Flashback to nearly 40 years ago — 39 to be exact — and Paul Bryant was the biggest Bear in the college football woods.
Gary Patterson was a seventh-grade football player in rural Kansas.
Doug English was a college football star at the University of Texas.
And the Moritz Cadillac-Oldsmobile dealership had recently opened on a little two-lane road, with a bar ditch on each side, known as Collins Street in north Arlington.
Nearly 40 years ago — 39 to be exact — Kent Waldrep, all of 19 years old, heard his number called on an October afternoon in Birmingham, Ala.
“Red right 28,” said the quarterback.
Waldrep wanted the ball. He knew then he was going to get it, even though his TCU Horned Frogs were already being blown out by Bryant’s powerful Crimson Tide. But Waldrep wanted the ball.
To this day, he remembers the defense was not tricked. A swarm of tacklers met him in front of the ’Bama bench.
Waldrep’s next memory was waking up in a Birmingham hospital — waking up at all was considered somewhat of a miracle — and the first face he saw, the first voice he heard at his bedside, was, as Kent described it, “Like talking to God for a young football player.”
Bear Byrant was there. In a way, Bear never left Waldrep’s side. Bear said he never would. He didn’t. Even 30 years after his death, Bear remains by Waldrep’s side.
Waldrep would never walk again, paralyzed at the time from the shoulders down after that tackle.
But Kent, now 59, stands tall in life, having raised tens of millions of dollars around the world for paralysis research, being a prime force in helping pass the Americans with Disabilities Act and serving as grant committee chairman of the College Football Assistance Fund, providing financial aid to football players who suffer serious injuries.
Both his and wife Lynn’s sons, Trey and Charley, are recent University of Alabama graduates, going to school on the Bear Bryant Scholarship Fund, the only children of non-’Bama players ever honored. Bear, from the grave, made sure that happened.
Charley was even a Texas high school football star in Celina, a running back like dad. After Kent “sweated” through all of Charley’s schoolboy games, he was relieved when Charley decided not to walk on for football at Alabama, but instead played baseball four years for the Crimson Tide.
Going back to the tragedy in Birmingham, Waldrep almost died in the hospital from pneumonia. Fifteen months ago, on his 58th birthday, a stroke almost killed him, and the recovery process from that was long and hard, costing him the use of his arms he had worked so hard in rehab to partially regain.
But beyond the medical complications involved with the stroke, Waldrep also lost his wheels.
His trusty, specially equipped van allowed him freedom to tool down the road as the driver. Without his arms, there was no more driving. And no one else could drive the van. It was useless.
A new one, with special equipment needed for Waldrep to be a passenger, would cost, all things considered, in the vicinity of $60,000, even with United Access of Garland willing to make discounts because of respect for Waldrep.
Massive medical bills continued to pile up high as Waldrep was homebound for nearly 15 months. The cost for the van was prohibitive to the family.
“You need friends and family,” Waldrep said Friday. “Thank God for friends and family.”
Kent’s first trip in his new van last week was “going out for Tex-Mex. I needed Tex-Mex,” he said.
Friends came to the rescue for the Tex-Mex trip. Including friends he didn’t know he had.
Moritz, now with vast dealerships across Tarrant County, donated the van. John Moritz, the company president, politely declined an offer by this newspaper to appear in a picture with Kent.
A company spokesman said, “We didn’t do it for publicity; we did it because of the situation and Mr. Waldrep, being a former TCU football player who has helped so many others over the years in a similar situation.”
No one in the Moritz dealership family has ever met Waldrep.
Patterson, the TCU football coach, and his wife, Kelsey, made a financial donation that closed out the final bill for the van conversion. Patterson also has never met Waldrep.
“Once a Frog, always a Frog. Tell Kent that,” he said.
English’s football career at Texas coincides with Waldrep’s at TCU. But the College Football Hall of Fame member, and NFL standout for a decade with the Detroit Lions, didn’t meet Waldrep until they were both being honored years ago as “Outstanding Young Texans.”
“Kent has been an inspiration for me ever since,” said English, now a successful businessman in Austin. Without English’s help, the new van wouldn’t have happened.
Jerry Kane of Corpus Christi, Ray Wilkerson of Austin, the United Access people in Garland and many others are on a long list of those who made the wheels happen for Waldrep.
“It’s really heartwarming,” said Waldrep. “The friends, and then the people I didn’t even know doing all this. The Moritz people. Coach Patterson. Fort Worth has always been a second home for me. Tell Fort Worth I said thanks.”
Forty years later, 39 to be exact, Kent Waldrep got his number called again. This time he rode with it all the way to a Tex-Mex joint.