By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
It’s doubtful that any group wants Alabama to beat Notre Dame in the Jan. 7 BCS National Championship Game worse than the 1976 Crimson Tide football senior class.
They went 0-3 vs. the Fighting Irish, losing a trio of games by a combined six points. In 1973 and 1974, Alabama won its first 11 games of each season, only to be edged by Notre Dame 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl and 13-11 in the Orange Bowl.
Alabama was still awarded the 1973 UPI national championship, but even in ’76 when the Tide visited Notre Dame for a late November regular season game in South Bend, the Fighting Irish prevailed 21-18.
“Every one of those games were like the biggest events of my life,” Rev. Colenzo Hubbard says. “The two biggest names in college football. Every game decided by just one or two plays. When we walked on the field at South Bend, they looked like the biggest group of people I’d ever seen on life. They were so big it looked like the field tilted.”
Who’s Rev. Colenzo Hubbard?
Colenzo Hubbard wasn’t an All-American for the Crimson Tide. He didn’t even earn All-SEC honors. He was merely a small-town black kid raised in poverty and love in a small Birmingham suburb, he was a part-time starter at noseguard from 1973 to 1976.
But Colenzo Hubbard very much represents the fabric of the type of players recruited by legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant. Hungry, team-oriented players with character, thankful for the opportunity to play college football, eager to get an education and curious to learn from the master on how not just to win games, but to also prepare for life.
If you came across Colenzo Hubbard sitting in his office in Memphis, you would never know he played football for the Bear at Alabama, unless he shows you the ’73 national championship ring he wears daily.
Twenty-one years ago, after Colenzo was ordained a Deacon in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Alabama, and became the Assistant to the Rector of the Christ Episcopal Church in Fairfield, Ala., he was called to Memphis where he’s the executive director of Emmanuel Episcopal Center.
The center sits in the Cleaborn Homes public housing development near Danny Thomas and Mississippi Boulevards in one of Memphis’ most impoverished neighborhoods. His ministry, reaching children as young as age five, is centered on educational and sports program designed to develop minds and bodies of kids who were once like Colenzo.
Every day is a new challenge, every day can be a fight. But Colenzo, 57, considers it a repayment of what the University of Alabama gave him.
“Alabama gave me an opportunity and the work I do every day repays the opportunity given to me,” Colenzo says.
It was an avenue to a better way of life that Colenzo never thought was possible, raised first in Brighton, Ala., and then in Mulga, both suburbs of Birmingham.
“It was still during the time of segregation,” Colenzo remembers. “You had white movie theatres. You had black movie theatres. You had white facilities. You had black facilities.
“You had white schools. You had black schools. So I never thought I’d have a chance to go to school at Alabama. It was extraordinary that Alabama was attracted to me. I never thought I was that good as a high school player.”
“I’d never even been on the Alabama campus until my junior year when I went with a high school teammate, Tyrone King, who was about to sign with Alabama, I remember walking on the campus just in awe, it was like being in Disneyland. I never dreamed it was possible for me to go there.
But as an athletic 6-foot, 225-pound nose guard at Minor High, Colenzo caught the attention of the Tide coaching staff. They brought him in for an official visit during his senior season in 1972 and told him he’d get a scholarship if he was academically qualified.
“That official visit to Alabama transformed my life,” Colenzo recalls. “I don’t know where my life would have gone if I hadn’t taken that visit. Because on that visit, I was told I was good enough to play for Alabama. Before that, though Tennessee and Auburn were also recruiting me. I really didn’t know how good I was.
“But when the Alabama coaches told me that and told me all that I saw could be mine if I got my grades, it changed me. I went home and began studying from the time I got off the bus from school until after midnight. By the time, I graduated I was an honor student and voted the outstanding student-athlete of our senior class.”
With an Alabama scholarship in hand, Colenzo began a maniacal workout regime that would drop him to 205 pounds by the time he reported to Tuscaloosa as a true freshman in the fall of 1973.
“I’d run twice 3 to 4 miles twice a day,” he says. “The first run would be at 12 noon in the hottest part of the day. The second run would be late in the afternoon at about 5 to 6 p.m.”
