Pat Trammell died from cancer at age 28 on Dec. 10, 1968, 50 years ago and seven years after quarterbacking Alabama to its first national championship under Paul “Bear” Bryant. In Part 1 of this three-part series, those who knew Trammell reflect on the playing career of the man Bryant once called ‘the favorite person of my entire life.’
The 1959 Liberty Bowl was scoreless with halftime approaching.
As Penn State’s Sam Stellatella lined up for a field goal, Alabama sophomore Pat Trammell crept up from his safety position toward the line of scrimmage. At the snap, Trammell charged forward to block the kick.
But there was no kick.
Nittany Lions holder Galen Hall instead stood and zipped a pass to halfback Roger Kochman, who had raced into the zone that Trammell had just vacated.
Touchdown, Penn State. There was no time left on the clock.
Kochman’s 17-yard touchdown and the subsequent extra point ended up being the only points for either team in a Nittany Lions 7-0 victory that day against second-year coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Crimson Tide.
At halftime, Gene Stallings was incredulous. Alabama’s young secondary coach went to Trammell for an explanation.
“I said ‘what were you thinking about? Lord have mercy, your responsibility was playing pass defense, not rushing the field goal kicker,’” Stallings remembered. “He said ‘coach, nobody else was doing anything, so I just figured I’d go in there and block it myself.’ He was just such a competitor, that’s the way he thought. He didn’t apologize for it or anything.”
Butch Wilson shared a backfield with both Trammell and Joe Namath at Alabama, and during a seven-year NFL career caught passes from Johnny Unitas and Fran Tarkenton. But to this day, he swears Trammell was the toughest, most-competitive quarterback with whom he ever played.
“They weren’t the caliber that Trammell was,” said Wilson, an Alabama halfback from 1959-62 who played tight end in the pros. “They had a lot of ability, but it wasn’t that old hard-nosed style. He was almost like a lineman turned into a quarterback.
“He was a competitor from the word go. … He had everybody’s respect.”
Trammell, starting quarterback on Alabama’s 1961 national championship team, died at age 28 from complications of testicular cancer on Dec. 10, 1968 — 50 years ago today. He was in his third year of medical residency at the time of his death, having eschewed a potential pro football career to follow his father and older brother down the path of becoming a physician.
AL.com spoke with more than 20 of Trammell’s teammates, and others who knew him for this series, in hopes of capturing the too-brief life but long-lasting legacy of the man legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant once called “the favorite person of my entire life.” Bryant wrote those words in “Bear,” his 1975 autobiography, but his admiration for Trammell was evident long before that.
“Ain’t no doubt,” said Bay Minette attorney Red Wilkins, an end on Alabama’s 1961 national championship team who later advised Bryant on legal matters. “Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Alabama — wherever he was, ain’t no doubt his favorite player was Pat Trammell.”
Trammell was among Bryant’s first recruits when he returned to Alabama as head coach prior to the 1958 season, and earned the starting quarterback job for the Crimson Tide during his sophomore year. He helped the team to a 7-2-2 record and a Liberty Bowl berth that year, then followed it up with an 8-1-2 mark and a Top 10 final ranking in 1960.
Alabama’s 1961 team, which also featured such Crimson Tide legends as Billy Neighbors and Lee Roy Jordan, went 11-0 and won the first of six national championships under Bryant’s direction. The coach was noted for his toughness as a player at Alabama — Bryant famously played against Tennessee with a broken leg as a senior end in 1935 — and saw similar qualities in Trammell, former Alabama guard Jimmy Sharpe said.
“I think he recognized those characteristics in Pat,” said Sharpe, who was also later an assistant coach under Bryant. “I think he recognized a lot of himself. Coach Bryant came up the hard way, he overcame things to rise up and be a winner. He was bold as he came along, and I think he recognized in Pat a lot of those things that he was when he was coming along. He recognized the determination in Pat Trammell to not finish until he was in the winner’s circle. And I think that the relationship they had, there was such a respect from Pat to his coach and that Coach Bryant, he saw what Pat was doing. It was a genuine bond of love.”
Though a good athlete — Trammell was an all-state performer in basketball at Scottsboro High School and also excelled at baseball growing up — Trammell was not the type of quarterback who could win games with his arm, as Namath and Ken Stabler would be at Alabama a few years later. He passed for only 1,631 yards and nine touchdowns in his Crimson Tide career, numbers that were modest even for the early 1960s.
