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‘You didn’t bet against him’: Friends remember Pat Trammell, Alabama QB who died 50 years ago

Pat Trammell died from cancer at age 28 on Dec. 10, 1968, 50 years ago this week, and seven years after quarterbacking Alabama to its first national championship under Paul “Bear” Bryant. In Part 2 of this three-part series, those who knew Trammell reflect on their friendship with the man Bryant once called ‘the favorite person of my entire life.’

Being Paul “Bear” Bryant’s favorite player had its privileges.

Alabama halfback Bill Oliver learned that quickly about teammate Pat Trammell, the starting quarterback on the Crimson Tide’s 1961 national championship team. Bryant so admired Trammell that he’d often look the other way when his quarterback violated basic team rules.

“Pat, he had a fancy car and he’d ride down University Avenue with a 10-inch cigar stuck in his mouth,” Oliver recalled with a laugh. “Coach Bryant and them would be walking down the sidewalk and see him and never say a word.”

End Tommy Brooker had many memorable moments with Trammell on the football field, but Brooker’s lasting memories of Trammell are the times they spent together away from the gridiron.

Both were reared in small towns — Brooker in Demopolis, Trammell in Scottsboro. Both were also excellent students, Brooker in business, Trammell in pre-med.

Both earned Academic All-America honors as seniors. They were later inducted together into The Jasons, the university’s senior men’s honorary that also includes among its members U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, former Alabama governor Don Siegelman, Pro Football Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome and Forrest Gump author Winston Groom.

“For some reason or another he liked me,” Brooker said. “He would always come down to my room and get me. We’d go riding in his convertible and go to the drugstore and buy him some cigars. Antonio and Cleopatra is what he smoked. I don’t think Coach Bryant ever got on him about smoking. Of course, he never liked it. He told us, ‘if you’re going to do it, do it in the privacy of your closet.’”

Trammell died at age 28 from testicular cancer on Dec. 10, 1968 — 50 years ago this week. 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 Bryant once called “the favorite person of my entire life.”

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Perhaps even more so than now, quarterbacks in the early 1960s were tasked with a great deal of decision-making responsibility during a game, and that was especially true of Trammell. Bryant not only allowed him to call his own plays, but to choose whether or not to punt.

In those days, the quick-kick was a standard form of football strategy. If a team was backed up deep in its own end of the field, it would not wait until fourth down to punt.

But Trammell oftentimes took it to the extreme, former Alabama end Bill Battle said.

“We were up big against Auburn, but Pat needed to do something to break a record, maybe throw another pass,” said Battle, who went on to become head coach at Tennessee and later was Alabama’s athletics director. “So (Bryant) put him back in after they took the first bunch out. And the first play, he called for a quick kick. He came over to the bench and coach Bryant asked, ‘what the crap are you doing?’ (Trammell) said ‘well, these sumbitches wouldn’t block anybody, I wanted to see if they could tackle somebody.’”

There was one voice in the Alabama offensive huddle — Trammell’s. And if one of his teammates violated that rule, they might be sent to the sideline.

He didn’t do so gently either. Trammell could “put together some of the longest strings of cuss words that I ever heard,” Battle remembered.

“It wasn’t coming back to the huddle and saying ‘hey, we can do this’ or ‘we can do that,’” former Alabama halfback Benny Nelson said. “Trammell, he’d tell you to get out of the huddle if you were talking or anything. If you were quiet and listened to him, he respected you. Just like a general, that’s what he was.”

Said halfback Billy Richardson, “We had one guy named Bill Rice, he was probably one of the biggest guys on the squad. We were playing some big game in Birmingham at Legion Field [vs. Georgia Tech]. The game was fairly close at the time. … Everything was quiet when Trammell was trying to call a play, and we heard over the PA system, a score between Auburn and Georgia. Pat’s calling the play and Rice said ‘Damn, did y’all hear that? Auburn’s beating Georgia!’ Pat went berserk and cussed him out.”

Read Part 1 of AL.com’s 3-part series on Pat Trammell

Trammell’s assertiveness did not stop with his teammates, however. He was also able to talk to Bryant in ways the other players were not.

Part of that was Trammell’s bold personality. But just as vital to that dynamic was Bryant’s admiration for Trammell.

“Even though Coach Bryant didn’t coach the quarterbacks, he spent a lot of time with them,” said Jimmy Sharpe, a starting guard on the 1961 Crimson Tide team who was an assistant coach for 11 seasons and later served as head coach at Virginia Tech. “In those meetings, they’d have lunch and have walks. Not just Pat and coach, but all the quarterbacks. As a young player, more so than the rest of us, he had an opportunity to express his thoughts and opinions. Coach Bryant would say ‘call your best play, whatever you think it is.’

