I tracked Roy Tatum down pretty much just to hear about his double life as “Bart Raynolds” (and Bigfoot) because, dang, that’s a story, and you can read about it here. But, sure, yes of course, Roy, let’s actually talk Auburn football. Tell me something good.
It did not take long.
He’d probably never played better, and he’d probably never been more miserable. The rain, the rain, the rain. The cold. The mud. The run. The tackle. The tackle, Lord, the tackle. Everybody’s got a story about it. Or most everybody. All Ken Jones could really muster at the ‘67 team reunion last Saturday was a distant look. He was a senior offensive guard, the hard-nosed type that, according to the 1967 media guide I was having him and all his fellow sufferers sign, really enjoyed football.
“We should’ve won it. We should’ve won it. I don’t know… we should’ve won it.”
They should have won it.
Auburn dominated the game, especially defensively. Again, the word is dominated. It’s easy to say it, of course, but you watch it and it’s true. Bama had four 1st downs, and 177 total yards, or 130 if you’re playing by the rules. Sure, a lot of that had to do with the rain and slop. It was like the final scene of “The Secret of Nihm” out there. You get anxiety just watching it. But a lot of it also had to do with Roy Tatum.
When Stabler called his own number on Bama’s first two plays from scrimmage, No. 73 was there to stop him cold. It was his best season–he was runner up for Shug’s Headhunter of the Year award–and, again, the Iron Bowl wound up one of the best games of his career. The words “Roy Tatum” and “key stop” were the chorus of the Sunday sports section. So why were the two idiots talking trash, and to 6”3, 230 lb. defensive tackle Roy Tatum all people?
It took a while to get this particular gem out of him. He’s a minister now. He turned his life around a while back. (That’s a good story, too.) When it comes to the old days, he can get kind of sheepish sometimes. But I wanted to know what he’d done that night, after a game like that. Story goes that some of the guys went over to Bama’s hotel. The Tide had sent nine seniors out for the coin toss to Auburn’s two, Gusty Yearout and Forest Blue. Gusty isn’t intimidated. He locks on Stabler like he would lock on him the whole game, marches into the wind with the meanest All-Conference middle guard look he can muster, thunder rumbling, rain dripping from his teeth, determined to finally beat the hell out of Alabama and bite the head off the Snake, and Snake either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care and the only thing he does is invite good ol’ Gusty to the after party at the Bankhead. “We’ve got plenty of beer, y’all come on.” Gusty finally unclenches his jaw and just says “what room?”
Roy says he didn’t go to the Bankhead. Where’d you go, Roy? He hesitates. I press. He laughs.
“Um… I punched a couple of guys out at a place called The Cascade Plunge. I don’t know if you want to mention that.”
Um… I’m sorry, Roy—I have to. I’ll be tasteful. What happened?
“Well, I was talking to someone, and these guys kept going ‘Roll Tide! Auburn sucks!’ And I listened to it for a little while and they just kept on doing it. We were shell-shocked and beat up, and I’d probably had two or three beers and that was just enough. Your system is so clean coming off the field after a game like that, all the sweating. It doesn’t take much to get you jacked up.”
Was it still raining?
There’d been rain talk all week. How would it factor? Who would it help?
Shug was convinced it’d hold off; they’d pulled into Birmingham on Friday and it had actually been a little sunny, nice even. Besides, who’d ever heard of a wet Iron Bowl?
Friends, it wasn’t just wet. It wasn’t just windy. It was Biblical, disgusting, totally unprecedented. Birmingham News sports editor emeritus Zip Newman had been covering southern football for 50 years by that point, and nothing had come close. Maybe that third Saturday in October in the ’20s or ’30s or whenever it was that some people kept bringing up, but Zip was like no, not really.
I slide down the autograph line and introduce myself. If you just say the year, they may have to think for a second. But say the word “mud,” and the eyes widen, the lights dim, the reel starts playing and they’re watching themselves basically just wrestling in a cold bowl of crap, and I don’t even like to use that word.
Richard Cheek, an offensive tackle (who went on to look like this in the pros) puts his Sharpie down and holds his hands a foot apart. “It was this deep. It was over your shoes.”
