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Alabama football legends deliver gifts of wisdom at Christmas

They came from all over the country to honor the men who transformed Alabama football.

Fifty years ago, the integration of Alabama’s varsity football team in 1971 advanced athletics in Alabama and throughout the SEC and, in combination with coach Paul Bryant switching to the wishbone offense that same season, helped build a new dynasty for the Crimson Tide. Last Saturday at The Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, the first 27 men to integrate the Alabama football team were celebrated with a black-tie event called the “Night of Legends.” There were over 500 guests, and it felt like a big family reunion and one of the largest collections of football royalty the state has ever seen all at the same time.

It was a magical evening, but there was no magic about what those guys accomplished. It was all hard work and courage and then lifetimes built on those things gained at the University of Alabama. It was impossible to be there and not become emotional, or spiritually moved. There was so much love and joy in attendance that at times it kind of felt like singing at church.

There are Christmas gifts this time of year, and then there are Christmas parties. This was both. It was a celebration of bravery and trailblazers, but also a gift-wrapped moment, during this grateful season, to reflect on the future. Special thing, receiving the gift of wisdom.

Clemson coach and former Alabama player Dabo Sweeney “presented” the cocktail hour. Paul Finebaum hosted the event. Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne and former Alabama running back Shaun Alexander greeted everyone with opening remarks. There were stories after stories by former players about what it meant to play for Alabama from 1971 to 1975.

To be a fly on the wall, right?

Welp, that was me. I cut into my steak seated next to Alabama great E.J. Junior, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2020, and I’m forever grateful to E.J. for not breaking my right hand when he shook it. I asked E.J. to name the largest thing he has ever crushed with his bare hands, and he looked at me kind of funny and then said, “Well, I sacked quarterbacks for a living in the NFL. Maybe Joe Theismann.”

To get back on his good side, I told E.J. that I voted Will Anderson, Jr., second for the Heisman Trophy. Anderson, E.J. said, did more with less than Michigan defensive end Aiden Hutchinson.

Hutchinson is great, added E.J., but “Willie should have been there.”

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Being invited to the “Night of Legends” was an honor beyond measure, so thank you, Tim Castille, for hitting me up on Twitter. The Castille family is an Alabama treasure, which everyone already knows, but it was the Jeremiah Castille Foundation, in partnership with Perry Stone Ministries, that hosted this amazing event.

The Jeremiah Castille Foundation does important work to impact the next generation, and while looking back and paying respect is what the night was about, the people in that hotel ballroom were all about paying it forward. Castille’s foundation is building the Woodlawn Leadership Academy in Birmingham’s Woodlawn neighborhood, and I encourage everyone to visit the website and learn more about this important project. It’s stuff like that which carries onward the true legacy of the men who integrated all sports in this country and not just Alabama football.

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If the trailblazers of integration at Alabama had one central message, then it was the continued perpetuation of higher education for future generations. “Night of Legends” was to celebrate those who came before, but the focus always went back to who comes next. For players at Alabama who played for Bryant, that meant an appreciation for what the famous coach gave his former players.

Everyone who spoke went back to Bryant and emphasized what an enormous impact he had on their lives and the lives of their children. One of Bryant’s greatest achievements was the Bryant Scholarship, which guaranteed financial aid to the University of Alabama for every single child of a former Alabama football player who played for the legendary coach.

The Bryant Scholarship, according to one of the event’s speakers, has helped 1,000 students attend Alabama. One of those was Tamara Croom, the daughter of Rev. Kelvin Croom, and Tamara, as Finebaum said after her passionate speech, should be President if Tommy Tuberville can get elected to the U.S. Senate.

Or maybe the next president at Alabama. Yep, her words were that moving. Education, she said, was what it’s all about.

College football becomes more of a business every year, and, absolutely, players should get paid for their work, but “Night of Legends” reminded me that the core of the purpose has to remain about education, too. The confounding problem with the NCAA is that it banned benefits like the Bryant Scholarship long ago.

If the schools can’t pay players while the coaches make millions every year, then maybe the NCAA can at least consider allowing endowments like the Bryant Scholarship to return. Schools wouldn’t be paying players, but they would be helping current players pay it forward, too.

Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group. He’s on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr. His new book, “We Want Bama: A season of hope and the making of Nick Saban’s ‘ultimate team’,” is available where books are sold.

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