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Bobby Humphrey: Giving Hope That Dreams Do Come True

September 7, 2012
By John Battle of Sports and Family Magazine




Bobby Humphrey: Giving Hope that Dreams Do Come True


The epitaph could have read: Bobby Humphrey - The life that almost wasn’t.

During the fall in 1979 and 1980, while in the seventh and eighth grade, respectively,  at Graymont Elementary, Birmingham, AL, at age thirteen and fourteen, Bobby Humphrey worked the concessions at Legion Field.

“I originally started parking cars,” he recalls, “then when I got to the eighth grade, I started selling cokes in the upper stands at Legion Field.  It was a good opportunity to make some money.  That’s what we liked about Alabama and Legion Field. When Alabama came to town, there was opportunity for us youngsters to generate some revenue.  It was an economic impact.  And the one thing you wanted Alabama to do was win - greater the tips when Alabama was winning, everybody was happy.”

But it almost didn’t happen.

Upon his impressive high school football career at Glenn, several colleges recruited Bobby to include Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M, and Clemson. But time was limited for visits as he was playing basketball, so he narrowed his focus to staying in state, which meant schools of choice were either Auburn or Alabama.

But it almost didn’t happen.

Most of Glenn students were Alabama fans, though some of Bobby’s closest friends were aligned with
Auburn. Feeling the peer pressure about which one to choose, he narrowed it down to Alabama for one simple reason: he felt that opportunities to play were better than at Auburn who had a host of backs. Though if the truth be known, Alabama had stolen his heart years before while working games at Legion Field.

The only thing Bobby knew about Alabama was that they were on TV and they won national championships.  As none of his family ever attended Alabama, there was no tradition in that manner. 

And there was another reason.

“They played at Legion Field, right in my backyard,“ he relates. “The backyard pick-up game just got more sophisticated. ”

But it almost didn’t happen.

“You appreciate things you had better when you no longer have them,” he says. “I appreciate the fact that I had the opportunity to play at the University of Alabama, and being raised across the street of Legion Field. As a young kid I walked across that street to Legion Field on a number of occasions on my way to school.  *I broke the all-time leading rushing record at that field playing against Mississippi State. And [after the Alabama games] from Legion Field, I would walk right out of those gates, walk across the street and go see my friends who would say, ‘Man, you made it,’ and you celebrate with them and give them some hope that dreams do come true.”

At Alabama, Bobby split his playing time under coach’s Ray Perkins and Bill Curry.

But it almost didn’t happen.

In the spring of 1988, in his junior year at Alabama, Bobby broke his foot.  He underwent a bone graft, but in the second game against Vanderbilt, his senior year, he broke it again and was out for the season.  Sidelined, Bobby was the nation’s leading rusher until Barry Sanders finally rushed for more total yards.  The pre-season polls had Bobby as the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

Sanders won.

But that almost didn’t happen, either.

Bobby was the first round draft pick, in the supplemental draft – due to rehabilitation time after breaking his foot - in 1989 to the Denver Broncos.  His rookie year he rushed for over 1,000 yards and was selected for the prestigious Rookie of the Year award.  In his second year he rushed again for over 1,000 yards and was selected for the Pro Bowl.

That too, almost didn’t happen.

Bobby then coached six years for the **Birmingham Steeldogs, an Arena Football 2 franchise.

Relating on his coaching experience, he explains, “One thing Perk (Coach Ray Perkins) used to say, and I use it all the time: ‘Fatigue make cowards of us all.’ He used to always make that statement and I never knew what he meant until I started coaching.  Your performance is based upon the energy you can put into a particular play.  And you have to get your body conditioned to play hard every play.  And if you’re tired, it makes no difference how hard you want to go because you can’t go because you are tired.  So basically, you are a coward by the virtue of being fatigued.  And you get fatigued because you haven’t worked hard to get your body in shape.”

Continuing, he says, “My players, while I was coaching used to think, ‘Man, coach Hump, he just likes to blow his whistle.’” 

“While in a ballgame,” he explains, “you could clearly see that the other team was tired and we weren’t.  Even the coach on the opposing team came to me and said, ‘Man, your guys are in really good condition.’  My players would come to me in the fourth quarter and say, ‘Coach, they’re tired!  They’re tired!’  And they could clearly see how they were out performing them as they were fatigued in the fourth quarter. They realized their conditioning wasn’t for nothing.  And we dominated the game in the fourth quarter.  Coach [Bill] Curry felt that preparation was the key to success.  Knowing what you are going to do and knowing how you are going to react to what your opponent does. And then prepare for that.”

But “Coach” Bobby Humphrey almost didn’t happen, and this is why.

Bobby was raised by his mom in Elyton Village, across from Legion Field. His mom and dad were separated.  He did not have a good relationship with his father, who lived in Birmingham, though he would take them on church conventions and fishing, and at times watch him practice, but he was not consistent.  Not having a father figure, Bobby credits his mother to raising them with a positive influence.

“She did the best she could to raising three boys and a girl in the projects,” he relates. “We weren’t any problem children, we didn’t get into trouble, we didn’t make any bad decisions. But we [the brothers] did not know the life skills of how a man should treat a wife and certain other things that men need to model such as a simple thing like shaving - but we figured it out.”

