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|Graning tale still intriguing|
I began reading The Missing Ring a couple of weeks ago, the story of Alabama's football team being denied a third straight national championship despite going unbeaten.
The very well written book by Keith Dunnavant talks about Alabama finishing behind Notre Dame and Michigan State despite the Irish and Spartans playing to a 6-6 tie during the 1966 season while Alabama went unbeaten and untied, dominating Nebraska 34-7 in the 1967 Sugar Bowl.
When I got to page 12, I came across a familiar name - well, somewhat. The sentence at the top of the page read, "It had been little more than a year since the same magazine accused Bryant of promoting 'brutal football' after an unfortunate incident involving Georgia Tech player Chick Granning."
I'm sure that's not the first time Chick Graning has had his name misspelled.
It's also not the first time Graning has read about the incident which earned a lot of headlines back in 1961.
"It's funny how many people heard the story and how few ask my version," Graning said this week. "Particularly since I was there."
Graning recently had an unsuccessful run for mayor of Natchez, his first time ever throwing his hat into the political ring.
"My first and last," Graning said. "I learned a lot about politics, enough to know I want nothing more to do with it. I didn't run as a politician, I ran as me."
Getting back to The Missing Ring, it does not really get into the story of what happened in 1961. I have heard the story before - never from Chick himself before talking with him this week. I did find an interesting article by Harry Dery who wrote about Bear's early, middle and final years.
Dery described the play this way:
On November 18, 1961, Bear Bryant led his team against then Southeastern Conference rival Georgia Tech at Legion Field in Birmingham.
The single incident that became a national symbol for the type of dirty football allegedly encouraged by Bryant occurred in the fourth quarter on a routine punt return on which Alabama's return man called for a fair catch. The score was 10-0 and Alabama was determined to pound the last hopes for victory from the Tech squad.
Georgia Tech's Chick Graning was running down field on punt coverage when he saw the fair catch signal. Thinking the play was over, he pulled up, temporarily dropping his guard. That was all Alabama's Darwin Holt, a Texas native and a senior who'd followed Bryant from A&M, needed to see. He sprung at Graning, throwing a forearm into the unsuspecting young man's face and shattering his jaw.
Graning fell to the ground unconscious as Holt ran to the sidelines where he was embraced by a gleeful Alabama sideline that included legendary Alabama linebacker LeRoy Jordan as well as the young and impressionable Mickey Andrewsó now a coach at Florida State University.
Dery went on to say that the SEC officials did not even flag the play and accounts of the game by Alabama's media did not even mention it.
Everywhere else in America, and especially in Georgia Tech's hometown of Atlanta, it was the story of the week.
Graning's jaw and cheekbone were shattered, he'd lost five teeth, suffered a concussion and, since his nasal bone had also been destroyed, his sinuses had flooded with blood.
The Atlanta Constitution ran photos of the brutalized young Graning lying in his hospital bed with his face smothered in bandages.
Dery said papers called for Holt to be suspended for what was, to them, an obviously late and dirty hit. Alabama declined, offering an apology instead.
The SEC Commissioner, a man by the name of Bernie Moore, said that the SEC could and would do nothing about the incident.
Moore was LSU head football coach from 1935-47.
Dery said Holt, whose late hit had perpetrated the incident, explained that he'd meant to smash his forearm into Graning's chest, but that his arm had "slipped" up into Graning's jaw and "accidentally" shattered his face.
Bryant said he was sorry. No one believed him.
Highly-respected Atlanta Journal Constitution sports editor Furman Bisher wrote a lengthy article for The Saturday Evening Post entitled "College Football is going berserk" in which he claimed that Bryant coached his team to deliberately try and knock opposing players senseless using dirty and illegal tactics. Bisher had attended several Alabama practices and noted what he felt was an attempt to teach improper technique including the throwing of forearms which had resulted in Graning's injury.
"Furman Bisher was my champion and he has been my friend ever since," Graning said this week. "He was well-respected and he went after Bryant and Holt tooth and toenail. He really lit the fire."
Unfortunately for Graning, he was one of the few to see that side of it.
"I've had more than a dozen guys call me and say they want to write a fair story about the incident," Graning said. "But it ends up being, 'Let's praise Bryant and the poor victim Darwin Holt whom the press jumped on unmercifully.' For years I tried to be Mr. Nice Guy about it and finally got sick and tired of everybody calling me wanting a fair version and then turning things around and covering it up. I finally told the last guy who was asking me about this incident, "Have you seen the film? Then don't call me until you see it and answer your own questions"
Graning actually hasn't seen a film of the play. He said Alabama has the film but doesn't want it out. Graning does have a sequential series of pictures of the play.
Graning said it was almost two years before he could actually remember most of what happened that night at Legion Field.
"For a long time I didn't remember anything," he said. "It wasn't until the following Thursday, which was Thanksgiving, that I was able to remember the game."
