By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
On Sept. 12, 1970, Tom Drake sat in the stands at Legion Field for one of the most controversial and historic football games of all time. A documentary about this epic game is currently airing on Showtime Sports. “Against The Tide” recounts the courage and determination of two college football coaches which created a pivotal point in the history of football — and of race relations in the South.
According to Drake, who has always believed that the whole thing was a setup, the mood of the crowd in the stands was jovial, complimentary and unconcerned. They just wanted to watch some Alabama football.
“Bryant had always bragged about his ‘little boys’ because he believed them to be faster,” recalled Drake, who was assistant football coach and head wrestling coach under Bryant from 1958-1961.
“After that game he (Coach Bryant) told me and everyone else that he was going to get him some of those fast, ‘big boys’ because those guys from the University of Southern California (USC) really tore Alabama up that day,” laughed Drake.
The game was scheduled at a time in Alabama’s history that was fraught with racial turmoil. Just seven years earlier, in May of 1963, Eugene “Bull” Connor and his officers were turning dogs and fire hoses on black Civil Rights marchers (mainly women and children) in Birmingham, and in June of the same year, Governor George C. Wallace was on every television set in America with his “Segregation Forever” speech on the steps of the University of Alabama.
The times were about to change, though, because of a game…
Alabama was outmatched by players almost twice their size. They were stronger, more seasoned in the game - and they were black.
The famous game went down in history as the first time that a fully integrated football team played Alabama on their own stomping grounds. It was an oddly matched game from the beginning.
Alabama’s team was young, they were struggling to rebuild their former glory, having had a rather disappointing season, while the USC Trojans were only three years out from a national championship win. They had only lost two games in the following three years, so why, asked most fans, would Coach Bryant risk loosing at the very beginning of the season?
“What coach in his right mind would have a totally inexperienced team book Southern Cal for an opener?” asks former Alabama player John Hannah in the documentary. “You might do it toward the end of the season, but why would you do it in the beginning?”
A question which has caused much speculation among football historians all these years, tonight’s documentary might shed some light on the mystery.
“I’ve always believed that because of Coach Bryant’s and Coach John McKay’s close friendship, popularity and stature as coaches, they were chosen by other coaches in the U.S. to be the ones to play this game,” mused Drake. “It was inevitable — someone was going to do it sooner or later — but they were the two who could most successfully pull it off. They could do things like that because of who they were.”
Drake was already out of law school and a member of the Alabama House of Representatives in 1970 at the time this game was played. As he sat in the stands he thought about his own experiences on the field. “As a young child I played football in Detroit where I’d gone to live with my mother after my father died,” he said. “I was ten years old and worked in a bowling alley setting up pins. Those schools were segregated, so we played with blacks and thought nothing of it. I was also brought up in an era of the South were it was unheard of.”
Tom rode with Bear Bryant from Birmingham to Montgomery and back for the Blue and Gray game, where he played for Bryant Dec. 25, 1952. Tom played in the Senior Bowl of 1953. In 1953, in his last college game, he received the game ball for outkicking Bobby Luna by an average of four yards all day long, for which he received the game ball.
Almost 30 years later, in 1982, Drake shared the field with another player, Alabama’s first African-American quarterback, Walter Lewis. “Walter Lewis was not your average player,” said Tom. “He was outstanding. He played in the East/West Shriner’s game at one point.” Tom was chosen to present Lewis with a new Cadillac for being the best player on the field. “He was a fine fellow,” said Drake, who chuckled over the fact that the game football had been replaced with a game “Cadillac.”
Drake has seen football, wrestling and politics through many changes in his 82 years.
“Against The Tide” features interviews with several former Alabama players with whom Drake is very familiar, having coached the likes of Joe Namath, and Bill Battles who are in the film.
Other football greats with cameo spots in “Against The Tide” are USC’s Sam “Bam” Cunningham and Jimmy Jones. The in-depth documentary investigates Bryant’s surprising decision to bring a dominant, integrated football team in a then racially-divided Alabama, just recently recovering from the bad publicity of the Civil Rights era.
“The point of the game was never the score. The point of the game was reason, democracy and hope. The real winner that night was the South,” said the late Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times columnist, who is featured in the documentary via a previously taped interview.
Perhaps because of the outcome of this game, Alabama was able to offer John Mitchell the first African-American scholarship for a varsity player. Mitchell started the 1971 football season and the Tide went 11-1 that year.