That was in 1969.
In the lobby of the ASHoF near downtown Birmingham is a quietly classy display honoring Charles Byron “Charley” Pell.
Saturday night, here at the Sheraton Civic Center just across from the ASHoF, Charles Byron “Charley” Pell became the 301st person to be inducted into the residence of the state’s finest and legendary sports figures.
I was here that night in 1969 when Johnny Mack was inducted. As a member of the selection committee, I had voted for Johnny Mack. And yes, as a member yet, Charles Byron “Charley” Pell also got my vote . . . this year.
All those years, all those memories ...
But none is as vivid as 1969 when an Alabama football star, Johnny Mack Brown from the 1920s, was inducted.
Go with me ...
The old B Western cowboy star flew in from California. Over the next couple of days, the old cowboy star was a regular in the hospitality room.
To say there was some apprehension when his name was called as the first inductee is an understatement. But when the room lights dimmed and the spotlight followed the shambling movie cowboy to the rostrum, you could actually hear the hush in the hall.
But it was show time.
His acceptance was brief, his closing a class act that until this day lends dignity to each year’s inductions.
“A friend is one to whom we may pour out the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that gentle hands will take and sift it, keep what’s worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”
That, in my mind, wraps itself in warmth around Charles Byron “Charley” Pell.
First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, Charley was a friend of mine, a very close one. That is no secret. It is also no secret that a stocky little lineman who played under Bear Bryant at Alabama and became one of the very finest college football coaches in America was a flawed man, which we all are to be honest.
The war he fought with depression through success after success and a crash in NCAA sanctions while at Florida is an amazing profile in courage … to steal a line.
The beginning of our friendship began in the mid-sixties when Charley was an assistant at Alabama. It held rock solid through years as an assistant at Kentucky, as a head coach at Jacksonville State, at Clemson, at Florida.
And right up until his life ended at age 70 … lung cancer.
After leaving football on the heels of the NCAA sanctions at Florida, he and wife Ward settled in Southside. It was there we last “broke bread,” Kentucky Fried Chicken just 10 days before he died.
We sat at his kitchen table, ate chicken with our hands, wiped grease from our mouths, and talked ...
It is one of the wonderful memories of my life that football, his rise and his fall, was hardly mentioned. What we talked about was faith, of God, of here and the hereafter.
In no way was our talk a deathbed conversion. Charlie’s faith had been born years before our last visit, not long after a failed suicide attempt on a lonely Florida back road. A state trooper who had been part of his escort at Florida had tried to return a call from Pell. He then went looking, found Pell in his car with the motor running.
I thought of that Saturday morning after visiting his “life” in the lobby of the Hall, after talking with his wife, Ward, after spending a night of little sleep and remembering ... “Charley.”
You’ve heard most of my stories of the man. They were (and are) good stories. But the one thing that sticks in my mind is in all the years I knew Charles Byron “Charley” Pell, I never knew him to be unkind to anyone, never knew him to “chill” an eager fan, never knew him to back off on his word.
It is written somewhere that if you can fill up one hand with true friends, you are among the blessed. When Charley died, I lost a finger.
The truth of it all is I loved Charles Byron “Charley” Pell.
I still do …
George Smith may be reached at 256-8-239-5682 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org