Johnny Shergotakos set up his picture stand in the early morning dark and was sweating long before the crowd started pouring in to Legion Field today.
By noon, when Verlon Carrell paid him $10 for 24 color pictures of Bear Bryant, there was a sweat stain like an upside-down heart seeping through his red 'Bama shirt and Shergotakos couldn't help but cry. It was an hour before kickoff and Bear Bryant was dead.
Shergotakos felt a sharp pain in his chest every time he saw the T-shirts and foam beer huggers and elephant banks that said: Gone but not forgotten. Some had, "I ain't nothin' but a winner," scribbled across the Bear's face. He had heard Bryant say that once, at the Reich Hotel in Attalla, Ala.
But now Bryant, the winningest coach in college football history, was buried in the Elmwood Cemetery, just down the road, and Ray Perkins was the new coach, the coach 77,413 would see beat Georgia Tech, 20-7, today in his first game here. Only in his pictures would Shergotakos ever get to see the old man again.
Bryant died last Jan. 26, six weeks after announcing his retirement as head coach and turning the team over to Perkins. Bryant would have been 70 on Sunday.
Ever since he won the autographed football at a high school raffle, Shergotakos figured he owed Bear Bryant something. He had bought three $1 tickets and, after his name was drawn, a rich fellow from Birmingham offered him $3,000 for the ball signed by everybody on Bryant's last team. Shergotakos swore he had never been luckier in his whole life. He was 64 years old and owed money to a lot of people back home, and now, Bear Bryant had assured him a peaceful retirement by simply signing his name on a strip of pig hide.
Shergotakos decided not to keep the ball in his house, fearing a hoodlum might break in and steal it during the night, so he rented space in a bank vault and put it there. Every now and then he checks on the ball to see how it's doing. He runs his fingers over Bryant's name and rubs the tears from his eyes with a bent wrist. "Can't help it," he said. "The Bear's gone."
In a year or two, Shergotakos said he'll get $10,000 for the football and kick back in his easy chair without worrying about anything, but the heart that started giving him trouble two months after Bryant died.
"I don't want him to never be forgotten," Shergotakos said. "That's why I'm selling them pictures. I ain't making money, breaking even is all I am. I want folks to have something to remember the great man by."
Shergotakos pulled his lips tight, as if he'd just swallowed a bottle fly, and rubbed his eyes with his bent wrist. "I miss him, Lord I miss him," he said. "The kinda man he was, he was a human being. To the state, the schools and the boys who played up under him--we can't never let him go because he's still with us."
Even time can't darken the bright memory of Bryant.
When Perkins bused his team out to Legion Field for warmups Friday night, he sat in the front seat that belonged to Bryant since 1958, his first year as the Tide coach. After leading the team out on the field, Perkins leaned against the same rubber padding on the goal post Bryant so often lounged against before each game.
"I felt the same when I walked out on the field before the game as I did when I came out Friday night. I was in his seat and I was on his field. But it can be his forever. I don't care.
"That'll never bother me."
Perkins said all along he wasn't Bear Bryant and would never pretend to be. Earlier in the week, Joe Namath, who played under Bryant and was Perkins' teammate at Alabama, stood in front of a wild student body and spoke solemnly about the old coach. Namath said he expected great things from Perkins, and that Bryant would be with the Tide when they rolled out on the turf for the season opener today.
During the moment of prayer before the game in memory of the old coach--when all of Alabama seemed to rise to its feet and a hush descended like a cloud between the low, green hills--Perkins bowed his head, put his hands behind his back and stared at his white turf shoes. His tie was red and decorated with silly cartoon elephants and he wore a decal on his shirt collar. The decal was of a hat, a houndstooth hat, like Bryant used to wear, and the entire squad wore them on the backs of their helmets.
"I'm just glad the first one's over," Perkins said after the Tide had used a blocked punt and a recovered fumble to score two touchdowns in a game witnessed by about 2,000 more than the listed seating capacity at Legion Field. "I'm glad it's under our belt and we had a victory. I know all the players are relieved . . . We won the battle with the right kind of attitude."
While Perkins met the mob of press people who came from all over the country to ask what it was like replacing the Bear, the squad rejoiced in the dressing room, slapping hands and laughing and calling out to each other in the raw, infantile joy of victory.
Alabama quarterback Walter Lewis, who played the entire game and completed 11 of 19 passes for 204 yards, conceded that he "had been thinking what it would be like with Coach Perkins on the sideline and Coach Bryant not there. I decided to just go and see for myself. I wish Coach Bryant had been there, but Coach Perkins did a good job."
Cornerback Stan Gay, one of the defensive heroes today, said it was "not that much of a change. I was proud to play in the Liberty Bowl in Coach Bryant's last game and I'm proud to play for Coach Perkins. I hope he does as well as Coach Bryant.
"I miss him. I thought about him on the field. I thought about him all day. But I think Coach Perkins is going to be one of the greatest coaches in college football."
Giving up the ghost has been difficult for others, including Marla Abernathy, who grew up down Overlook Road from Bryant in Tuscaloosa and saw him every now and then strolling around the block with his wife, Mary Harmon.
A freshman now, she wasn't even born when President Kennedy died, though she knows that most people who were around then remember where they were and what they were doing when they got the news. That's how it was for her with Bryant. She was home, with a broken leg and "when the TV guy said, 'This is a special newsbreak,' I started crying right away. I knew Coach Bryant was dead before he even announced it."
Today, the feeling was still strong. "I can feel him here with us," Abernathy said during the game. "It was like he never left."
And so it is for so many others.
Today, Johnny Shergotakos stood outside under the darkening skies and listened to his radio headset. He had listened to the game on the radio, thinking all the while about what fine pictures he owned of Bryant and how they would last forever. Things changed, he knew, the seasons rushed in and out and left you older, left you selling pictures of dead men in the dark and wondering where it all went.