On the day Paul “Bear” Bryant died, a veil of mourning descended upon the state of Alabama. Memories of that day and those that immediately followed remain vivid among University of Alabama football fans. After his death, thousands lined the highway and crowded overpasses as Bryant’s body was driven from Tuscaloosa, where his legend was built, to Birmingham, where he was laid to rest at Elmwood Cemetery. Newspapers across the state devoted the entirety of their front pages to mark his passing. Radio and TV stations devoted hour upon hour to testimonials delivered from politicians to celebrities to past Crimson Tide greats.
On the day Bear Bryant died, sorrow washed like a tide over a stunned state.
“It’s like being told God just died,” one Alabama fan said.
Among the uncountable masses of those who grieved Bryant’s death, there was likely no one who felt the range of emotions that descended on one 11-year-old boy in the small coal-mining town of Berry, Ala.
It’s been 30 years and one day since Bryant died of a heart attack at age 69 while having an X-ray performed at Tuscaloosa’s Druid City Hospital on Jan. 26, 1983.
That 11-year-old boy, Jason Dunn, says that day, and the unusual personal circumstances that surround it, remains a moment frozen in time.
“It’s just like yesterday,” he says.
■ ■ ■
It is a little after 3 p.m. on a typically dreary late January Monday. At Berry Elementary School, the bell announcing the end of the school day rings and children pour out of the little school, some racing toward the street and the long line of cars occupied by waiting parents.
One boy in particular seems to be half-running, half-floating toward the line of cars.
“Here he comes, just flyin’,” remembers Jason Dunn’s mom, Sue Dunn Avent. “He’s running to the car and waving this piece of paper over his head.”
Jason jumps into the front seat, barely able to sit still.
“Look! Look!” he says, thrusting the paper in his mother’s face. “It’s a letter from Bear Bryant! To me! Bear Bryant wrote me a letter!”
Jason thrusts the paper at his mother again.
It is only then that he notices the expression on his mother’s face.
She is crying.
He is shocked at the sight of the tears that stream down her face.
“Mama, mama! What’s wrong?” he asks.
Sue Dunn Avent, poor wife of a poor coal-miner, was never one to beat around the bush.
“Son,” she says. “They just said on the radio that Bear Bryant is dead.”
The boy falls silent for a moment. He looks at his mother as if reading her tears. He looks at the letter in his hand, a neatly-typed 49-word, two-paragraph letter written on University of Alabama Athletic Department stationary, personally signed, “Paul Bryant.”
And suddenly that inborn defiance rises up from deep inside the little boy — a streak of stubbornness that would someday help him become an outstanding athlete and carry him through the rigors of medical school.
“It’s not true!” he shouts at his mother, accusingly. “I know it’s not true. See? I’ve got a letter from Bear Bryant right here. Look! He can’t be dead ’cause I just got a letter from him today!”
Now, 30 years later, Sue Dunn Avent recalls that it took some time to make her son understand that the letter had been written days before and that it had been a coincidence that the letter had arrived on the day of Bryant’s death. It was not until she pointed out the date at the top of the letter — Jan. 22, 1983 — that Jason understood.
■ ■ ■
Dunn never expected a letter from Bear Bryant, of course.
He was unaware of the circumstances that compelled the legendary coach to dash off that personal note.
It started, oddly enough, in Karen Manning’s fifth-grade English class.
Manning had given the children a writing assignment and left the topic up to them.
Dunn, whose earliest memories include making the 30-mile trip south to Tuscaloosa with his dad to watch Alabama play football, quickly decided on a topic.
Bryant had just coached his last game at Alabama, a 21-15 win over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl, so Dunn thought he would write a poem to express his appreciation for Bryant’s glorious reign as the Tide’s coach, a record that included 323 wins and six national titles in 25 years.
As Dr. Jason Dunn sits in the study of his handsome Cady Hills home, he is asked what grade he got on the paper.
“Oh, an ‘A,’ I’m sure,” he says, grinning.
His mother explains the grin.
“Did he get an ‘A’?” she says, in a futile attempt to conceal her pride in her only child. “He never got anything BUT an ‘A’ in all his years of school.”
So, in Jason’s mind, the assignment resulted in “just another ‘A’.”
Mrs. Manning considered it an A-plus effort, as in, “An ‘A’, plus I think I’ll send a copy of the poem to Bear Bryant himself.”
Jason’s teacher never mentioned it to him, though.
“I never really gave that poem a second thought,” Dunn says. “It was just another class assignment.”
On the morning of Jan. 26, 1983, the sleepy student body at Berry Elementary sat at their desks, heard the crackle of the school intercom followed by the familiar voice of the school principal, Maurice Manning, who delivered the morning announcements. Mrs. Manning, who was also the principal’s wife, then took over the intercom and read the poem Jason had written about Bear Bryant.
