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‘He died an All-American’: Pat Trammell’s life, death left an indelible legacy at Alabama

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 3 of this three-part series, those who knew Trammell reflect on the death and legacy of the man Bryant once called ‘the favorite person of my entire life.’

It was Iron Bowl Saturday in 1968, and Pat Dye took advantage of an opportunity to catch up with an old adversary who had become a close friend.

Dye had played linebacker at Georgia, facing off with Alabama quarterback Pat Trammell in both 1959 and 1960. As the Crimson Tide got ready to face Auburn on Nov. 30, 1968, at Birmingham’s Legion Field, Dye was in his fourth season as an assistant coach under Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Trammell, the starting quarterback on Alabama’s 1961 national championship team, had by that time graduated from medical school and was in his third year of a four-year dermatology residency. And as not many people knew, he was dying.

“Pat and I were just sitting in the locker room talking,” Dye recalled. “He looked up and he said ‘Pat, this will be the last Alabama-Auburn game I’ll ever see.’ I said ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ He said ‘I’ll be dead before the next one.’ … I can remember it like it happened 10 minutes ago, and the look he had in his eyes.”

Having discovered during a hospital stay in New York in August that testicular cancer had spread throughout his body, Trammell went back home to Birmingham with wife Ba and their two children, 6-year-old son Pat Jr. and daughter Juliana, then 3. He began appearing more frequently at Alabama practices and games, often with Pat Jr. at his side.

And he also began spending time with old friends and teammates as often as he could. Former Alabama end Tommy Brooker remembered Trammell dropping by his construction office in Tuscaloosa shortly after his return from New York.

“He opened up his shirt and showed me where they had cut on him,” Brooker said. “It was from his collarbone down to his navel. He said ‘Tommy, it was like taking a pointed shovel and scraping the inside of your belly.’ … That’s the most stitches I’d ever seen in my life.”

Scooter Dyess — a senior running back at Alabama when Trammell was a sophomore — last saw his old teammate that fall. Dyess and his young daughter, Lori Ann, met up with Pat and Pat Jr. at the Birmingham Zoo.

“I walked up to get a little train ticket for my daughter and Pat wanted to get one for Little Pat and he said ‘Scooter, why don’t we let them ride together?,’” Dyess recalled. “They were always in your view going around in that little circle. So we let them ride together and we sat and talked. He knew what was coming, but he was just like he always was. He was brave, he was courageous. He wasn’t afraid.”

Trammell began having what his brother described as “horrendous headaches” late that fall, and doctors soon after discovered the cancer had spread to his brain. In order to ease the pain, he underwent a course of radiation treatments, but “that was pretty much the end of things,” brother Dale Trammell said.

With Trammell’s time running out, Trammell’s admirers began showing their appreciation. In October, Governor Albert P. Brewer presented him with a proclamation on the field at Alabama’s game vs. Vanderbilt in Tuscaloosa.

Prior to the season-ending game against Auburn, Charles Land of the Tuscaloosa News wrote a lengthy feature on Trammell for the game program. In the story, Trammell still maintained he could beat the disease.

“I’m very hopeful, but there is going to be a long period of waiting,” Trammell said. “It is in the hands of the Good Lord now. I had a lot of self-pity when I found out about it. But regardless of the outcome I can never complain. I’ve done a lot of thinking, and I’ve been so fortunate. This has really made me count my blessings.”

Read Part 1 of our three-part series on Pat Trammell

Trammell and his son were on the sideline for the Nov. 30 Iron Bowl, which Alabama won 24-16 behind a career day from senior captain Mike Hall. Playing both fullback and linebacker, Hall intercepted a pass, was lead blocker for Ed Morgan’s 1-yard touchdown run and caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Scott Hunter.

In the locker room after the game, Hall was initially given the game ball by the Alabama staff, but he quickly handed it over to an honored visitor.

“We were whooping and hollering pretty hard,” Hall said. “I was standing there on a big football locker that we kept valuables in, whooping and hollering and going on. And one of our trainers suggested I give the game ball to Pat. We lifted Pat up on the locker. I handed it to him and it was quite emotional.”

Hunter, who wore the coveted No. 12 jersey as Trammell, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler and other Alabama quarterbacks had done, came up with an even more inspired symbolic gesture.

“I got Mike Hall to help me pull off my jersey,” Hunter said. “It’s got dirt and Legion Field grit all over it. We just pulled it down over Pat, and the dirt and grit rubbed off on his face. Mike and a couple of other players took him and put him on one of the equipment lockers and he led us in a victory song. I remember looking at him, and he had that jersey on and that Legion Field paint and grit on his face, he had a smile.”