Funnily enough, Cheek—”He’s an animal!” Roy laughs—was convinced the brief breather was actually a bad thing, a bad omen. And, OK, seeing what he saw, yeah, one might think that.
“I remember I came out at halftime the same time Bear did, and it was pouring down rain. And I looked over and and he went like this”–he raises his hands–“and it stopped raining. I swear to God. I swear to God, it stopped raining. I went ‘s***!’ It started back, but it stopped for about 10 minutes, no rain, and I’m going, you gotta be kiddin’ me!”
Of course, a dry field still would have been ridiculous. High school teams had completely chopped it up. The Gray Lady on Graymont was practically the Tide’s home turf, but even Bear was throwing shade at the grounds crew. “I expect these were the worst conditions I’ve ever seen a football game played in,” he told reporters after the game. “This late in the season, Legion Field is the worst field in America because of all the traffic it has on it.”
Birmingham’s Park Board made things worse by sprinkling straw everywhere and hosing it down with green paint so everyone could try to pretend it was still grass. They threw a tarp on it and crossed their fingers, but by game time it didn’t matter. Kickoff was at 1:30. It started raining at 1:15. Sheets of the stuff. And there was the wind — 20 mph gusts, 40 mph gusts, stronger. It was cold. It was nasty. It was almost hard to tell the teams apart. First the uniforms turned green. Then the rain washed that away and they were all just brown. The players sat in their capes and prayed for anything resembling warmth.
The fans huddled together and committed their soaked spirits to the Lord. Tornadoes tap danced across Dixie. Two people died near Mobile. The entire state was hunkered down save for 71,000 nuts riding it out under a canopy of useless umbrellas inside a 100-yard swamp in Birmingham. It was something.
Auburn went into the game confident. Like, really confident. Almost strangely confident. “We are undaunted by Alabama,” Shug told reporters early in the week. “We think we can beat them.”
So far they were the surprise of the SEC, so why not? The cover of the media guide showed Aubie dodging six bowling balls representing the six bowl teams Auburn had on the ‘67 schedule. The copy next to the illustration reads: “When you add 1966 ACC Champion Clemons and Kentucky (which beat the Tigers last year), it’s like Coach Shug Jordan says: ‘We face the biggest challenge since my first year at Auburn.’”
People said they’d be bad. Like, 3-7 bad. All things considered, the season wound up pretty solid.
Bama, meanwhile, was a mystery. They were 7-1-1. That was technically the same record they’d brought into the ‘65 Iron Bowl before somehow going on to repeat as national champs. In August, Bear had insisted his ‘67 squad–or at least his defense–might be his best ever. He was wrong. They’d look good, then not so good, then good again. The Tide started the season ranked No. 2, but tied the opener with Florida State. That snapped a 17 game win streak. A month later, they lost to Tennessee for the first time in seven years. That snapped a 25 game undefeated streak. Of course, Kenny Stabler, reinstated party boy, was having a great senior year. He finished the regular season with 1,327 total yards. But hell’s bells, guess who was having an even better season? Auburn quarterback Loran Carter, who finished with 1,373 total yards, an SEC best. He even topped Stabler in the air, and against what Shug—he was just coming out with it—insisted was stiffer competition.
“We have played stronger, rougher and more proficient teams than Alabama,” The Man said.
Common opponents? Advantage Auburn. Both teams had lost to the Vols, and by nearly the same margin, but it was the wins that made you smile. Auburn beat Clemson by three touchdowns; two weeks later, Bama squeaked by with a field goal. Bama beat Mississippi State 13-0 in Denny Stadium. A week later, Auburn beat the Bulldogs 36-0 in Cliff Hare.
Shug didn’t care that Bama had shut out South Carolina 17-0 in their last game, while Auburn was coming off a 17-0 loss to Georgia. He was convinced Georgia was the strongest team in the conference, even stronger than Tennessee.
And he straight up predicted a win.
“Before the season we were picked to be 3-6 at this time, but after Saturday’s game we will be 7-3.”
Shug had taken the missus to Ireland that summer and kissed the Blarney Stone not once, but four times, and even hugged it a little, and there was just a feeling.