Colenzo also captained the winning North squad in the state of Alabama’s annual North-South high school all-star game played on the U of A campus in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Though Colenzo liked Tennessee coach Bill Battle, he says he signed with Alabama for two reasons.
The first was location, with Tuscaloosa just down the road from home. The second was the genuine feeling he received from the Alabama coaching staff.
“I felt they were honest with me,” Colenzo says. “They promised me three things – an opportunity to play on a national championship team, an opportunity to get a good education if I worked for it and an opportunity for lots of hard work.
“I got everything they promised. Our 1973 team won the UPI national championship. I graduated with a degree in social work. And I got plenty of hard work. In return, every time I walked off the field after a practice or a game, I made sure I had given every ounce of my God-given ability to the University of Alabama. I wasn’t an All-American, but I wanted to give Alabama my very best in return for what it gave me. I never cheated Alabama.”
Colenzo didn’t mind the sweat and strain. As one of five children from a two-parent home, he saw his father work three jobs – in a steel mill, as a Methodist minister and cutting lawns – to make ends meet.
“I’d be out with him cutting a lawn and I wondered why he was out there all day making it perfect,” Colenzo says. “He taught me any job worth doing should be done perfectly.”
Because of the tireless work of Colenzo’s father, they built a new house. But when the steel mill closed and Colenzo’s father lost his job, the Hubbards lost their house, their cars and. . .
“We lost everything,” Colenzo says. “We moved to Mulga and basically until high school. But not once did I see my father and mother point fingers at each other. We never came apart as a family. In fact, we drew closer. Though we didn’t have much, I enjoyed growing up in Mulga.”
The fact Colenzo viewed a horrific situation in such a positive life speaks of his character. It’s one of the reasons he was one of the first African-American athletes recruited by Alabama.
As expected, Alabama won plenty of games during Colenzo’s four seasons, going 42-6 overall, 25-2 in the SEC (including 20 straight league wins), a national title and three SEC championships.
Colenzo eventually became a part-time starter, splitting time at noseguard with roommate Gus White.
“We were the only people on the team who were roommates competing for the same position,” Colenzo says. “But that was an extraordinary life lesson. You can compete with someone, but you don’t have to hate them. To this day, we’re the best of friends.”
For most of his college career, Colenzo was a quiet sort who led by example. But in the last half of his senior season in 1976, he became more vocal, which probably surprised his teammates.
No doubt they were stunned at halftime of the ’76 Mississippi State game in Tuscaloosa where Alabama had won 37 straight times dating back to 1963. Remember – those were the days when ’Bama played the majority of its games in Legion Field.
“We were losing to Mississippi State 17-0 at the half and I knew we hadn’t lost at home in almost 15 years,” Colenzo says. “Coach Bryant is giving his halftime talk when I stand up and interrupt him. I must have had a brief moment of insanity. There was total silence when I said, `Coach, can I say something?’ He said, `Yes, Colenzo, you can.’
“Now, I didn’t start that game. But I said to the team, `We haven’t lost here in 15 years, I’m a senior and we’re down. But if it depends on me on whether or not we’ll win the game, the guy I’ll play against will not beat me in the second half. We can win this game.’ ”
Five minutes into the second half with Mississippi State’s offense on the field, the Bear screamed “Where’s Colenzo Hubbard?” Colenzo made his way through the sideline crowd and jogged to the defensive huddle.
“There were thousands of people in that stadium, but it was like we were the only two people in it when Coach Bryant called my name,” Colenzo recalls. “I trotted on the field thinking `I’ve got to prove what I said.’ ”
Which Colenzo did in full with 10 tackles, a fumble recovery, two interceptions and a sack. Alabama scored 34 straight points for a 34-17 victory, and after the game the Bear credited Colenzo for winning the game.
Then, there was the word of Ken Donahue, Colenzo’s position coach.
“He told me, `I’ve been coaching for over 30 years and you did something I’d never seen before. . .you accomplished more in the limited time you had to play than any player I’ve ever coached’,” Colenzo says. “And that just blew me away.”