Former teammate Benny Nelson, by that time a stockbroker in Huntsville, was also at the Iron Bowl that day. He promised to drop by Trammell’s house in Birmingham the following morning to chat.

Trammell immediately offered Nelson a whiskey and water, which Nelson said he found unusual so early in the morning. After chatting a while, Nelson suggested the two get together again later that month when former teammate Billy Neighbors, then with the AFL’s Boston Patriots, would be back in-state for the holidays.

“I said ‘Neighbors will be home from Boston in a week or two, why don’t we get together in Huntsville and y’all come up for Christmas?,’” Nelson recalled. “He looked at me and said ‘Junior, I won’t be here Christmas.’ You talk about chill bumps. Still, just talking about it kind of takes your breath. He said ‘I don’t have long. That’s the reason I wanted you to come over here today, to hash out the old times a little bit.’”

Trammell was right. He was re-admitted to Birmingham’s University Hospital a week later. Bryant made one last visit the following Sunday, Dec. 8.

“When I came in Pat shooed everybody out but me and his dad,” Bryant wrote in his autobiography. “He said he wanted to talk football. He started in by chewing me out about recruiting. ‘You ought to be out recruiting,’ he said. ‘Who are you going to get sitting around here?’

“Just before I left, he said, ‘Coach, I have to admit it. I’ve never been in so much pain.”

Read Part 2 of our three-part series on Pat Trammell

Trammell slipped into a coma the following day, and died on Tuesday morning, Dec. 10, 1968. He was 28 years old.

Bryant was crushed. The Alabama team was busy preparing for the Dec. 28 Gator Bowl against Missouri, but practice that afternoon was canceled.

“That last six months when he was dying, he asked for no quarter,” said Martin Lester, Trammell’s fellow medical school graduate and close friend. “He died an All-American.”

As news spread of Trammell’s death, tributes poured in. Land’s column in The Tuscaloosa News contained the headline “A Special Kind of Player — And a Special Man, Too.”

Benny Marshall of The Birmingham News wrote that knowing Trammell was “a privilege I was granted.” Former Alabama Governor George Wallace and President Richard Nixon sent telegrams of condolence.

Former Alabama linebacker Lee Roy Jordan, then in the midst of a stellar career with the Dallas Cowboys, said the overwhelming emotion was one of disbelief.

“It was so shocking,” he said. “It just tore the heart out of all of us.”

Trammell was buried the following day at Pine Haven Cemetery in Scottsboro, following his funeral at First United Methodist Church. According to contemporary news accounts, more than 500 mourners attended the funeral, with 300 at the graveside service.

Among those on hand for the services were Bryant and his entire coaching staff, dozens of former teammates, Auburn coach Shug Jordan and University of Alabama president Frank Rose, who delivered a eulogy. Rose called Trammell “an example of the great youth, something we need today.”

***

After the funeral, Bryant was pacing quietly in a room at the local Holiday Inn, smoking his ever-present Chesterfield cigarette. Brooker, Sharpe and a few other former Trammell teammates were there.

As Brooker recalled, Bryant eventually spoke up. He’d been wondering to himself who was going to care for Trammell’s family now that Pat had died.

“He said ‘I should have my ass kicked for not starting a foundation,’” Brooker recalled his coach saying. “‘Who’s going to educate Juliana and Pat? Ba ain’t going to be able to do that. She’s on a schoolteacher’s salary.’

“I was one of them sitting around the room, and we took that as a demand and a command, to start a foundation.”

Brooker, Jimmy Sharpe, Billy Neighbors and Joe Sims — a former Alabama baseball player who had known Trammell since high school — spearheaded the formation of the A-Club Charitable and Educational Foundation. The foundation got its tax-exempt status the following spring, and has over the years provided millions of dollars to those in need, including dozens of former Alabama athletes.

Brooker is still heavily involved in the A-Club Foundation, which is funded by dues to the A-Club, Alabama’s athletic letter-winners organization. Among other things, the Foundation is a major donor to the Bryant-Jordan Scholarship program, which recognizes high-achieving high school student-athletes each year.

Separate from the A-Club Foundation, but also inspired in part by Trammell’s death, is the Paul W. Bryant Scholarship. Bryant provided the initial endowment of $1 million in the mid-1970s.

The Bryant Scholarship was originally a general student scholarship, but Bryant amended it to give preference to children of his former players when it came time for Pat Trammell Jr. to attend college in the early 1980s. Paul Bryant Jr. estimates “over 1,000” children of former players have taken advantage of the Bryant Scholarship over the years, with still close to 60 currently using it to help fund their education at Alabama.