Auburn hadn’t beaten Bama since Jimmy Sidle helped upset the No. 6 Tide 10-8 in 1963. They’d lost by seven in ‘64. Since then—don’t tell anyone—they hadn’t even scored a touchdown. The ‘67 seniors–don’t tell anyone, Roy couldn’t even believe it himself–had never even crossed Bama’s goal line, and that’s including the freshmen game.
Bucky Ayers, defensive back, doesn’t like talking about it.
“They beat us all four years. It was brutal.”
This was going to be the year, though. This was it. The streak was as good as over. They had watched the film and tested the fleece and Bama, by God, was beatable.
“The big thing for us,” Shug said, “ is stopping Stabler on the quarterback keeper.”
Tennessee had done it. Auburn thought they could, too.
“Auburn,” the Plainsman wrote, “with two fine tackles in Charlie Collins and Roy Tatum, and a sharp set of deep backs led by safety Buddy McClinton, is capable of the same type of play.”
Stop Stabler. Win the game.
I’m too worn out to break the whole thing down, but it started out great. It looked good. It was almost like the mud was Auburn’s 12th Man. Bama quickly realized it was simply not going to happen in the air. Ma Nature and Buddy McClinton had neutralized the deep bomb threat from All-American Dennis Homan. The best weapon Bama had, and Bryant admitted as much, was their punter. You lose count of how many times they punted on 3rd down just to keep the Tigers at bay. Because Auburn was somehow actually moving it. Sure, they punted a lot, too, and occasionally on 3rd down themselves. It was field position football, absolutely, but the point is that Auburn was winning it, on the ground, but mostly in the air. Bama got four 1st downs—four; Auburn had 13. Loran Carter was lighting it up, at least lighting it up as much you could light it up in a monsoon. He finished with 117 yards passing; Stabler had 12. He lobbed six to the great Tim Christian, two to the great Freddie Hyatt, one to running back Richard Plagge. He and Hyatt, the original No. 88, finished the game and the season as the most prolific passing combo in Auburn history; the record didn’t last too long, but still.
Carter’s 10 completions broke Travis Tidwell’s single season record. Hyatt came into the game needing two catches to break his own record (33) for Auburn receptions in a season. That’s what he got.
Auburn was punting better. They were returning punts better. They had fewer penalties. Fewer fumbles. It was still 0-0 when they changed uniforms at halftime (as if that would really help), but they were winning the game. On the field, they were winning. They just had to get on the scoreboard. Why couldn’t they get on the scoreboard?
John Riley—”Rat,” for some wacky reason—didn’t make it. I tracked him down in Hawaii, about to give one of his speeches. There’d been a mix-up. He hadn’t gotten the invitation. But they wanted Rat Riley there bad. He’s a great guy. One of those great Auburn walk-on kicker turned motivational speaker types. Salt of the earth. The kind of guy who says “good gracious.”
Rat isn’t being critical. It’s not in his nature. He’s just curious. Because it was curious. He pretty much stood at attention beside Shug the whole game waiting for active duty and he just didn’t see much of it. He looked at him, and it was like Conservative Shug had turned Riverboat Gambler. You lose count of how many times Bama punted on 3rd down, yes, but you also almost lose count of how many times Auburn went for it on 4th down, not out of desperation—out of starvation, out of vengeance. Shug was loaded for bear, LOL. But seriously, he was. To a fault? Maybe. But you gotta understand… no touchdowns in what was about to be three years? The Man wanted it bad. If Auburn was fourth and goal, war damn the torpedos.
“Good gracious, what a memorable game,” Rat says. “In a storm, in the mud…good gracious. We felt like we could win, Jeremy. Of course you always feel like you could beat anybody, but that day we really did. The way we moved the ball and stopped them. We were stopping them every time. But I guess we needed a touchdown instead of a field goal.”
But what about three field goals? Or four?
Maybe it was because he had missed one–it went wide, really wide–but there were, in Rat’s mind, at least four opportunities to get easy points through the uprights and Shug said no, no, no, no…
“I’m not being critical. We might have missed all four. But we got inside Bama’s 10-yard line four times and went for it every time.”
Again, punching it in for an actual, real-life football touchdown didn’t seem like some desperate pipedream. It’s just that the defense Bryant had bragged on early in the season would finally show up on fourth downs.