It was a coincidence that Colenzo played the final game of his college career in Memphis, a 36-6 victory over a No. 7 UCLA team that narrowly missed going to the Rose Bowl.
Colenzo played the last two games of his Tide career as a starting defensive end. He wasn’t too keen on the idea when approached by ends coach Dude Hennesey before the last regular season game against Auburn.
That is, until Hennesey said the magic words.
“I was at the end of my career and I didn’t think I could get ready for a new position that quick,” Colenzo says. “The tight ends at Auburn and UCLA were all-Americans.
“Then, Coach Hennesey said, `Coach Bryant thinks you can do it.’ Because Coach Bryant thought that, it gave me this supernatural energy, I worked twice as hard to learn the position. I could not let Coach Bryant down if he had that much confidence in me.”
Colenzo didn’t understand the impact of his Alabama degree and playing for the Bear had until he got his first job working for Ryder Trucks as the first African-American hired in the management program.
He would relate the life lessons he learned from the Bear, things that he still relies on daily all these years later in his job with the inner-city Memphis kids that badly need guidance, discipline, love and a safe haven.
“Coach Bryant always said each Monday is like starting a new game, so you had to have a new plan,” Colenzo says. “It’s that way in business. I plan for everything, not just for that day or that week, but for a whole year. I always plan my work and work my plan.
“Coach Bryant taught me to work with pride, no matter if someone is watching you or not. He taught me that when you give your word, you keep your word. He never went back on his word.
“There was also the way he treated people. He made everyone around him feel important, he made everyone feel part of the family. He never allowed us to look down on anyone – bus drivers, cooks, custodians. Coach Bryant told us, `They are as important as you are. Because if they don’t do their jobs, we can’t do our jobs.’
“So if we lost a game, the bus drivers, the cooks, the custodians, would all be crying, too. They were crying because they were as much a part as the University of Alabama as we were. Coach Bryant made them all feel what Alabama football was all about.”
Those who have worked with Colenzo and been touched by his work understand he’s as fine a man as they’ve ever met. As the years have passed, Colenzo probably could have left Emmanuel for new challenges.
“But I want be like Coach Bryant,” he says. “He finished his career staying at one place coaching at one school for a long time. He built a strong legacy touching the lives of young men. I figured if I did the same, I could see us have success in the lives of these children.”
This past fall, someone else recognized such success – Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Colenzo received a $10,000 donation for the Emmanuel Center from Nick’s Kids, a nonprofit organization headed by Saban and his wife Terry that supports children, family, teacher and student causes. The couple started the foundation in 1995 when he became head coach at Michigan State, and have continued it through coaching stops at LSU, the Miami Dolphins of the NFL and now Alabama.
The foundation is supported by fundraising events, donations and profits from the sale of Saban's barbecue sauce and seasoning. Also, Saban has donated more than $100,000 he's earned from speaking engagements.
In early August, Colenzo, five kids from Emmanuel Center and Memphis-area Alabama alum Ralph Braden drove to the Bryant-Denny Stadium where he was given the check at the foundation’s luncheon.
“I thought we'd get $3,000 to $5,000,” Colenzo says. “When Coach Saban said it was $10,000, I was surprised. That's quite a gift, but much-needed, because it's a challenge at times to the funding for a program these children desperately need.”
Saban commended the program's positive impact with young people in the city of Memphis and said it fit the mission of Nick's Kids.
Colenzo says Saban’s gesture gave him the same sense of never leaving the Alabama family that the Bear gave his former players every time they returned to see him on campus.
“What Coach Saban did gave me an affirmation that `you’re still a part of who we are’,” Colenzo says. “It honored the work we were doing. And it made me still feel like a Bear Bryant boy, that I’ll be supported by Alabama the rest of my life.”
It’s a feeling that Colenzo continues to pass on daily.
“I might be waiting in line at Walgreen’s and I’ll see someone standing there wearing an Alabama cap or shirt,” Colenzo says. “I’ll strike up a conversation, and then I’ll tell them I played for Bear and show them my national championship ring.
“I don’t do this for ego. I do it to make a connection. Whether they went to school at Alabama or not, I want to let them know, like Coach Bryant always did, that they are part of the Alabama family.”