And though he was regarded as a tough short-yardage runner — he scored 15 touchdowns in his career, including nine as a senior — Trammell was not especially mobile. Nevertheless, he somehow managed — some say willed — the Crimson Tide to a 26-2-4 record as its starting quarterback.
“Coach Bryant always said ‘Pat wasn’t the fastest runner, he wasn’t the best passer, all he could do is whip your ass,’” said Tommy Brooker, an end on the 1961 Alabama team and one of Trammell’s closest friends. “That meant so much to us, because we knew exactly what he was talking about.”
Said Jordan, “He was just a great leader and a great teammate, the real heart and soul of our football team in 1960 and ’61.”
Trammell was born July 11, 1940, the second of three sons of Mattie Ree Preston Trammell and Edward Lee Trammell, a country doctor in the Sand Mountain area of extreme northeast Alabama. In the late 1940s, Dr. Trammell moved his family from rural Dutton into Scottsboro to set up practice after years of making house calls, as Pat’s older brother Dale remembers it.
It was in those early years that Trammell’s competitive side began to show.
“I remember once, he was no more than first grade, we were playing pitch softball in the front yard,” said Dale Trammell, who is now 81 and semi-retired after a long medical career in the Decatur area. “I was pitching and he was batting and we had this neighborhood kid, who was, I guess, two or three years older than I was. He was being the ump. He called a pitch that put Pat out. Pissed him off, and he turned around and hit him in the head with the bat. This was when he was just barely first or second grade. It scared the hell out of me. He flat hit the ground, but he got right back up.
“It wouldn’t be just athletic stuff. With anything he was trying to do, he didn’t want to do poorly. And he certainly wasn’t going to be deprived of the opportunity by a bad call.”
The Trammell boys, including younger brother Don, all passed through the Jackson County school system (Jackson County High School became Scottsboro High between the time Dale — three years older — and Pat graduated). Pat played left field on the local American Legion baseball team, but was exceptional in both football and basketball.
He led his high school basketball team to the state tournament in Tuscaloosa as a junior in 1957, earning Most Valuable Player honors despite the Wildcats losing to Fayette in the semifinals. Fayette froze the ball for much of the game, winning 20-18 and holding Trammell to two points.
“Scottsboro had a really good basketball team, one of the best teams in the state every year,” said former Alabama halfback Benny Nelson, who grew up in Huntsville and was two years behind Trammell in school. “He was a pretty good-sized guy, probably 6-2, 190, 195 pounds. He was tough and a real good basketball player. We’d have pick-up basketball games in the gym (at Alabama). You always wanted to be on Pat’s team, because you were going to have a tussle if you were on the other side, no matter who you were.”
On the football field, Trammell was an All-State and honorable mention All-America pick after his senior year, when he led the Wildcats to a 7-3 record and a No. 15 final state ranking. Trammell wasn’t the only future Crimson Tide player on the team, which also included John O’Linger at center (O’Linger, who later became a successful coach at Anniston High School, died in 2014 at age 74).
Scottsboro was coached in those days by the late Jack Cornelius, who had also mentored future Auburn national championship quarterback Lloyd Nix at Carbon Hill some years early. Cornelius, who died in 2008, said in a 1988 television interview that Trammell was by that time “a legend around Scottsboro.”
“When he ran on the field, he had one thing in mind and that’s ‘win,’” Cornelius told Chattanooga’s WRCB-TV. “He’d drive that team on the field just like a coach would.”
Trammell had been offered a scholarship by Alabama after his senior season of football, but with the Crimson Tide coming off three dismal years under coach J.B. “Ears” Whitworth initially showed more interest in Bobby Dodd’s powerhouse Georgia Tech program. Halfback Billy Richardson of Jasper visited Atlanta on the same weekend Trammell did, and the two openly discussed playing together with the Yellow Jackets.
Those plans changed in December 1957, when Bryant returned to Alabama following four successful seasons at Texas A&M. He and his staff hit the recruiting trail hard, scooping up both Trammell and Richardson, among others.
“I’m told I was one of the first prospects that (Bryant) had contacted,” said Richardson, who had played against Trammell in basketball in high school. “I committed. … It wasn’t unusual for guys who knew each other to talk back and forth and that sort of thing. Pat committed not too long after that.”
Before joining the Alabama team in the fall of 1958, Trammell was among several high school standouts who played in the annual North-South All-Star football game that August in Tuscaloosa. The North team lost the game 20-6, with Trammell completing 6 of 11 passes for 50 yards with an interception.
