Crimson Tide cheerleaders of 1976: Debbie Purifoy, Carol Wheeler, Sela
Ward, Sandra Whitehead, and Beth Troxell.
SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF IT ALL
by Sela Ward
I WAS A CHEERLEADER at The University of Alabama in the 1970s and my memories
are so rich from this chapter of my life. I can still smell the freshly cut
grass of the practice field which we shared with the Million Dollar Band and
feel the adrenaline rush that shot through my body as the band played and we
practiced the double stunts that we were known for. And with coach Paul
"Bear" Bryant at the helm, you felt as if you were participating in something
larger than life. Tens of thousands of fans in a sea of red and white would
weave their way into the stadium. In those days everyone got dressed up - the
guys wore a coat and tie and the gals often wore dresses. Barna football was
as serious as religion, and to be a cheerleader, down on the field, smack dab
in the middle of it all, was a privilege of the highest order!
Memories of my brief encounters with Coach Bryant always make me smile. I
once went to his office to get his permission to arrange a pep rally. When I
walked in scared to death, he looked up and said,'Well, if I had known you
were coming I would have ordered us up some fried chicken!" He had the
appearance of being a gruff old bear, but in reality he was warm, charming,
He once said to Debbie Purifoy, one of the other cheerleaders, and me, as we
said hello to him before a game and reporters snapped photo-ops of the three
of us: "The only reason you all ever come talk to me is to get your picture
taken." Nothing could have been further from the truth. We were just too
intimidated to walk up and start a conversation!
When I think of the cheerleaders, I am left with two big impressions, the
first being Patti Rawlinson. When I first arrived at Bama she was already a
cheerleading icon, the epitome of the all-American, apple-pie beauty, and the
TV cameras loved her! She was the one I so looked up to as a freshman. And
joining the team after I got there were the Troxell twins, Harriet and Beth.
They were the first young women I knew to be extremely health- and
body-conscious, eating apples for snacks and spending long hours working out
in the gym. The results were these very petite, beautifully sculpted athletic
wonders - way ahead of their time! Chip Cornelius was my partner and together
with Brian Morgan, whose enthusiasm made him the leader of the cheers, there
was never a dull moment. Always lots of fun and laughter.
I have to admit that most of my sideline focus was not on the fans in the
stands but on #91, defensive tackle Bob Baumhower, my college sweetheart and
later a great all-pro player for the Miami Dolphins! It was an enchanted,
storybook time. My best friend and sorority sister dated quarterback Richard
Todd; the four of us were inseparable for several of our college years. We
were often found practicing "the hustle" (the "line dance" of our day) in the
living room of the Chi 0mega house or cruising around in Richard's red
Cadillac convertible listening to Lou Rawls sing "Groovy People."
I am often asked how a southern gal from Mississippi ended up an actress in
Hollywood. The truth is that it is a direct result of having been a
cheerleader for Alabama.
Because our games were so often on national television, cheerleaders actually
got fan mail, and one letter never left my impressionable young head. A guy
wrote, "You are the next Mary Tyler Moore!" I had no idea what that meant-did
I project comedy on the field? However, to me, of course, it meant that I
could be in movies: the hubris of youth! And so when the cheerleaders were
taken to New York City for the National Invitation Basketball Tournament, I
was ready. I fell immediately in love with New York and moved there shortly
after I left college. Through a series of connect-the-dots I landed a TV
commercial and went off into the land of entertainment. But I'll never forget
where a lot of it came from: those green football fields all over the South
and the grand enthusiastic crowds on magical Saturday afternoons with the
Sela Ward is an Emmy-Award-winning film and TV actress best known for the TV
drama series Sisters and Once and Again.
This article is found in the book- The Crimson Tide : An Illustrated History of Football at the University of Alabama
by Winston Groom. You may purchase it on online at Amazon.com.
Thank you Johnny Selafan@aol.com for typing out the article and scanning the photo for this site!