Bama held. And they held. And they held again.
And then they held again, if you know what I mean. (We’re almost there.)
Rat finally got another chance, from the 21, and delivered. I read somewhere that Bama fans, some of them, actually began to leave. It was the third quarter and the Tide still hadn’t even crossed midfield! Combine offensive ineptitude with man’s desire to be dry, and that’ll apparently even happen down just three points in the third quarter in an Iron Bowl. A series or two later, Riley lined up again. I’ve decided to let the Montgomery Advertiser take it from there.
By this time the rain was so bad that accurate snaps were virtually impossible. The first snap rolled back to holder Buddy McClinton, kneeling at the 29, and went right on by kicker Riley. McClinton retrieved the ball but was belted down back at the 38 as he looked for someone to throw a pass to.
McClinton gave the Tigers another golden chance minutes later when he intercepted a Stabler pass and ran a 22 yards to the Tide 41. Alabama helped turn this into a threat by jumping offsides on a fourth down, producing an Auburn first down at the 27. Carter, fumbling the snap on almost every play by now, almost turned one of the botched plays into a gem as he picked it up and ran 12 yards to the 14, only to have it called back by a procedure penalty. The net result was that Auburn wound up back at the 31. Lunceford came into kick, got the bad snap, and turned the tide to the Tide.
It happened three plays later.
Rat sighs, half a century later, in Hawaii.
“It was one of those games, Jeremy, that after it was over, to say it was a let down would certainly be an honest comment. Anger? No, just a real disappointment. We knew, everybody knew, that we could have won that ballgame, and should have. Nothing against Alabama, but we should have won it. That’s the main thing I remember–just the deep disappointment when you know you can do something, and you don’t. When you’re completely outgunned and you say ‘we just had an old-fashioned butt-whipping today’—that’s one thing. But the disappointment of thinking back on that game… that’s one that just…”
According to practice reports, the Bear had really been emphasizing protecting the quarterback all week, and boy, Dennis Dixon really took it to heart.
Dixon was a junior college transfer tight end from California. It was his first year at Bama. Despite altering the course of Iron Bowl history, there’s not a lot of stuff about him. Turns out he was a great guy. But he wasn’t exactly a great player or anything, Gusty Yearout was.
Gutsy Gusty–All-SEC Ball-Hawk, the Tigers’ first two-year team captain, undisputed star of an underrated Auburn team
Roy’s not saying the guy did it on purpose. But hey—maybe. I mean, it’s football. Maybe you plan something like that, you roll the dice. If it works, it works and maybe you get a touchdown and win the game. The other side may freak out if they see it, but if the refs don’t see it, or at least don’t call it, then Roll Tide. If it doesn’t work, you punt and live for another day of downs. And, well, OK, that’s what Roy thinks probably happened. First, because of the way it looked, but there was also just something in their faces.
“Let me interrupt you real quick. There was a show on ESPN I saw when Stabler was still alive. It was Stabler and about three or four other guys from Alabama, I think one was named Mike Hall, and the interviewer asked him about it. He said ‘we keep hearing about this, and I just want to ask you guys since you were in the game — did somebody really go down and tackle Gusty Yearout?’ And they just kind of looked at one another and grinned and said ‘well, we won the game.’ That’s all they said. And I thought, you low-rate gutless slug. You ain’t got the guts to say it.”
Now understand that Roy is laughing when he’s saying that last bit, and he’s not cussing because he’s not that guy any more and it’s… it’s… just a game… and Roy is over it, as much as you can be over something that made grown men sob and punch people out at the Cascade Plunge.
But yes, for the record, No. 84 Dennis Dixon tackled No. 69 Gusty yearout.
Third down. Stabler takes the ball and rolls right, away from Roy. After the game he’ll claim he planned on keeping it no matter what, come hell or high water or higher water or Gusty Yearout. And Gusty Yearout is coming, and not for a beer. He has an All-Conference bead on him, he has the Snake in his All-Conference sights. He’s about to snuff it out before it starts and force yet another sloppy punt. Then he’s in the slop.