It was there that part of the Trammell legend was born, during a post-game meeting with Lanett’s Bobby Hunt, the South team quarterback who went on to a decorated career at Auburn and in professional football with the Kansas City Chiefs. Both Brooker and Sharpe said Trammell got right in Hunt’s face and declared “that’s the last time you’ll beat me.”
Trammell’s Alabama freshman team topped Hunt’s Auburn squad 14-6 that fall (freshmen were not eligible for varsity play until 1972), then shut out the Tigers’ varsity team in 1959 (10-0), 1960 (3-0) and 1961 (34-0). It’s a great story, and speaks to Trammell’s hyper-competitiveness, but it’s possibly a tall tale.
“Not true at all,” Hunt, now 78, said. “He never said a thing like that to me. I don’t remember ever talking to him about anything.”
Another story that illustrates Trammell’s alpha dog nature — and which has not been outright disputed — took place shortly after Alabama’s freshmen reported for fall training camp. The quarterbacks, a group that included future Crimson Tide assistant coaches Mal Moore and Bill Oliver along with Trammell, were awaiting a private meeting with Bryant when Trammell spoke up.
“We had six or seven guys that were quarterbacks in there,” Oliver said. “Pat just walked up and asked right off the bat ‘how many quarterbacks we have in here?’ Nobody said anything. He said ‘how many quarterbacks we have?’ … We just sat there. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a switchblade knife. He mashed the button and the blade popped out … and put his foot up on the seat of the desk and took that knife and threw it into the desk and the point of it stuck. And still, nobody said anything. Finally, he said ‘I don’t know how many we’ve got, but those that are better sleep light tonight.’”
In addition to the victory over Auburn, Trammell quarterbacked the 1958 Alabama freshmen to a 7-6 win over the varsity third-string team in November. He entered spring camp in 1959 as one of eight players vying for the starting quarterback job, with Bryant telling reporters in March “we sure have high hopes and some long-range plans for that boy.”
Bryant had played at Alabama in the mid-1930s, some 10 years after another tough-as-nails quarterback, Allison “Pooley” Hubert, had led the Crimson Tide to an undefeated 1925 season and a Rose Bowl victory. Bryant asked Hubert, by then retired after a successful career in coaching, to help mentor the young Trammell.
“When I moved (to Tuscaloosa), the old men talked about Pooley Hubert,” said Paul Bryant Jr., the coach’s son and four years younger than Trammell. “They said he was the toughest, best leader and everything. I know Papa drew that comparison. Papa came along after Pooley Hubert had played, but he knew him well. He’d been coach at VMI and he brought him in to observe practice in that 1959 season, the first year Pat was going to be the starting quarterback. That was a big part of what he was doing. He likened Pat to Pooley Hubert even before he was the starter, as far as leadership.”
Trammell won the job in fall camp, though he battled leg injuries and junior Bobby Skelton also played quite a bit. Alabama lost its season-opener to Georgia in 1959, then went unbeaten (including two ties) in the remainder of the regular season before dropping the 7-0 decision to Penn State in the Liberty Bowl.
The Crimson Tide blanked Auburn 10-0 at Legion Field on Nov. 28, its first victory over the Tigers in seven years. That effort — which also included Trammell playing safety — caused legendary Birmingham News sports editor Zipp Newman to write:
“Alabama had many heroes … but none stuck out more than Pat Trammell, the sophomore from Scottsboro. Trammell was a many-pronged thorn in the Tigers’ flesh. The statistics show what he did on offense but they don’t show his flaming desire and rock-socking tackles.”
Trammell and Skelton continued to split time in 1960, with Trammell in and out of the lineup due to recurring leg and knee injuries. He missed two games entirely (including the season’s lone loss, at Tennessee) and was less than 100 percent in several others, with Skelton in particular starring in a 16-15 comeback win over Georgia Tech.
Trammell returned and played well in victories over Tampa and Auburn — in the latter of which the only scoring was a 22-yard field goal by Brooker — and the Crimson Tide ended the regular season at 8-1-1. Alabama then met Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl and played to a 3-3 tie.
Trammell attempted only 43 passes his junior year, but averaged 4.1 yards rushing and scored four touchdowns. Running back Marlin “Scooter” Dyess, a senior on the 1959 Alabama team, remembered Trammell as able — and willing — to absorb more big hits than most quarterbacks.