“In my case, when I finished playing, I went on the coaching staff. I got to see the other side of the table, other side of the room and had the benefit of saying ‘oh, that’s why he did that.’ Pat Trammell, he’s a guy you would never bet against. I don’t care what the contest was, you didn’t bet against him.”

Trammell had joined the Kappa Alpha fraternity while at Alabama, and during that time met Clayton Smith, an Alpha Gamma Delta sorority sister whom everyone called “Ba” (pronounced “Bay”). She grew up in the northwest Alabama town of Tuscumbia, and was the daughter of Jim Smith, a classmate of Bryant’s at Alabama in the 1930s and a prominent figure in the state’s Democratic party.

In his autobiography, Bryant described Ba as “cute as a speckled pup.” She was studying to be an educator, and she and Trammell would be married in February 1962, shortly after Pat’s Alabama football career ended.

Pat’s love for Ba and his legendary competitiveness got the best of him one day, in an altercation with a teammate, tough guy linebacker Darwin Holt. The Alabama athletic dormitory at that time, Friedman Hall, contained a single telephone in the lobby for all the athletes to use.

As Holt tells it, Trammell was on the phone talking to Ba and stayed on past his allotted time. Holt, who was expecting a call from his parents in Texas at 6:30 p.m. that day, took exception.

“He just kept talking, he just kept talking, he just kept talking,” said Holt, who had been an accomplished amateur boxer as a teenager. “And it got to be 6:45. And he sees her every day. I said ‘C’mon Pat, my parents are supposed to be calling.’ … When he hung up the phone finally, I was sitting in the lounge. He told Ba ‘I’ve got to go take care of something.’ I stood up and he came in. … I could have gone ahead and knocked him out, but I knocked him to his knees and then put a hold on him. … So anyway, he didn’t mess with me anymore after that.”

Holt said he and Trammell later patched things up, when both were living in Birmingham after graduating from college. Trammell also had a falling out with running back Billy Richardson following a locker-room fistfight near the end of their playing careers.

The two also reconciled in later years, Richardson said.

“Pat and I, we buried the hatchet a year or two later,” Richardson said. “He was in med school in Birmingham and I had started to work here around the same time. We used to meet on the Southside over there. A lot of med students would go and drink beer after work. I’d go by there and see Pat. We shook hands.”

Other teammates recalled that Trammell was also notable for his kindness. Running back Scooter Dyess, a senior when Trammell was a sophomore, said “I couldn’t tell you anything bad about him.”

Fred Marceaux, a member of the 1958 Alabama freshman class who later transferred to Louisiana College to finish his playing career, said that on one occasion, Trammell saved his scholarship. Marceaux was in a rage after he’d been publicly embarrassed by a third teammate at a fraternity party.

“Later on, I walked up to his door and he wasn’t there,” Marceaux said. “I was going to beat the hell out of him. I reached back and hit the door and it split the door. Pat stepped out the room and said ‘Marceaux, what are you doing?’ I said ‘Pat, I’m going to kill him.’ … I explained to him what happened. He took me to the room and sat me down and said ‘Fred, come on now, calm down. You don’t want to lose your scholarship.’ … He finally calmed me down. About that time [the other teammate] came in and said ‘hey man, I apologize.’ Pat saved me that night.”

Trammell not only had his head coach’s undying admiration, he also became close friends with Paul Bryant Jr. The younger Bryant was still in high school while Trammell was playing at Alabama, but the two bonded over a mutual love of military history and would often stay up late discussing topics such as the Civil War and World War II, which was then less than two decades in the past.

Bryant Jr. nearly ran afoul of both his father and Alabama’s star quarterback when he borrowed Trammell’s car to go on a date and got stuck in the mud. Attempts to extricate the vehicle resulted in severe damage to the bumper, and it was the middle of the night before the younger Bryant — then not even old enough to have a driver’s license — returned to campus.

“I’m scared to death,” Bryant recalled. “He’s gonna kick my butt. … I get in way, way past when you’re supposed to be in, and when the girls had to be in. I hated to go see him. But I walked in there and told him what had happened. He was at the fraternity house, which was right next door to the football dorm. He sent me back over to his room. I was really relieved. The next morning, he was scared Coach Bryant was going to kill him. … He’d thought I’d gone off and had a wreck or something. He thought he was going to be in big trouble with my father.”