It’s like that jungle scene in “The Swiss Family Robinson,” where Fritz and Ernst ambush that big bald pirate, only Dennis Dixon doesn’t even try to disguise it. He’s in full view of two officials, and he just coils around Gusty’s legs like a python, locks onto his left foot and hangs on. Gusty lunges for freedom, leg fully extended, hip about to dislocate, arms maybe a yard from Stabler.
Stabler keeps going and instead of pitching it out keeps it and shoots inside. Dennis Homan, his roomie, finally gets in on the action. He lays a perfect block on Buddy McClinton. That seals it. Snake slithers down the Bama sideline in slow motion with really just one man to beat, side back Jimmy Carter. He beats him. He beats everybody.
Roy, who’d just been in on the two previous stops, chased him all the way from the other side of the play and into the end zone. He crossed the goal line and hung his head.
Sophomore defensive end Dick Ingwersen watched from the sideline.
“It was never called. That just sticks in your mind. That was something we had a hard time with because [Gusty] was in the position to make the tackle when he got held. I just remember it being a dreary, rainy, cold day and that people had a hard time moving the ball. And I remember the hold.”
What hold? Rat doesn’t remember the hold. He remembers the tackle.
“They scored and Gusty came off the field beside himself,” he says. “I was always by Coach Jordan and had to be ready to go in. Gusty came off the field and was like ‘they just tackled me! The ref was right there! I got tackled! I got tackled!’ It was an obvious thing. It wasn’t like, ‘well, maybe.’ It was very, very obvious and Gusty kind of let everybody know it.”
Some remember the sense of injustice dawning only the next day, after seeing the film on the review shows. Others are like, no, we knew we were robbed the moment we were robbed. Roy remembers it that way. Ditto Richard “The Animal” Cheek.
“At the time it happened, we were just ranting and raving, and the official was standing no closer than me to you, and he wrapped his arms around him and took him to the ground,” he says. “If that isn’t a tackle, I don’t know what is. We were irate. We were supposed to win that ballgame. We had it won.”
Afterwards, there was a punt or two. Auburn was driving. Carter threw an interception. Stabler ran out the clock. Bama 7, Auburn 3. The better team lost. It was still raining.
“We had them beat,” Bucky said. “They hadn’t gained any yardage at all. They held him. It should have been a penalty. But the damn flag would have been in the mud. They never would have seen it.”
What’d you do after the game, Bucky?
“Cried. Just sat and cried. Instead of being ‘It’s great to be an Auburn Tiger,’ we just cried. It was sad.”
“Yeah, the dressing room was a real mess,” Roy says. “Throwing headgears and crying and stuff. It was just once again, once again you’re nailed up to the wall.”
In 1967, Bear Bryant had just been robbed of what would have been his third national championship in a row—I’ll give him that—and newspapers across the country regularly described him as a deity. Maybe he had made it stop raining. He just had that air about him. It was easy copy.
Stickers depicted him as Christ Jesus along with the words “I Believe.” You’d be blown away by how many stories on Alabama football from 1967 alone include the words “walk on water.” So if Shug had a notion that his arch rival, say, held subconscious sway over SEC officials, you could understand why, right? If he thought that ol’ Bear was perhaps granted a bit more leeway in, say, certain circumstances, that would make sense, right?
You can hear it in Gary Sanders’ voice when they called back what should have been Auburn’s winning touchdown in the 1974 Iron Bowl: When you’re playing Alabama, “a fair shake is all you need,” Sanders said. “That isn’t what you always get.”
“Here comes Coach Bryant out on the field—what’s he want now?”
“There goes a late hit, a man piling on top for Alabama… no flag of course.”
“Gusty, you were involved in one that was talked about for a long time.”
Yes, that would be Gusty Yearout. Gusty was Sanders’ color man. Gusty kept quiet.
Shug stopped being quiet on Sunday, Dec. 3, 1967.
He drove down to Montgomery, shook hands with Cartoon Carl, looked into the WSFA cameras and spoke his mind. The southern gentleman thing had its place, but this was ridiculous. They rolled the clip.
“I wonder if No. 84 thought he was on defense because he made one of the finest tackles on Yearout I’ve ever seen.”
Yikes. Whoa. What? Hold up. Hang on. Did Shug—SHUG—actually say that? Yes, he said that. Auburn people loved it. The Birmingham News didn’t.