“We’d always kid him that what he really needed to play was linebacker,” Dyess said. “He was just a real good contact player. … He was the largest back we had in the backfield when I was there. I think he was about 190 (pounds). I was about 150. Billy Richardson was about 170.”
And he wasn’t afraid to call his own number. Pat Dye, an All-America guard and linebacker at Georgia who played against Trammell’s Alabama teams in 1959 and 1960, said there was little doubt who would get the ball in crunch time.
“When we got the scouting report, the coach … said ‘in all short-yardage situations, Pat Trammell’s going to run the ball. He may fake it to somebody, but he’s going to end up with the football himself,’” said Dye, who was later an assistant coach at Alabama before serving as Auburn’s head coach from 1981-92. “Coach Bryant had that much confidence in him and Pat had that much confidence in himself. He was a great leader and smart. Nobody’s ever been any more competitive that Pat. … If Pat had a sprint out to run or throw, it might be just a quarterback sweep.”
Skelton and third quarterback Laurien “Gooby” Stapp graduated following the 1960 season, leaving the position mostly to Trammell. The idea of a two-quarterback system in 1961 went out the window over the summer, when highly-regarded Rice transfer Jack Hurlbut broke his arm in a tractor accident at his family farm in Texas.
The Crimson Tide entered the season ranked No. 4 by The Associated Press, behind Iowa, Ole Miss and Ohio State. Trammell was one of several key players returning for the Crimson Tide, including Neighbors, Jordan, Brooker and linebacker Darwin Holt, another fiercely competitive player who would sub-in for Trammell when the Crimson Tide was on defense.
“In those days, they’d put one person in when the ball switched,” said Holt, who had followed Bryant from Texas A&M after a year in junior college. “I was the defensive quarterback. He called all the offensive plays, I called all the defensive plays for the whole season. Pat kind of gave me a hard time all the time. That was just his nature. … We didn’t mesh very well. He didn’t know I wasn’t a linebacker for nothing, and he was a quarterback for something. I used to kid him and he’d get hot about it, that the longest run he ever had for a touchdown was six yards. … But Pat got the job done.”
A new addition to the Alabama coaching staff that season was ends coach Howard Schnellenberger, who had played for Bryant at Kentucky a decade earlier. Schnellenberger, now 84 and the lone offensive coach from the 1961 Alabama team who is still living, said Trammell was an expert at making calls at the line of scrimmage.
“He had to make all those decisions,” said Schnellenberger, who went to win a national championship as head coach at Miami in 1983. “I knew he was smart because he was graduating from the upper college and medical school. You could tell by the way he handled the football team. He was the field general. We coached them all week and then turned them over to him.”
Alabama began the season with a 32-6 victory over Georgia, then beat Tulane 9-0. Trammell threw touchdown passes in both of those games, but had what Bryant called probably his best outing in a 35-6 victory at Vanderbilt on Oct. 7.
Trammell ran for 110 yards and three touchdowns, and went 6-for-10 for 95 yards passing. He told United Press International after the game that while he would still rather run the ball than throw it, he was working hard on his passing.
“Trying to be a passer is the toughest thing I’ve had to learn, trying to eliminate interceptions the way Coach Bryant wants,” Trammell said. “There’s a great difference in throwing the ball and being a passer. In high school you just throw it. A quarterback has to watch the defensive men and throw to an open spot.”
One of college football’s great passers visited Tuscaloosa the following week, when All-American Roman Gabriel and North Carolina State came to town. Gabriel — later a four-time Pro Bowler and the 1969 NFL Most Valuable Player with the Los Angeles Rams — threw an early touchdown pass, but Trammell outshined him by completing 10 of 14 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns, plus a rushing touchdown and a two-point pass to Oliver in a 26-7 victory.
The touchdown the Wolfpack scored that day was the last anyone would tally against Alabama the rest of the season. The Crimson Tide beat Tennessee 34-3 the following week, then reeled off five straight shutouts over Houston (17-0), Mississippi State (24-0), Richmond (66-0), Georgia Tech (10-0) and Auburn (34-0) before ending the year with a 10-3 victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day.
All told, Alabama outscored its opponents 297-25. The first-team defense allowed just 13 points all season — field goals by Tennessee and Arkansas, and the touchdown by N.C. State.
Though the defense certainly carried the 1961 team, Trammell also enjoyed a fine season. He rushed for nine touchdowns, and completed 75 of 133 passes for a then-school-record 1,035 yards and eight touchdowns with just two interceptions (his 1.5 interception percentage was also the program standard for more than 35 years).