Like any 11-year-old boy, being exposed for having done something a grown-up would talk about before the whole school was enough to make him squirm self-consciously in his seat.
Having suffered through the recitation of his poem over the loud speaker, he was floored to hear what came next.
“Boys and girls, this is a letter that Coach Bryant sent in response to Jason’s letter,” Mrs. Manning announced.
Thank you very much for sharing the poem you had written. You are a smart young man for a fifth grader and I hope you will continue to work hard and come to Bama someday.
Best wishes to you and your family and your classmates at Berry Elementary.
When homeroom period ended, Mrs. Manning approached Jason in the hall and handed him the letter.
A gifted athlete and an outstanding student, he had always been popular. With that letter in his hand, suddenly he was a rock star.
“Everybody wanted to look at it, touch it, ask me about it,” Dunn says. “I was afraid it was going to get ripped by everybody wanting to grab it and read it and hold it.”
Understandably, the rest of the day was little more than a blur.
When the dismissal bell rang, he couldn’t wait to show his mom his unexpected treasure.
“Boy, did I have some news for her,” Dunn recalls thinking.
And, boy, did his mom have news for him.
■ ■ ■
Dunn turned out to be an exceptional athlete at little Berry High School. He played all sports and was particularly gifted in football as quarterback and basketball as point guard. He had three Division I basketball scholarship offers, but he was more highly-prized as a football player, drawing offers from a long list of schools, including the University of Alabama.
“What you need to know is that if you’re a kid growing up in Alabama, the chance to play quarterback at Alabama is the biggest dream you could possibly have. Every dad wanted to be a dad like Bear Bryant. Every kid wanted to play for Bear Bryant.”
So, naturally, when it came time to make a decision on his athletic career, Dunn chose … to play basketball at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“Crazy, huh?” Dunn says.
There are conflicting reasons for why he chose basketball at Southern Miss over football at his beloved Alabama.
“My dad really was the one that convinced me to take the basketball scholarship,” Dunn says. “I think the big thing for him was the safety issue. Dad was a coal-miner and he died young, 65-years-old, and there’s no question that working in that coal mine contributed to his death. It was a tough life. I think Dad just wanted me to be safe and enjoy sports but go on and have a good, long life.”
His mom has a different explanation.
“The reason he chose basketball was because so many people in our community told him that he would never be good enough to play Division I basketball,” she says. “He was just a kid from a little high school. He’d never make it. Well, the one thing about Jason is that you don’t tell him he can’t do something. He’ll do it, just to show you. It was the same with being a doctor. When he was in the seventh grade, he decided he was going to be a doctor. And he did that, too.”
After four years playing basketball at USM, Dunn went to medical school in Jackson, then did his internship at University of Alabama Medical Center and his residency at University Medical Center in Jackson.
Although he played college basketball at USM, a quick scan of his study confirms where his loyalties really lie.
Aside from a bird’s-eye-view photo of him playing in a game at USM’s Reed Green Coliseum, all the college-related memorabilia is from the University of Alabama.
Dunn, a kidney specialist, chose Columbus for his practice four years ago. The reason?
“Of my options, Columbus was closest to Bryant-Denny Stadium,” he says.
He attends every Alabama home football game. He and his wife, Ashli, have also gone to all three Alabama National Championship games since 2009.
Dunn attends fan days, spring games and studies Alabama recruiting information like a medical student poring over medical texts.
“I just love it,” he admits.
Interestingly, though, Dunn lost track of the letter from Bear. He just lost track of it, as kids are inclined to do with childhood treasures.
Fortunately, like a lot of moms, Sue Dunn Avent proved to be something of a pack-rat where her son’s achievements were concerned.
Dunn assumed the letter had just been lost.
But on his 30th birthday, he was presented his poem, along with Bryant’s letter and the envelope it came in, in a handsome glass frame.
This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of Bryant’s death and the unexpected letter written by a football god to an 11-year-old boy.
“When I’m here in my office, working on paperwork or whatever, I’ll look over my shoulder and see that letter,” Dunn says.
“It still doesn’t seem possible that he’s dead. That day seems so fresh to me.
“It was the best day ever and then it was one of the worst.”
Bear by Jason Dunn
He used to coach at Bama
I wish he was still there,
He is a living legend
We all call him the Bear.
He’s sent some great players
On into the pros
Like Stabler and Joe Namath
And a whole lot more like those.
He walked kind of slowly
On his face there was a scowl.
And when he said, “Let’s go, boys”
He said it with a growl.
No one will ever fill his shoes
Not even a king or queen.
He was the greatest football coach
He won number three fifteen.
We thank him for the memories
Things won’t be the same
But he’ll go down in history
In football’s Hall of Fame.
The Crimson Tide will roll again
Ray Perkins will be there
There’ll never be another coach
As mighty as the “Bear!”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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