Selmian has part in Rose Bowl history with ‘Bama

Published 6:44 pm Saturday, January 2, 2010

There are game-changers, and then there are games that change us. Few things better define the Southern United States than what takes place between 100 yards of green grass and chalk.

Tradition defines Alabama football’s continuing legacy.

How far do fans tend to reach into the past, though? Rarely do fans hoot and holler over the days of Frank Thomas and Wallace Wade, whose statues stand right along side the others’ outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Sometimes, folks forget about the faces behind the first few titles that eventually amounted to 12.

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Selma doesn’t.

It was here at the beginning, when a young man in his second year of college hopped on to a train headed West to play a football game that would define an institution first and a state for many years after that. A game dominated by Ivy League schools would change hands, and Selma’s own was a part of it.

Billy Morrison was no star, but that didn’t matter. As a substitute fullback, he served a great purpose for head coach Wallace Wade. When his number was called, he headed on to that field and helped the University of Alabama steal a 20-19 victory from the Washington Huskies and bring Tuscaloosa its first-ever national championship.

All but two members of the 23-man roster hailed from Alabama, as they departed from a Birmingham train station and embarked on an historic cross-country trip lasting three days.

They arrived at a Rose Bowl stadium that held 45,000 people, and ticket sales totaled a whopping $146,000.

Down 12-0 late in the game, Alabama stormed back with three second-half touchdowns to seal the win and to write its first page in the history books.

On the way home, euphoric fans greeted their train with blaring marching bands and chicken fried with extra love.

Morrison’s teammate Johnny Mack Brown, a star who caught two touchdown passes in the victory, shortly scooted back out to Pasadena a short time later and would make movies with Gene Autrey, westerns mostly.

That wasn’t Billy Morrison’s style. Two years later, he graduated from UA and moved back to Selma to work in the laundry and dry-cleaning business for many years.

His son Ken Morrison lives in Selma. An avid and undyingly proud Crimson Tide fan, Morrison reflects with heavy nostalgia on the precious few stories his father told him about Tuscaloosa and his trip out West.

He recalls his father, who was not on scholarship but tried out, couldn’t afford proper shoulder pads. So his mom cut him a head-hole in some padded cloth and sent him out to practice.

Morrison said his father’s experience forever affected how he felt about UA football. As a child, his dad took him to Tuscaloosa and Birmingham where the Tide played their home games.

“Knowing he played and seeing those games, that meant a lot to me,” Morrison said. “We’re proud of it, of course. There’s a lot of nostalgia.”

On Thursday, the Crimson Tide will repeat the process Billy Morrison, Wallace Wade and several others began in the mid-1920s. For those boys, that trip was quite an eye-opener, Ken said. After all, aside from a couple games in Georgia or Mississippi, his dad never left the state. California was a different animal altogether, and the young fullback was awestruck.

Ken, 68, will be there to honor his father and pull his team through as they battle the Texas Longhorns, who brought a title home from that same building only 4 years ago.

“I wouldn’t be going to this game if my daddy didn’t play in the Rose Bowl,” Morrison said. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing some of the sights he saw.”

Tomorrow, he’ll venture out to support his team. A graduate of UA in 1962 (and Parrish High School in Selma), Morrison misses those college days like any other red-blooded person might. His sister Tay Long also graduated from there.

“I loved everything at that age,” he said, laughing. “What’s not to love about being in college?”

He retired many years after taking over his father’s laundry business and owns some farmland where he hunts some turkey and plays a little golf when he has the time.

Thursday’s game will be Morrison’s first in years. Hopefully Alabama will fare just as well on the scoreboard but perhaps better in the realm of injury and moral victories. His last visit to Bryant-Denny saw 2005’s trouncing of Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators 31-3 but the tragic leg-break suffered by spectacular wide receiver Tyrone Prothro.

As for this team under coach Nick Saban, Morrison is pleased with what he sees, and his dad, who passed away in 1964, certainly would be as well.

“I think we’ve got a great team,” he said. “I think my dad would love this team under coach Saban, no doubt about it, especially that hardnosed way they play. They’ve also got good discipline under him.”

As for a prediction, Ken thinks the team will do fine. A victory surely would serve as a healthy bookend to his father’s 1926 victory that cast a favorable spotlight on UA.

He’ll walk into that stadium Thursday night and see the bright lights beaming off of those crimson helmets, a far cry from the leather ones his father donned 83 years ago, back when the Tide started rolling.