This was a feature story I wrote that appeared in the Sunday, August 15, 2021 edition of the Mobile Press-Register, Birmingham News and The Huntsville Times. It wasn’t included in their on-line site, and many of you contacted me, unable to read it without a hard copy of the newspaper. Thanks for your patience while my blog was down (uggh!!!) Here’s the full story again, so you can read and share from here. – Thanks so much for supporting good news in the media.
Everyone who ever encountered the legendary Coach Bobby Bowden has a similar ending to their story. More or less, they conclude, “he was a humble man of God.” Obvious to both longtime friends and people who only bumped into him at the gas station or a restaurant, everyone sensed the same qualities of goodness in this man.
Passing away on August 8, 2021 from pancreatic cancer, Bowden issued a statement earlier in the month saying he was at peace because he knew where he was going. That level of calm in the midst of a storm is indicative of the Birmingham native’s levelheaded approach he used to navigate an electrifying career that involved public scrutiny, and the ups and downs of working with college students.
What fueled his humbleness came from the understanding that his career wasn’t the most important thing in life. While college football often elevates players and coaches to the status of king, Bobby Bowden exemplified a servant far more than emperor. “I would like my legacy to be that I served God’s purpose for my life. I’ve always said, my priorities are God, family and education — not football.” Bowden said in a 2018 video interview for his alma mater, Samford University, previously Howard College.
Restauranteur and former University of Alabama and Miami Dolphin’s football player, Bob Baumhower, knew Bowden from a business relationship in Tallahassee and said, “It was natural for him to show his faith or be himself.” Baumhower also explained Bowden would often visit Coach Bear Bryant during spring practice at UA and they would discuss ways to make sure the players had the best opportunities to play and receive scholarships. “There was a genuine respect and friendship between them.”
Longtime Administrative Assistant and friend of the Bowden family, Sue Hall, said the six Bowden children knew they were more important to their father than his job. Remaining a close friend, even after his retirement, Hall often visited the Bowdens, and said during the last few months, the coach would request she read aloud from the Bible, which seemed to comfort him.
In his 2010 book, “Called to Coach,” Bowden recalled the trials of being confined to bed by rheumatic fever when he was 13 years old. Every Sunday, the pastor at Birmingham’s Ruhana Baptist Church would remind the congregation, “Pray for little Bobby Bowden.” Spending almost a full year in bed, Bowden prayed that God would heal him and promised, “If you let me play football again, I will try to serve you through sports.” True to his commitment, Bowden’s life was spent leading others to Christ. Football was merely his tool.
After graduating in 1949 from Birmingham’s Woodlawn High School, Bowden enrolled at the University of Alabama where he planned to play football. After one semester of being what he called, “lovesick,” he eloped at age 19, with his hometown girlfriend, Ann Estock. Since the rules at that time restricted married students from receiving scholarships, Bowden returned to Birmingham and enrolled at Howard College where he found great success.
Receiving All-American honors as quarterback gave Bowden experience on the field and being elected the president of his fraternity helped form leadership skills of a different kind. Bowden eventually earned a master’s degree, then returned to Howard to coach football, baseball and track and field. “I’ve coached at a lot of big schools, but my years at Samford University — I wouldn’t trade them for anything.” Bowden said in 2018.
Dr. Myron Rolle, a former FSU player and current Global Neurosurgery Fellow at Harvard Medical School, said on Twitter, “When you (Bowden) recruited me, you promised my family that you’d support me as a football player and as a student. You helped all of us be better men, leaders and Christians.” But not all of Bowden’s players were as focused as Rolle.
Typical of most college programs, the young men Bowden coached were a blend of various backgrounds and many came from troubled homes where their only hope for advancement of any kind was to play a game they loved. Some had no discipline, and no one had taught them right from wrong. To blend these young men with others who excelled in school or had supportive families was tough. Bowden’s leadership and personal concern for the players led many of them to turn their lives around.
The fuel that seemed to keep the coach moving in the right direction was his ritual of waking at 4am to read and study the Bible. “He was disciplined and always had devotion time in the morning.” Said Hall. She laughed and added, “He also had the knack for taking an afternoon nap that lasted exactly 20 minutes. No more, no less. — even his naps were disciplined.”
Leading by example, Bowden would return to Tallahassee well after midnight following an out-of-town Saturday game. He’d record the Bobby Bowden Show at 5 am, then be in church later that morning. He’d slip into the balcony a few minutes late, then leave the service early, so as not to cause a distraction with fans. The only way anyone knew he was there, was by his enthusiastic singing of the hymns. His busy schedule didn’t keep him from making worship his priority, and the students and entire city of Tallahassee noticed.
Bowden gave his players a needed family, Sue Hall remembers. “When he interviewed me for the Administrative job, he said, ‘these young men need someone who will be a mama to them. I’m like their daddy and my assistant needs to be their mama.” She replied, “I’m your girl. I’ve raised 3 boys and have attended every FSU game since I was 16.” She reflected, “The players responded to their coach because they realized he valued them more as young men than what they could do to advance his career.”
Aware of the controversy surrounding collegiate athletic programs, when his fans referred to him as, “Saint Bobby” the coach would quip, ‘there’s only a six-inch difference between a halo and a noose.” “He could hotly object to a ruling on the field but remained a class act at all times.” one fan recalled.
Former FSU assistant and Head Coach at The University of Georgia, Mark Richt said in a testimony, “I love Coach Bowden and am eternally grateful to him for giving me my first job in coaching and most importantly leading me to the Lord.”
Hollywood legend Burt Reynolds was another friend Bobby Bowden led to Christ. Bowden, along with his wife Ann and Sue Hall, traveled to Jupiter, FL to attend the star’s 80th birthday party.
Dr. Kendrick Scott, former FSU player recalled, “Burt’s health was not well and Coach said that he had failed in the past to ask him (Reynolds) if he had accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior.”
Hall added, “It was on Burt’s birthday when the star came to know Christ.” She continued, “Burt’s decision made Coach prouder than anything— to have his friend right with God. When Burt died, Coach Bowden had the honor of delivering the eulogy at his funeral.”
The Coach’s humble spirit was summed up by another former player and sports commentator, Danny Kanell, who said, “It's important to know why (Coach Bowden) was kind and thoughtful. It was not to recruit or get favorable press. He was who he was because of his relationship with Jesus. A lot of Christians preach one thing but live another. Coach Bowden lived his faith daily. That is his legacy.
This story first appeared in AL.com newspapers. Leslie Anne Tarabella lives in Alabama and is a graduate of Florida State University. Her parents and children all attended Howard College and Samford University.