At every overpass in the 51 miles between here and Birmingham along U.S. 59, they proclaimed their love today for Paul W. Bryant.

At Brookwood, they awaited the four-mile funeral procession with a banner that said, "We'll miss you, Bear."

Down the road at Brockton, they waved a poster that read, "Nobody did it better." At Bucksville, 50 construction workers stopped building long enough to spray paint, "We'll love you forever," on a bridge. In a black section of Bessemer, youngsters held a sign saying, "Thanks for the Memories, Bear."

And, finally, Coach Bear Bryant's body, escorted by 400 cars, reached Birmingham, where it was awaited by 8,000 mourners, then buried at Elmwood Cemetery.

Clearly, Bryant won more hearts than football games before he died Wednesday of a massive heart attack at age 69.

This morning, his funeral ceremonies began at 10 in Tuscaloosa, where thousands stood outside First United Methodist Church, waiting for eight Alabama football players to carry Bryant's casket down Greensboro Street.

Fog had been covering the steeple for hours. But as the players carried Bryant's body up the church stairs, the fog suddenly lifted and the sun shone on Bryant for one last time.

"We give thanks to God for Paul Bryant," Rev. Joe Elmore said. "We give thanks to God for (Bryant's) long years of influence on young people, challenging them to excellence, discipline, confidence and hard work. We give thanks for his love of life, his caring, his down-to-earth goodness. We give thanks for his ability to teach and motivate people --to teach them important lessons for life."

Elmore spoke calmly as Lee Roy Jordan and George Allen (the personal representative of President Reagan) wiped away tears. Even Woody Hayes cried.

More than 600 people jammed First Methodist and Bryant's former players and coaches, friends, colleagues, media and dignitaries--including Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Grambling State Coach Eddie Robinson, now the only living coach with 300 career victories--packed First Baptist Church across the street.

And outside, the people who followed Bryant's life paid last respects. Many recalled what they remembered most about the man who won 323 college football games, more than any coach in history, and the man who cared.

"He's our hero," said Garry Garzarek, a senior at Alabama. "I was born in 1961 and he was already a permanent fixture by then. I took for granted he'd live forever. I figured, the sun's always there, so is Bear Bryant.

"You could see him anywhere and he'd speak, put his arm around you. I was with my girlfriend last week and we saw Coach Bryant at Wendy's getting a hamburger."

A man who would identify himself only as "Joe" wore a plaid houndstooth hat, just like the one Bryant made famous. He looked twice as old as Bryant, but said, "Bear is a father figure to me. We belonged to the same church (First Methodist). The day he joined, 25 years ago, he didn't stay long. He said he had to run out and raise some money for his church."

Seeing Bryant's body in a casket was the only way some of the people here could believe he was dead.

"I don't think everybody realized he was human and he could die, too," Garzarek said.

Fred Baker Jr. played for Bryant from 1973-77. "I didn't want to believe it when they told me he was dead," he said. "He always gave more of himself than he asked of someone else."

Baker, who is black, was so close to Bryant that Bryant named Fred Baker Sr. an honorary coach in 1975.

"He always had time for everybody," Baker Sr. said. "You always waited for the weekend so you could hear what the Bear had to say about the upcoming game."

A generation ago, the elder Baker could not even walk across the all-white University of Alabama campus.

Just behind the Bakers today, a white police officer, weeping openly, was handed a handkerchief by a young black woman who squeezed his hand.

"One thing that disturbs me the most is that Coach Bryant died with some black people still putting him down," said Kelvin Croom, one of Bryant's former players, who is black.

"He was a father to me as much as any white player. He hired my brother (Sylvester) as an assistant.

"In 1975, I played as a freshman but I hurt my knee real badly," Croom said. "The doctors cleared me to play, but Coach Bryant told me I would never play again. He kept me on scholarship, when he didn't have to, and I helped him recruit. He inspired us (black players) to make something of ourselves.

"If Coach Bryant ever was (a racist) he changed his mind. He told the team once that he was brought up a certain way and didn't know any better. But he said he had to change quickly. And he did, because his door was open, and I went in many times."

Croom said he had one last chance to see Bryant on Wednesday afternoon: He could have carried a message to Bryant at Druid Hospital, where he was admitted Tuesday after complaining of chest pains.

"That was at noon and he died 20 minutes later," Croom said. "I should have gone to see him. He's gone now, but he's still here. I went to a memorial service for him yesterday and I felt frustrated because I couldn't see him. But he was there. He's left a mark on all of us here. And that's the way it will always be, even if he is dead."