But Graning certainly remembers now.
"We had seen this guy Holt throw elbows when we were watching the Richmond game," Graning said. "I saw him take a kid's helmet off with an elbow. Those were cheap shots, not missed blocking attempts. It was trying to hurt somebody."
Graning, who played running back at Georgia Tech, said he was covering the punt on the left side as the outside man near Alabama's bench.
"It was a short punt and their guy signaled for a fair catch," Graning said. "I had overrun it and their linebackers had criss-crossed. The official was blowing the play dead and Holt was going to the bench because he did not play offense. Back then guys played both ways.
"As he came across behind the official he came all the way off his feet and threw an elbow at my face," Graning said. "I only had one face bar and it had been adjusted upward because my nose had been broken so many times. His elbow went under my facemask and the impact turned him all the way around in the air. He trotted off toward the bench pointing at his elbow toward his teammates."
Graning said Holt visited Georgia Tech in April of 1962 to "apologize".
"He flew into Atlanta and I showed him around the campus," Graning said. "He met a lot of people and seemed a little nervous because a lot of people weren't crazy about him."
As for the apology.
"He said, 'If I meant to hurt you, I would have killed you.'" Graning said. "That was his so-called apology. I just let it ride. I certainly did not accept it."
Graning said he received more than 2,000 letter from all over the world following the incident.
"One letter was from the president of a fraternity at Alabama that said he regretted the incident," Graning said. "The other was from Pat Trammell. I was red-shirted and when I was a freshman Pat was a prospect I showed around campus. He ended up playing quarterback at Alabama. He was a fine man and we always chatted during our games. We got along great. He sent a letter saying he and his family apologized for the incident. He was one of the finest men I wanted to know who ended up becoming a doctor and later died from cancer."
Derry's article also talks about another story asserting that Bryant had been getting scouting reports from former Georgia coach Wally Butts. Butts was an infamous alcoholic and womanizer who'd been forced from his job as head coach at Georgia due to both his off the field antics and his inability to win games. Butts was known to spend weekends in Atlanta getting drunk and hopping from one unseemly night club to another with young women half his age.
Believe it or not, that was not acceptable back then.
Dery continued, saying allegedly bitter over his treatment, Butts was accused of giving inside information to Bryant that helped Alabama destroy his former team. The primary source of this accusation was an Atlanta businessman named George Burnett who claimed to have overheard a conversation wherein Butts spoke to Bear Bryant at length giving him very specific details about what Georgia would do and how he would best be able to counter their movements.
Bryant and Butts denied the charges, suing The Saturday Evening Post for libel. Butts won his case. Bryant settled out of court. The Post tried to appeal Butts' victory but the appeal was denied and The Post ultimately printed a half-hearted retraction.
Dery states there is ample evidence to suggest that Burnett's story was true. Butts phone records for the day Burnett claimed to have overheard the two coaches talking included two long distance calls that corresponded to the exact time Burnett claims Butts was in his office speaking with Bryant.
The first was to Frank Scoby, a well-known Chicago gambler who admitted to betting on college football games and described himself as a "compulsive gambler." Immediately after speaking with Scoby, Butts called Bear Bryant and spoke with him for over an hour.
In The Missing Rings, Dunnavant says the Post "bungled the fix story to the point of absurdity," adding that Bryant was no saint for his drinking and skirt chasing but lived by a certain code of right and wrong, especially in the context of the game.
Graning has a hard time believing there was a conspiracy.
"I wanted to believe every word of that, but I can't really see those two men involved in some type of collusion," Graning said. "Wally Butts was too old school just like Bryant. He did whatever it took to win. They wanted to beat each other too badly through the years, I just can't see that happening. It would have to be proven to me."
Graning was drafted in the ninth round of the NFL Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals and in the 18th round by the AFL Denver Broncos.
He played one year with the Cardinals before playing the next year with the Boston Patriots.
Graning spent the next two years in the Army before ending his playing career wtih the British Columbia Lions in the Canadian Football League in the late 1960s.
"I played with and against many people who played on that Alabama team, such as Richard Willamson an Bill Rice and a bunch of those guys in the service and with Boston who I liked and respected and got along great with. The only two people I ever had anything against were Bear Bryant and Darwin Holt."
Needless to say, Graning had very mixed emotions when his nephew, Ward Graning, who played football at Natchez Cathedral, walked on at Alabama to play football and eventually earned a scholarship.
"I had hard feelings for a while about that," Graning said. "And then I finally realized this boy is not only my nephew, but one of my favorite people. He wasn't even around when that happened. Do I wish he would have kept the Graning name off that campus? I still do. But that was his choice, not mine. It was something he wanted to do for his reasons. Ward and I get along great, and the fact he went there sort of excused a lot of things for me."
Of course, nothing will excuse what happened on November 18, 1961. No matter what kind of spin some folks try to put on it.
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