Trammell and Brooker were both drafted by the Dallas Texans of the upstart American Football League near the end of their senior season at Alabama, Brooker in the 17th round, Trammell in the 24th (old rival Bobby Hunt of Auburn was selected by the Texans in the 11th round). While Brooker decided to give pro football a try — he played five seasons in the AFL, and kicked the winning field goal in double-overtime in the 1962 AFL championship game — Trammell stuck with his long-held plan and went on to medical school in Birmingham.

The story goes that legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi inquired about Trammell’s interest in playing professional football, but was rebuffed by Bryant and Trammell’s parents. Gene Stallings, an Alabama assistant coach during Trammell’s playing career who later coached several years in the NFL, said that for all Trammell’s determination, it’s not clear he’d have been a successful pro player.

“He was an extremely tough quarterback,” Stallings said. “Whether or not he could have played in the pros, I’m not sure. He made a good decision going on into medical school. Whether or not he was good enough to play in the pros is debatable, but he was good enough to be a doctor, I’ll tell you that.”

By that time married with a son on the way, Trammell enrolled at the Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham in the fall of 1962, while Ba later took a job teaching kindergarten at Briarwood Christian School. He visited Alabama practices and games as often as he could, though his medical school curriculum took up the majority of his free time.

Trammell’s heart was likely still in football, however. Paul Bryant Jr. said he might have made an excellent coach, likely one day taking over for THE COACH.

“He wanted to coach when he finished playing,” Bryant Jr. said. “Papa and Dr. Trammell both made him go to medical school. Clearly if he had gone into coaching and lived he would have been the successor coach at Alabama. I think everybody thought that. But it didn’t go that way.”

One of the first people Trammell met when he moved to Birmingham was Martin Lester, who was then in his third year of medical school on a cardiology fellowship. The Trammells moved into the apartment next to the Lesters, and the two young doctors-to-be made fast friends.

Lester had played football at Auburn under Shug Jordan, and was a freshman when the Tigers won the national championship in 1957. He said he and Trammell kidded each other unmercifully around Iron Bowl time.

“We won (against Alabama) in every sport the whole four years I was at Auburn,” Lester said. “Then I went to medical school and we didn’t score for four years. We won when I was an intern (in 1963), and that killed him. He was mad at everybody. He was cussing the team.”

Though Lester was two years ahead of Trammell in medical school and in a different specialty — Trammell was studying to be a dermatologist — they spent much of their off-time together. Residents were paid only $65 a month at the time, and the two would often moonlight assisting private-practice physicians in the Birmingham area to earn extra money.

As he had with Brooker and Bryant Jr., Trammell hit it off with Lester on an intellectual level.

“He was the best history student I ever saw,” Lester said. “He read constantly. He put me onto the History Book Club, and I got books from them for years after he died.”

Trammell and Lester had taken to a trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans in early 1968 when Trammell first confided that he wasn’t feeling right and had been having pain in his groin area. But Trammell chose to tough it out, not knowing that he was in the early stages of a disease that would kill him by the end of the year.

Trammell eventually checked himself into University Hospital in Birmingham in late July, where doctors preliminarily diagnosed him with testicular cancer. However, as MRIs and other now-common scans were not available in those days, doctors were unable to make a precise diagnosis without surgery.

“For a long time, it was difficult to determine what was actually going on,” Trammell’s older brother Dale — also a physician — remembered. “He had a very rare type of tumor, which by the way, now is essentially completely treatable. Even within two or three, five years after he died, it went from requiring radical surgical attempts and other things. But they then came up with a hormonal type of chemotherapy that essentially cured it. Went from 99 percent fatal to curable. That was within five years probably after he died.”

The Birmingham doctors advised Trammell to travel to the Memorial Hospital in New York (now Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center), then as now regarded as among the top cancer hospitals in the country and one where doctors could perform the proper exploratory procedures. He first called Bryant and told him the news.

“My stomach turned over,” Bryant wrote in his autobiography. “If I had been standing up, I’d have probably dropped to my knees.”

Bryant accompanied the Trammells to New York, and was with Pat “daily,” Dale Trammell remembered. Former teammates Joe Namath and Ray Abruzzese, then with the New York Jets, also dropped in multiple times to visit.

In late August, Trammell underwent a lymphatic scan and then exploratory surgery, which revealed that the cancer had already spread into Trammell’s lymph nodes and abdominal cavity. Though publicly Trammell was optimistic about his prognosis, the truth was far different.

“I called him and said ‘what’s wrong?,’” Lester said. “He said ‘if I’ve got what they say I’ve got, I’ll be dead in six months.’ He was dead in about that time.”

Check back Wednesday for part 3 of this three-part series.

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