Roy Exum: Bear Bryant’s Hour Of Power
The interview was over and Robert Shuller and I were both delighted because it had been fun for both of us. Oh, it’s now been 10 or 12 years since the interview took place, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
I’d flown out to California to do an in-depth article on this preacher whose message, via his weekly “Hour of Power” television ministry, reaches 90 million people across the world every Sunday.
We had lunch together after his last service of the day at his famed “Crystal Cathedral” and we’d talked about all kinds of things; why he gives trinkets away on his program and the fact his goal is to spread a message of “possibility thinking” around the globe through Jesus Christ.
People are still fascinated over Coach Bryant, the giant of a football coach who took “ordinary” boys and built a dynasty at the University of Alabama before he died in 1983. Not long ago he was named as the “Most Influential Man” in the 75-year history of the Southeastern Conference.
But what occurred in an airplane somewhere in the sky over California may have been his biggest victory and Dr. Shuller told me he will never forget it either.
Bob and his wife Arvella had wiggled around and juggled things where they were going to take one of those delicious three-day, “no plans” vacations in Palm Springs. The demands on Dr. Shuller’s life are extraordinary and finally they were at 30,000 feet, Dr. Shuller with his newspapers and his wife with her book.
A man, a big man who looked as though he was dressed for a round of golf, walked up to the airplane seat and said in a gravely voice, “Are you Robert Shuller?” and Dr. Shuller inwardly cringed because they’d taken the early-morning flight hoping to escape this very thing.
“Yes I am. Good morning,” said the preacher, immediately shaking his newspaper and burying his face in it. But the man stood still, not to be dissuaded by body language, and said simply, “My momma used to watch you every Sunday before she passed away.
”Dr. Shuller looked up for only a milli-second and responded, “Oh, I appreciate that …” before going back to his paper. But the big man still stood there, ignoring the silence.
“My wife watches you now all the time,” said the man, pausing just so before adding, “and I guess I watch you when I can.”
Dr. Shuller, sensing this one wasn’t taking the hint, sighed in a way of resignation, tucked his newspaper away and finally stood to speak. He stuck out his hand, smiled like he does, and said, “Well, it’s great to meet a fellow Christian.”
The man, taking Dr. Shuller’s hand and shaking it, replied, “That’s my deal … I don’t know if I’m a Christian or not. My name is Paul Bryant. A lot of people call me ‘Bear.’”
The second he said it, Dr. Shuller about jumped out of the plane. “Oh my goodness, here I am trying to ignore the greatest football coach of all time.” Dr. Shuller laughed years later, the day of the interview. “Bear Bryant was one of my heroes, and had been forever because if ever there was a ‘possibility thinker,’ he was it.
“Living in California, I would look for anything I could find about him and used his stories and sayings down through the years,” said Dr. Shuller, lowering his voice and mimicking, “I ain’t nothing but a winner!”
“When he was on that plane he didn’t have on his checked hat and was obviously not on a football field so I didn’t recognize him. And when he told me he didn’t know if he was a Christian, I immediately responded, ‘Well, let me be your coach for a minute. What don’t you understand?”
Coach Bryant held up some crooked fingers and said, “I’ve got three things that bother me,” and Dr. Shuller nodded and replied, “I’d like to hear ‘em.”
“Well, when I get around Oral Roberts and Billy Graham and people like that, I enjoy visiting with them, but, like with you right now, I don’t get any special feeling, no sense of a holy man,” said Coach and Dr. Shuller nodded, replying, “I got that one … what’s number two?”
“It says in the Bible some prophet or somebody sent a bear to eat up some little kids. I don’t believe Jesus would have done that. I don’t get it,” continued Coach and Dr. Shuller, listening carefully, said simply, “What’s your number three?”
“Well,” Coach hesitated for a second before he revealed, “I do some things I ought’n to do … like smoke cigarettes and stuff.”
Now it was Dr. Shuller’s turn. This was tough, leathery, and very famous Bear Bryant, but the pastor took a different tack.
Dr, Shuller put his hand gently on Coach’s shoulder, smiled in a sincere way while looking him right in the eye, and said in a quiet voice. “I know how you feel. I’m the same way at times, but consider these solutions for a minute ….
“First off, I don’t know how you think you ought to feel. I can only say I’ve never gotten any kind of feeling either. But the big thing is that when we get to heaven, nobody is going to ask us how we feel. Feeling has nothing at all to do with it. It’s about faith, not feeling.
“Secondly, your story about the prophet sending a bear to eat up some kids is not quite what I got when I read that, but it doesn’t matter. Coach, it says elsewhere in the Bible that there are parts of the Bible none of us will understand until we get to the Kingdom,” Dr. Shuller continued in his warm way.
“There’s one more thing. I don’t believe that when we get to heaven anyone’s going to ask if we believe everything in the Bible. It was put here as a rule book, a guide for use to follow. Don’t let the way you interpret one or two verses take away from what the Bible can mean in your life. But, when you get to heaven, the Bible won’t be part of the conversation.
“Now, the big one .. you do some things you say you ought’n to do. We all do. We try hard to avoid all the traps, all the potholes, all the obstacles, and we as humans fail at times. The goal is just like you tell your players. Do the best you can.
“When you get knocked down,” Dr. Shuller raised his eyebrows, “then get back up and try again to do your very best. It says that in the Bible.”
Then Shuller, when he recalled the incident years later, did something he had never done before when talking with a struggler.
“I had a simple index card in my shirt pocket, one I’d jot notes to myself during the day, so I pulled it out and wrote on that card, ‘All ye who come unto me I will be no means cast away.’ Then I drew a single line under it and handed it to Coach Bryant.
“Coach, you believe that?”
“Yessir, I do,” answered Bear Bryant so Dr. Shuller gently responded, “Then sign it.”
“I don’t know whether I should do that right now. I don’t know that now’s the time,” said Coach Bryant, the humanly struggle so strong within him,” and Dr. Shuller again put his hand on Coach’s shoulder and said, “I don’t know whether this plane will land in a little while, either.”
Coach Bryant locked eyes with Dr. Shuller and said simply, “Gimme your pen.”
Years later Dr. Shuller’s eyes glistened as he told how Coach Bryant signed his name on that card and then reached in his pant’s pocket to pull out his wallet.
“That wallet was thick and had these big rubber bands around it. Coach Bryant took that card and he folded it, creasing it with those crooked fingers and then he folded the card again before tucking it in his wallet,” Dr. Shuler told me.
Then he said, “Coach Bryant looked me in the eye, said a simple ‘Thank you’ and went back to his seat on the airplane. Six weeks after that, Bear Bryant died.”
I think about Robert Shuller sometimes. I’ve read his book and, yesterday, saw him on TV. I’ve also got a card just like he gave Coach Bryant in my own wallet.
God said it. I believe it. And I signed it.