers everywhere. He made a debonair comedy of most likelihoods. He walked off with Jagger’s girls. He spilled drinks on Sinatra. He grinned his way through it all.

The Raiders broke his face, and he caught a flight to Vegas, came back the next week, and set a single-season passing record. Namath had a concussion when he hit Maynard  in the AFL Championship Game. He was still drunk the day he threw three touchdown passes against the Patriots in ‘66.

Namath
Kriegel
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Namath could dunk a basketball reverseways, sideways, or just plain in-your-face-ways, and he bragged about giving up the sport when his high school coach attempted to get him and his four black co-starters to play slow-tempo offense.  When he saw signs for “colored water” during his first trip to Tuscaloosa, writes Kriegel in Namath, he wondered what made the water colored.  His first year was full of all kinds of adjustments to the ’60s South, and he nearly skipped town.  Namath stuck to it, however, and was right as rain in 1962 when he finally took the varsity field, the one place he could never be an outcast.

“Nothing came easier to him than football,” said Bryant.

His very first collegiate pass, the second play of the Tide’s opener vs. Georgia, Namath delivered an artistic stroke over the shoulder of receiver Richard Williamson, who never broke stride on his way to a 52-yard score.  “Pat Trammell couldn’t throw it like that,” Williamson says in Namath.  “We’d hadn’t seen anybody who could throw it like that.”

The sophomore finished that debut with a total of three passing touchdowns and another on the ground.  By air, he had 179 yards, and it was obvious he would be shattering Trammell’s single-season school record, set the previous year.  A couple weeks later, a Vanderbilt defender picked at the young QB after popping him one play.  “Hey number 12,” the Vandy player taunted.  “What’s your name?”

“You’ll see it in the headlines tomorrow,” Namath responded.  And then he threw a touchdown on the very next play.

He not only exhibited swagger on the field, but he also executed it with finesse.  His supreme talent-backed confidence was different than Trammell’s who used his head to both outwit his opponents and smash in their facemasks.  Both so different but both so great.

In 1968, when Bryant’s favorite player and person told him he had cancer, the Bear’s heart skipped a beat.  When Trammell died on December 10, 1968, it broke.  One month later, almost to the day, Namath guaranteed his New York Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts, led by his childhood hero, Johnny Unitas.  Meanwhile down in Alabama, Paul Bryant was about to enter one of the toughest periods of his career, wishing he had a Trammel or a Namath to help him.

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