“Best Shug Hadn’t Said It” was the Monday headline. Sports editor Benny Marshall took Shug to task for publicly airing his nothing-to-gain grievances to a state still thrilling to the sights and sounds of Stabler’s “sensational sortie” through the magical mud. Besides, the film Marshall had managed to examine didn’t show anything conclusive as to what exactly happened to “Auburn’s fine captain.” Yes, Dixon did appear to be across the back of Yearout’s legs as he went down, Marshall wrote, but you know…
Marshall reached out to Bryant for comment. He couldn’t reach him, he was up in New York City. But Marshall was sure the only comment would have been “no comment.” Bear wouldn’t have deigned to weigh in on something so silly. Classic high road. Classic Bear. Pass the Coke. Let the Auburn folks think what they want.
When Shug’s sass hit the AP wire a few days later, Bear changed his tune.
Shug didn’t care what the Birmingham News thought. He didn’t care what Bryant thought. He didn’t care what the Selma Quarterback Club would think. It was Tuesday night. He talked about the game, of course. And someone asked about the “prettiest tackle,” of course.
Auburn coach Ralph Jordan says he is tired of ‘being good ole Shug’ and is “going to stand up for my team and Auburn no matter what the consequences.”
The Tiger coach, speaking to the Selma quarterback Club Tuesday night, continued: “I’m going to say it as I’ve seen it, and I’m going to have thought about it fully before I say it.”
His remarks came in reference to an earlier statement that Gusty Yearout was illegally blocked by Alabama end Dennis Dixon on quarterback Kenny Stabler’s 47-yard touchdown run in the Tide’s 7-3 football victory.
Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant said he did not see the play described by Jordan, adding “I saw Dennis Homan make a great block, but otherwise I haven’t looked at the blocking assignments.
“‘Course if there was any grabbin’ or holdin’,” Bryant said, “it should have been called, but I wasn’t officiating.”
Bear said the only thing he saw was a team that wouldn’t quit,. He saw the better team just biding its time for the big play. Oh, maybe if he studied the game film he could speak about it more intelligently. But a tackle? No, sir. All he saw, he said four days after the game, was a good block by Dennis Homan, not a tackle by Dennis Dixon.
So why was he praising Dennis Dixon’s “blocking at the point of attack… that allowed Stabler to score” right after the game, before he realized there’d be a controversy?
He saw it.
Everybody’s got a story about it. Or two. Or three. Roy’s big one, his go-to, isn’t the Saturday night punch out at the Cascade Plunge. It’s the Sunday morning elevator ride.
Auburn was staying at the Parliament House. Roy bolted after the fight, somehow made it back, and crashed. He woke up in time for breakfast. He threw on his travel clothes: Navy blazer with an Auburn crest, white shirt, orange and blue striped tie, gray slacks. There was a final team meeting before loading the buses. The coaches were going to thank him and all the other seniors for their leadership and their hard work, and congratulate them on overcoming all the obstacles and pathetic expectations, and tell them that never beating Bama, even as freshmen, wasn’t the end of the world. Hey, losing a game you should have won to your arch rival in the most miserable, hellish conditions you’ve ever played in, in your last game ever? You’ll get it over it, son…
The meeting was on the third floor. He was too tired to take the stairs. He walked across the lobby and hit the button. He walked in. The door closed, then it opened back up.
He was groggy. Things were hazy. Was he dreaming? Hallucinating? Or was he really alone in an elevator with Bear Bryant?
“The door opens and in comes Coach Bryant. I thought, wait a minute, our team is staying here—why are you here? He must have been meeting someone.”
It was surreal.
Roy had met him before. Alabama had recruited him, offered him a scholarship. Bryant saw the crest and looked him in the eye.
“I remember he said ‘y’all had a tough day, son, but y’all had a heck of a ball club.’ He said ‘you’ll play us again next year.’ I told him, ‘no sir, I’m a senior, that was my last game.’”
“Oh,” Bryant said.
The door closed. The elevator started moving.
“Then he said this. He said ‘I’m not sure the best team won,'” Roy says. “That’s what he said.”
The elevator stopped. The door opened.
“I said, ‘well, you may be right, Coach.’”
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