Music filled his mother’s heart.  And to that end she saw to it that Bobby’s brothers learned to play musical instruments and participate in the school band.  Bobby was expected to follow her now set tradition.

His mother also laid down certain unbreakable rules and being home before dark was one of them.  It was her way of making them accountable and keeping them out of trouble.

Never playing football was another.  She was afraid they would get hurt.

To her delight, Bobby was in the band in the seventh grade – but another activity tugged at his heart.

Whether it was peer pressure, after all he did play pick-up football in the backyard of his buddies, or an inner calling that couldn’t be suppressed, or just “boys being boys” - no matter the reason - throwing caution to the wind, Bobby Humphrey was willing to sacrifice his very life by defying his mother’s rule – no organized football.

If he could have seen into the future, or just thought it through, he might have read his own epitaph: Bobby Humphrey: the life that almost wasn’t.

But what 13 year-old boy thinks about tomorrow.

In the eighth grade he reported for football duty. 

As the practices were after school, in September, he would change clothes afterwards, leave his equipment at the community center, and be home before dark.

His mother was unaware of his extracurricular activity.

The first Saturday game was three weeks later.  

Bobby was under the impression it was a day game, at his school, and he concluded he would be home before dark.  No harm, no foul.

Then the buses arrived.

Next he discovered their destination: Dolomite.

OK, he thought to himself.  Just a few miles away.  We’ll be back in plenty of time.

He then overheard one of his teammates say something to his parents that sent chills up his spine; what he thought to be a day game was actually a night kick-off game.

And Bobby Humphrey began to sweat and it wasn’t from the heat.

“I didn’t know anything about organized football,” he explains. “I had only played pick-up football in the backyard.  I didn’t know you had all this preparation and lead time before actual kick-off. But I learned it later; you know, pre-game meal is at 4PM and the game is three hours later.” 

But in eighth grade, Bobby Humphrey was clueless.

“We went to the ballgame and I started as defensive tackle,” he says. “Coach didn’t know anything about me but I was a pretty good defensive and offensive tackle in practice.  We kicked off about dark and obviously I was concerned about what was going to happen when I got home.  I obviously couldn’t get back on the bus and drive myself home; the coach, or anyone else didn’t know I was not supposed to be on the team.”

During the first half, he made a few sacks and just about all the tackles, running sideline to sideline, and a few good blocks on offense.

Then a couple of his teammates went to the coach and said, “Let Bobby run the ball because we’ve seen him run when we play football in the yard,” he relates.

“The first time I touched the ball I ran for an 80-yard touchdown,” Bobby says with a boyish grin.

Then the coach put him back for his first ever kick-off return.

It resulted in a touchdown. 

At the end of the game Bobby Humphrey had scored three touchdowns and was awarded with three trophies:  the MVP for offense, defense, and special teams. 

His coach had been given the game’s trophy.

But there was a problem.

It was now after dark and Bobby Humphrey is not home and no one from his family knows where Bobby Humphrey is and he hadn’t said anything to anybody who might be in a position to defend him.

Now Bobby may have been formulating his future epitaph: Bobby Humphrey: the life that almost wasn’t.

On the bus ride back, Bobby says, “I had not told anyone on the team that I am about to die within the next thirty minutes.  No one knows this.”

When he finally walked in the front door of his home, his mom had the leather strap in hand, ready to do business with her wayward son.

She read him the rules of the house, as a reminder, not that he needed one, and said “Boy, didn’t I tell you not to join that football team and you joined it anyway?” 

It was really more a statement than a question.

The news account may have read: Bobby Humphrey - Born 1966 – Taken from this life in 1979 at age 13 by his enraged mother.  Reason for his demise was that Bobby committed the two unpardonable sins set by his Mom – first, he broke curfew by about four hours, second, he played football.  Reportedly, his mother gave Bobby a welcome home party with a leather strap.

Slowly, hidden behind his back, Bobby showed her what he had won, the three trophies.

Ingrained in his memory, Bobby says, “She saw the glow in my eyes, and she did not spank me and she gave me permission to play football.”

He only played in two more games that season - he didn’t make the weight limit for the remainder.

Here’s to Mrs. Humphrey, and all mothers, who balance discipline with grace.

Your sons say, “Blessed are you for sparing our lives.”


 Today, Bobby is s sales representative for Ready Mix USA .  During the summer he coaches kids’ ball teams and is the youth director at his church, Birmingham’s Faith Apostolic Church. He is a frequent speaker to kids at churches, schools, community centers and sports gatherings, and he serves on the First Priority board, a Christian outreach organization for schools. He also devotes his time to Big Brothers/Big Sisters, sickle cell fundraising, and other charities.

 He and wife Barbara, a former track and field star at UAB, and his sweetheart since the 10th grade, have five children Brittley, Breona, Marlon, Maudrecus, and Marion.

 * At the end of that game Bobby was presented with the game ball from former Alabama running back Johnny Musso – the Italian Stallion.

 ** Bobby was The Birmingham Steeldogs’ first coach.  Incorporated in 2000 as one of the charter teams of the Arena Football League, they were the longest running of many professional football franchises in the city of Birmingham.  

photography by Fred Beeson

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