“Pat was perfect for what they wanted at that time,” said Clyde Bolton, who covered Alabama football among other subjects for The Birmingham News from 1961-2001. “He could pass a little and he could run. He was a great leader for the way football was played back then. … I remember the defense, Lee Roy and all that bunch that nobody could score on.”
One of Trammell’s interceptions came on a freak play against Tennessee, when a tipped pass came down on the would-be receiver’s back and was grabbed by the Volunteers’ Glenn Glass. At one point, Bryant told the UPI’s Bill Tome that Trammell’s only weakness was that “he can’t throw left-handed.”
Trammell was named second-team All-American by both the AP and UPI, and was chosen as the SEC Player of the Year, earning nine of first-place 12 votes. He finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting behind three running backs: Syracuse’s Ernie Davis, Ohio State’s Bob Ferguson and Texas’ Jimmy Saxton, as well as Minnesota quarterback Sandy Stephens.
“Pat Trammell was the smartest football player I’ve ever been around,” Neighbors, a first-team All-American in 1961 who played eight years of pro football and died in 2012, said in a 1992 interview with the staff of the Paul W. Bryant Museum. “You had no question about him throwing to the wrong receiver, calling the wrong play, checking off to the wrong play, or not getting out there and fighting like you had to to win. He had all of those things. He was the best quarterback I’ve ever been around.”
Alabama had moved up to No. 1 in the country after beating Georgia Tech in the next-to-last game of the regular season (a game infamous for an ugly incident involving Holt and the Yellow Jackets’ Chick Graning), then was declared UPI national champions after the victory over Auburn. The No. 1 ranking in the final AP poll came along a few days later, along with an invitation to meet Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.
Bryant had famously promised his 1958 freshmen that if they believed in his plan and followed it, they would be national champions before they graduated. That group included Trammell, Neighbors, Brooker, Sharpe, Oliver and Richardson, among others.
“We had gotten to where we were really good,” Brooker said. “We knew it, but weren’t cocky about it. … Many times, we only played one quarter, maybe two quarters, maybe three quarters. And then we went and sat on the bench. We were that good, and (Bryant) wanted to get some play out of some lesser players, build the team up, make better ballplayers out of them too.”
Another national honor was in the offing for Trammell and Alabama in early December. He and Bryant accompanied university president Frank Rose and other Alabama dignitaries to New York for the annual National Football Foundation Hall of Fame banquet, where they received the MacArthur Bowl as the top team in the country.
The famed General Douglas MacArthur — the trophy’s namesake and a noted college football enthusiast — was on hand for the awards presentation, as was President John F. Kennedy, who received the NFF’s gold medal for his long-time support of the game. As a student of history — and military history in particular — the chance to meet MacArthur and Kennedy was thrilling for the young Trammell, who called it “the greatest day in my life.”
From there the Crimson Tide began its preparations for the Sugar Bowl, practicing first in Tuscaloosa and then putting on the finishing touches with a week in the warmer environs of Biloxi, Mississippi. Arkansas, then a member of the Southwest Conference, came into the game — which was played before a crowd 82,000 at Tulane Stadium and televised nationally by NBC — 8-2 and ranked No. 9 nationally.
Alabama outgained Arkansas 254 yards to 168 in the Sugar Bowl, but three Crimson Tide fumbles kept the game close. Trammell ran for a 12-yard touchdown in the first quarter to give his team a 7-0 lead, then Tim Davis added a 32-yard field goal to make it 10-0 at halftime.
Arkansas got on the board in the third quarter on Mickey Cissell’s 23-yard field goal, the first points Alabama had allowed since October. In the fourth quarter, the second of two interceptions by the Crimson Tide’s Wilson ended any hopes of a Razorbacks comeback and clinched a 10-3 victory.
Mike Fracchia, Alabama’s junior fullback, ran for 124 yards on 20 carries and claimed the Miller Digby Award as the Sugar Bowl’s Most Outstanding Player. In his final college game, Trammell completed just 4 of 10 passes for 20 yards, but picked up 63 yards on 18 carries rushing.
“What about Trammell?,” Bryant said in a post-game interview with the Baton Rouge Advocate. “He gets the job done. I sure hate to see him graduate. I’d sure rather see him come off the field in that slow walk of his than some ‘Fancy Dan’ come off a loser by 25 points or so.”