‘A ring to show for it’
Lisa Eckenrod was a sophomore in high school when the man she would one day meet and marry was a fifth-year senior at Alabama battling in the trenches against Notre Dame in the most important football game of his life.
On Jan. 7 almost four decades to the day, she'll be right by his side at Sun Life Stadium in Miami to witness the two storied football teams' seventh all-time meeting and first with national championship implications since the 1973 Sugar Bowl.
Once again, it's No. 1 versus No. 2 — though the undefeated Irish hold the honors this time around. The coaches are still bigger than life — rockstar Nick Saban for the Tide and Brian Kelly for Notre Dame. And so are the football programs — Bama seeks its third title in four years, while the Fighting Irish are looking to end a 24-year drought.
Those sound like all the ingredients for a classic, but Mike is fairly confident the Irish won't be able to hang with his alma mater.
“I just think we have so much talent. And don't get me wrong, Notre Dame has a lot of good players,” he said. “I think we'll have the depth, we'll be able to run the ball and if AJ has any kind of a game, I don't think it'll be that close. I know oddsmakers have Alabama at a 9 1/2-point favorite, but I could see them winning by 21 points.”
Lisa attends almost every Tide game and wouldn't miss seeing their latest and biggest matchup in person. Mike, on the other hand, has far different reasons for wanting to be there.
“Normally, I like to watch them on TV, but it's been 39 years,” he said. “That was my last game, and I’m Catholic, so I've got a lot of stake in the game.”
Wait, what about watching for the possibility of paying back the Irish for spoiling his grand finale as a proud member of the Crimson Tide football team?
Well, there's that, too.
“I don't want to say it would be revenge, but it's good anytime Alabama can win a national championship,” Eckenrod said. “Even though I went to Notre Dame High School, I'm Catholic and I had the opportunity to go to Notre Dame, I still think I picked the right place in Alabama and playing for Coach Bryant.
“It was a special time in my life. I certainly don't have any regrets. And I have a ring to show for it.”
How Eckenrod landed that piece of hardware is an interesting story in and of itself.
At the time, two national championships were handed out each year, one by the UPI (United Press International) before bowl season began and the other by the AP (Associated Press) after the postseason had concluded.
In 1973, the UPI awarded the Tide the title and ranked Notre Dame fourth, while the Fighting Irish leapfrogged Alabama for the AP’s top prize with their one-point thriller in the Sugar Bowl. Needless to say, that was the last season the UPI voted before the extra slate of games were even played.
One look at the snazzy ring on Eckenrod’s left hand, and it’s impossible to tell it’s a replacement. The local legend in the auto industry won’t reveal how he lost the original, only saying it’s a “long story.”
Lisa surprised Mike with a replacement ring their first Christmas together, but the original was eventually recovered and returned by a piano teacher in Montgomery. While sweeping her walk, she noticed an object fly by and bent down to pick it up. She didn’t know what it was and took to to her neighbor, who was well aware of its value. They delivered the ring, which had been slightly sliced and dented by a lawn mower blade, to the university, which then ensured a safe arrival back to its rightful owner.
Mike and Lisa had the damaged ring repaired and gave it to their daughter, Katie, on her 16th birthday.
Lisa is also to thank for many of Mike’s other most-prized Tide possessions, including a large, framed 1973 Sugar Bowl bumper sticker, the authentic poster from the big game and the recording of the epic matchup.
To acquire that last one, she spent a month making phone calls and being passed around before ultimately reaching the office of Roone Arledge, the broadcasting pioneer who headed ABC Sports at the time. He told Lisa there was a man with a copy in Pelham, so she met up with the stranger, had the recording transferred to Betamax and gave it to Mike as his “big Christmas gift that year.” It has since been converted to DVD.
“That was real important, to me and to Mike,” Lisa said. “I try to do things for Mike that are special.”