I didn’t know I’d get here this fast . . .
It is Feb. 1969 and a packed Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center is settling in for the induction of the Class of ’69 in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
It is the first class of the ASHoF and induction is in alphabetical order. Johnny Mack Brown, an Alabama running back who was MVP in the 1925 Rose Bowl, is the first inductee.
To say there was an uneasiness running through the hall is an understatement.
I was told that Johnny Mack, who became a movie cowboy, did a bit of elbow bending on the long flight from California to Birmingham; that he was a rather happy fellow when he stepped off the plane at the Birmingham airport. I wasn’t at the airport, but as a member of the selection committee I do know Johnny Mack spent about as much time in the hospitality room as he did in his hotel room.
When Johnny Mack’s name was called, you could sense the concern as he walked to the podium.
But when the lights went on and he was once again on stage, Johnny Mack Brown rode again . . . so to speak. His beginning came in a quiet, steady voice. My memory says he was on stage no more than a couple of minutes, closing with:
“Oh the comfort, the inexpressable comfort of feeling safe with people; having neither to weigh thought nor measure words, but pouring them all out just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will sift them and keep what is worth keeping and, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”
That’s an old Arabian proverb, but this night it belonged to Johnny Mack Brown . . . and to those of us who watched in hushed silence as he left the podium and returned to his seat. The crowd rose as one in a standing ovation.
It was a moment that has covered the ASHoF in a warm blanket down through the years . . . 50 of them come April 28.
It will also be my 50th anniversary as a member of the selection committee. It occurs to me that I never thought I’d get here this fast.
The late Joe Garagiola was master of ceremonies that night and also inducted were Bear Bryant, Shug Jordan, Joe Louis, Don Hudson, Michael Donahue, Jimmy Hitchcock, and Frank Thomas.
One of the inductees this year former Jacksonville State basketball coach Bill Jones. Others in the class of 2018 are Johnny Davis, Chan Gailey, Tim Hudson, Kathy McMinn, Terrell Owens, and Dabo Swinney.
Swinney, whose Clemson football team will be seeking its second straight national championship Monday night (against Alabama) is the headliner, but Jones comes with a resume about as strong.
Playing basketball at Snead Junior College, Jones moved to JSU where he was the leading scorer for two seasons.
He began his coaching career at Florence State (now North Alabama) but again came home to his alma mater. He coached the Gamecocks to 20 or more wins in 11 seasons, to the NCAA Division II National Championship in 1984-85, was named Coach of the Year that season and was three times Coach of the Year in the Gulf South Conference.
Jones was the first chairman of the Calhoun County Sports Hall of Fame and was inducted into the hall in the Class of 2011.
That the state of Alabama births more than its share of world class athletes is attested to by ESPN’s list of the top 100 athletes of the 20th century. Five of the first 15 are in the ASHoF . . . Jesse Owens, Hank Aaron, Joe Louis, Willie Mays, and Carl Lewis.
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