If there ever was a guy who lived and breathed Alabama football, it was my brother-in-law, Dickson DeWitt. He passed away at home yesterday and the Crimson Tide lost one of their loyal fans. Nick Saban won’t know about him. But I can imagine that Bear Bryant is shaking his hand right now, which, for Alabama fans everywhere, is just about how most folk would define heaven.
Like me, Dickson was a child of the 50s and 60s. He grew up in a modest neighborhood. A small red-brick ranch house with a carport. The spare key to the kitchen door kept in the drawer of a cabinet right next to the steps. A formal living room up front that was hardly ever used. Tall wing-back chairs. Sofa with a plastic cover. Drapes that kissed the floor beneath the wide picture window.
My wife remembered Dickson as a chubby kid whom everybody wanted on their backyard football team. You know how it was. Long summer evenings. A pack of kids trolling from house to house looking for something to do. Somebody brings out a football and they choose up sides. Give the big kid the ball and nobody could bring him down.
Their favorite game was Kick the Can. You can’t buy this game at the store. The rules may vary, depending on the regional guidelines that govern the SEC conference play. All you need is one VanCamps Pork and Beans can. Empty, of course. And preferably rinsed out. In a pinch, a Coke can will do, but you can’t get the distance out of a Coke can like you can with a bean can.
And the game gets better at night. Pick two poles with streetlights on them. Divide up in two teams. And kick the can back and forth between the poles until Mama hollers from the kitchen door and says it’s time to come in. I’m told that Dickson was a force to be reckoned with when it came to launching a can down the street like a missile shot from a Naval destroyer.
Dickson was raised on a steady diet of Roll Tide football. What Alabama kid wasn’t back then? He played football for Morgan Academy when he was in high school. He sat in front of the TV on Saturdays watching some kid from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, who played for Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant. This skinny kid named Joe wore number 12 on his crimson jersey. Bear said one time, “Recruiting Joe Namath was the best decision of my coaching career.”
Alabama football was so ingrained in Dickson’s soul that he named his second son, Parker Bryant, in honor of the Bear himself. The walls in his den were hung with photos of Bear, a picture of Denny Stadium, maybe a couple of the National Championship teams. A football or two. I’m not sure if they were signed or not.
On any given Saturday in the fall, you could count on one thing. The Tide was on the TV in his den. I called him one time.
“What’cha doing?” I was just pushing his buttons.
“What’cha think I’m doing?”
“I’m guessing it has something to do with football.”
“I’m watching the Tide beat the pants off Mississippi State. Roll Tide.”
Almost every goodbye with Dickson ended with “Roll Tide.” If we were leaving after visiting for Christmas, he’d shake my hand and say, “Roll Tide.” If they came to our house for Thanksgiving, when it came time to leave, he’d walk down the porch steps waving over his shoulder without looking back, “Roll Tide.” And sometimes, when you walked in the door, it was a greeting, “Roll Tide.”
Dickson was blue collar from the depths of his soul. Since high school, he worked for the paper mill along the river just outside of Selma. He was a dozier and crane operator most of his long career. Steel toed boots and hard hat kind of guy. Once in a while, the sulfur stink from the mill would cover Selma like a blanket. Most folks complained about the odor. Not Dickson. “Smells like money to me,” he’d say.
When he married Susan, my wife’s sister, it was a second chance for the both of them. Beth always said that Dickson had his eye on Susan, even back in high school. But he was shy and chubby, and they just never got together until later in life. He loved Susan. No one ever doubted that. They tried for years to have kids, and when the twins finally came along, they were the happiest I’d ever seen them.
You would think that the fairy tale of his life had finally come home to him. But the cards just didn’t play out that way. He lost Susan in 2003. Some years later, late one night, he swerved off the road in his truck and tried to take out a tree the size of a tugboat. Crushed pelvis. Broken leg bones. Twisted foot. He went back to work but never got over the hobble in his gait. He lived with pain every day.
But here’s the thing. I never knew him to be down on life. Everything was always good with Dickson. He’d call to check on us. We’d stop in to visit when we were in Selma. Somehow, his daughter Katie got hooked on Giraffes, and from time to time he’d make the three-hour trip over to the Wild Animal Safari right here in Pine Mountain, just so she could see the Giraffes. His kids, from both marriages, were his world and the pride of his heart.
Dickson eventually moved back to the house in which he had grown up. As far as I know, he never lived anywhere but Selma. He retired from the paper mill a few years ago due to health reasons. Nancy, his first wife would check in on him. Which says something about the kind of man he was. He never burned any bridges. He held no grudges. He was just a likeable guy with a bearded smile.
I hate this for Katie most of all. Not that others won’t feel the loss, but Katie is like a daughter to me. She’s close to my youngest and I love that, as cousins, they are also great friends. She’s just so young to be without both her mom and dad. She might not be my blood kin, but she might as well be.
I’ll be headed to Selma for his funeral sometime in the next few days. Katie called me today and asked if I would speak for the family at the graveside. I am honored to do that. Part of why I am telling you this story is me searching for whatever it is that I might say in his memory.
I can see myself now, standing beneath the massive Live Oaks. Spanish moss hanging like tinsel on a Christmas tree. The DeWitt family plot surrounded by those of us who knew and loved the man. I’ll read from the Book. I’ll tell some of his story. And when I turn to walk back to the car, I’ll offer one last salutation.