“Bear and the Duke”
Wednesday March 6, 2013 Prague, Czech Republic
Only in Europe football could a story such as ours emerge. One year ago there were two teams in Prague, Czech Republic, the Prague Panthers and the Prague Black Hawks. After last season the two teams decided to merge and become the Prague Black Panthers and would play in the prestigious Austrian American Football League. After I arrived to coach the BP’ers our general manager informed me that we had a new sponsor was on board. It would soon be announced that the owner of a company called the Red Crox would buy the team and we would become the Prague Red Crox. Ok, we were still two merged teams full of players wanting to play in Europe’s most demanding league. Last week after practice our GM informed the team of the change and showed off some photo’s of our new Red and Black Uniforms. I don’t think the players really cared what color our uniforms were going to be. But for some in our administration it was a big deal. And then today suddenly, only three weeks before our season is to begin, the man decided to pull his offer of financial assistance. Hold on….we’re now once again the Prague Black Panthers.
I asked our GM if this would require some belt tightening? His answer should tell you a bit about American football in Europe. He told me, “We can save some money on away games by having the players drive, four to a car.” Only in Europe.
On Thursday we’ll begin a four day football ‘camp’ in a facility outside of Prague. Our players are looking forward to some time away from jobs, family, school and other obligations. It’s like my driver told me, “We need some time to bond.” Maybe and just maybe all we need is to spend some quality time practicing the things that will give us a chance to win. I’ll never overlook the value of coming together, like Bear Bryant said, “The sooner our heart beat is one, the better we’ll be as a team.” For those of you who don’t know coach Bryant, he was the legendary coach at Alabama in the fifties and sixties. I met him twice.
Both times were at the National Football Coaches Convention, held that year in San Francisco. John Wayne was the guest of honor. As we awaited the program to begin people began lining up for the “Duke’s” autograph. I had never in my life asked anyone for an autograph, but I just couldn’t resist the temptation. About the time I got into line someone took the microphone and announced that no more autograph seekers should come to the podium. He said something like, “Please give Mr. Wayne some time to enjoy our program.” I was the last person in line and sitting next to my idol was Bear Bryant. As I approached and was about to ask for the autograph Bear looked at me and said, “Didn’t you hear the announcement?” I felt about two feet tall, but John Wayne looked at me and said, “I’d be honored to sign your program son.” Oh my God.
Later in the week as I waited for an elevator to take me to my room the door suddenly opened and I stepped into the box like contraption. Standing by himself alone in the elevator was the “Bear”. Trust me on this, he was probably six feet four inches tall and most people would agree he had an imposing presence. To me it more like intimidating. I nearly froze, but finally stepped inside and looking up to him I simple said, “Hello Coach Bryant.” I only hoped that he didn’t remember I was the one he admonished at the end of the autograph line. We rode up to our floors in silence. I was twenty four years old and I felt like fourteen. But to this day that short elevator ride with my coaching idol Bear Bryant was one of the highlights of my coaching life!
Sometimes while I stay long periods of time in Europe I let my hair grow until I can’t stand it any longer. It was in fact during my first trip to Europe, in the summer of 1964, after not getting a haircut the entire three month trip, that I realized I had curly hair. The buzz cut I had my entire life gave me no clue. Because I hadn’t had a haircut in America before I left and it’s now been over a month, I needed one badly. I had noticed a barber shop in the area where I take the subway into town and last week I decided to take advantage of the coincidence.
It was a large room with probably twenty barber chairs most of which were taken up by women, and at first I thought maybe it was a women’s only establishment. However, I noticed two men getting trimmed in one corner and felt better. A nice older lady took my jacket and handed me a number. Good start. The next thing I noticed was that all of the barbers were very attractive young women. Soon I was escorted to an open chair by a tall blonde and settled in. After about twenty minutes I noticed a second older lady speaking with the various barbers, pointing and offering advice. Sometimes she would take the scissors and trim here and there. Duh, it suddenly dawned on me, this was a barber college and these young ladies were practicing. Ok, no problem a bad haircut lasts two days and when my Scandinavian look alike barber finished I was a happy camper. To boot, the price of $2.50 was well within my budget.
Today as I exited the escalator out of the subway on my way home I noticed a couple of older gentlemen with crutches heading for the door at my barber college. I wanted to take a picture for this chapter so I politely waited for the entrance door to clear. Before it did another eighty plus year old, this time a woman, in need of a haircut or hair something joined the lineup. She was also sporting a crutch. All three eventually made it inside and I followed with my camera at the ready. (see pic) After leaving I began and finished my ten minute walk home laughing out loud. It must have been ‘Over eighty and injured day’ at the college and probably half price!
I told the story to our American players and coaches and it wasn’t long before two of them, Andrew our QB and Taylor our Defensive Co-Ord paid their $2.50 and came away with a smile on their face.
Living in Europe for an extended period of time is always a treat for me and one of the reasons is discovering little gems like a barber college. Europe isn’t all churches, museums and monuments.