Scott Hunter said all three of his children used the Bryant Scholarship, which pays full tuition. Alexa Stabler, the daughter of former Crimson Tide quarterback Ken Stabler and a 2009 Alabama graduate, was also a Bryant Scholar, as was her younger sister Marissa.

“It was incredibly helpful to my family,” said Alexa Stabler, now a sports agent whose client lists includes former Alabama and current NFL punter JK Scott. “Given the student loan debt that is such a problem right now with no foreseeable end, I feel very fortunate to have had that opportunity to not be weighed down with the burden of tuition or having to take out loans and burden my family with the cost of my education. I’m extremely grateful for everyone that was involved in that process.”

The NCAA has since outlawed such scholarship programs as an extra benefit, though the Bryant Scholarship was grandfathered in and continues to operate. Paul Bryant Jr. said current Alabama coach Nick Saban had at one point hoped to start a similar scholarship program for children of his own players, but NCAA rules prevented it.

Trammell’s legacy lives on in other ways as well.

Scottsboro High School’s football stadium has been known at Pat Trammell Stadium since 1971. Trammell was posthumously inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1975 (with Ba Trammell accepting on his behalf), and was among the first inductees into the Jackson County Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.

Since 2008, the University of Alabama’s College of Community Health Sciences has operated the Dr. Patrick Lee Trammell Sr. Excellence in Sports Medicine Program. The program includes an endowed scholarship and an endowed chairmanship.

The Pat Trammell Award is given each year to the Alabama football player or players who “demonstrate the qualities of integrity, character, importance of academics and inspirational leadership that are representative of Trammell himself.” Members of Trammell’s family, including his wife and children, have in the past presented the award at Alabama’s season-ending football banquet, with winners over the years including Jay Barker, Shaun Alexander, Andrew Zow, Tim Castille, Nico Johnson and Dalvin Tomlinson.

“I think it’s a great thing that we recognize Pat, not only for the great person he was, but as a great player and a great representative of the University of Alabama,” Jordan said. “That’s the big part of it, that we all recognize that. He is being recognized from his legacy on forward. Hopefully, everyone will keep remembering how Pat was such a big part of that first national championship for Coach Bryant at Alabama.”

And yet, because he never played in the NFL and because he died so young, Trammell is perhaps not remembered in the same way as Namath, Stabler, Jordan and other Crimson Tide luminaries of the Bryant era. A few notable attempts to capture Trammell’s legacy have largely failed.

The 1984 biopic “The Bear” contains large segments focusing on Bryant’s relationship with Trammell — with Gary Busey portraying Bryant and John-Erik Hexum playing Trammell — but was panned by critics, Crimson Tide fans and Bryant’s family, and was quickly pulled from theaters. Paul Bryant Jr. said the late actor and United States senator Fred Thompson — who was born in Alabama and was a great admirer of the elder Bryant — often discussed making a documentary about Trammell and Bryant, but Thompson died in 2015 without the project ever getting off the ground.

And it’s possible Trammell might have made an even greater impact in the medical community. His former teammates wouldn’t bet against it.

“I’d let him be my doctor,” Butch Wilson said, “because I know he’d give it his best shot.”

***

Many of those who knew Trammell best are gone. His father died in 1970, his mother in 2004.

Ba Trammell passed away in 2012, surviving more than 40 years after her husband’s death. Younger brother Don, who went on to become a dentist, succumbed to heart trouble at age 59 in 2002.

(Trammell’s children, Pat Jr. and Juliana — now Julie Edwards — live in the Birmingham area and have families of their own. Pat Jr. owns and operates an investment firm, while Julie works in advertising).

Bryant, of course, died in 1983, less than a month after coaching his final game at Alabama. All but a few of the sports writers who covered Trammell, as well as key teammates such as John O’Linger, Billy Neighbors, Jack Hurlbut, Bill Rice, Richard Williamson, Charley Pell and Mal Moore, are no longer living.

Those who are still alive are approaching 80 years of age, and their recollections will one day die with them. But they remember Pat Trammell, and how crucial he was to establishing what became 25 years of Alabama football excellence under Bryant.

“All of us that were there, all of us that saw the foundation being laid, we know what a cornerstone that he was in that foundation,” Sharpe said. “I’m 78 years old. I’m going to be up there before long. We’re going to be sitting there questioning the calls of Saban. Coach Bryant and Pat will be there, too.”

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