By Jess Nicholas
June 14, 2016
Editor’s Note: Watch a video tribute here
There have plenty of Alabama players that have left us recently, many far too early (see: Kevin Turner, to the insidious disease known as ALS). But for some reason, Monday’s loss of former defensive lineman Byron Holdbrooks hit a bit closer to home.
For the children of the 80s, Alabama football held little to celebrate, and the Alabama-Auburn rivalry was almost a total washout. Aside from the most lopsided upset in modern series history (Alabama’s 17-15 win in 1984) and the Van Tiffin-led triumph the following year, Alabama football in the 1980s was mostly defined by what it had lost – or, more appropriately, who: Paul “Bear” Bryant.
By the time 1990 rolled around, Alabama football was in dire need of a total reprogramming from the ground up, thanks in large part to the way Bill Curry almost ran the program into the nether. Curry’s tenure was defined by three losses to Auburn and all sorts of drama for which Curry himself carried much of the blame. When the 1989 season ended, Curry ditched Alabama for Kentucky, with reports still mixed to this day about whether or not he did it ahead of a falling axe.
The 1990 Alabama team was Gene Stallings’ first in Tuscaloosa, and by the time Alabama got to October, injuries had already decimated whatever explosiveness was left over from the Homer Smith-led offense. Wide receivers Craig Sanderson and Prince Wimbley had been lost with knee injuries. So bad was the dropoff in talent that Sanderson, who played in only 2 games, still finished the year tied for the team lead in receptions by a wideout, with Donnie Finkley – and the number of receptions was 9. Lamonde Russell had 28, but he was essentially a stand-up tight end. Fellow tight end Steve Busky, with 10 catches, and fullback Kevin Turner, with 26, were the only other players in double digits. By the end of the year, Alabama was down to a three-wideout rotation of Finkley, a very raw Kevin Lee and role player Lorenzo Cole. Understand, those weren’t the starters in a three-wide set; they were the only three receivers in the rotation.
Alabama had seemed to win in spite of itself that year, coming into the Iron Bowl at 6-4 with its biggest wins over LSU and Tennessee. LSU was yet a SEC powerhouse; the Tennessee win was truly the high-water mark for the team.
Auburn, meanwhile, was 7-2-1, its losses coming in a surprising blowout at the hands of Florida, and then a true upset the week after against Southern Miss, when the Golden Eagles caught Auburn flat-footed after the loss to the Gators. Few, however, expected Auburn to lose to Alabama in this game, especially since Auburn had rebounded off the Florida and USM losses by beating Georgia 33-10.
And then Byron Holdbrooks sacked Stan White.
I was in Legion Field that day as a 17-year-old who had endured four straight years of non-stop heckling at the hands of my Auburn-fan schoolmates, and never expected Alabama to so thoroughly control Auburn. The 16-7 score was misleading given that Alabama held the momentum for practically the entire afternoon. But it was Holdbrooks’ play that set the tone.
On the second play of the game, Holdbrooks broke through Auburn’s line and didn’t so much sack Stan White, as he ate him. I was as far away from the play as I could possibly be in the stadium, cross-corner from where White went down, and to this day I can remember the sound of the hit. It was the kind of crunch chicken bones make when you fry a whole chicken and then break the parts up prior to serving dinner.
The sound was probably White’s helmet hitting the Legion Field concrete turf, and viewing highlights of that play now makes me almost certain White suffered a concussion on the hit. White never looked the same the rest of the game.
The hit itself was clean, and White’s impact on the concrete turf was more his own fault than anything Holdbrooks did. White appeared to get caught between ducking, jumping and dodging, and Holdbrooks just sort of hugged him down. With force, of course.
The reaction of the crowd was swift and substantial. The makeup of the crowd was no longer the 50-50 split of the Iron Bowl, and Alabama fans had needed a moment to cheer all season long. The win over Tennessee, and its last-second kick, had taken place in Neyland Stadium, far away from the biggest Bama crowds. Tide fans needed to release, and do so in their own venue.
Holdbrooks gave them their moment. The noise level, already fairly high with the game being so young at that point, spiked. It was probably one of the five loudest moments I ever experienced in the coffin that was Legion Field. When the roar finally lowered to a plateau, it was still louder than kickoff, and it remained that way until halftime, then picked up again after the half all the way to the 16-7 end.
For years, I have believed Bryon Holdbrooks’ sack was the most significant moment – as far as positive moments go – of the Gene Stallings era outside of the 1992 national championship year. Alabama had forgotten how to beat Auburn under Bill Curry. Auburn was clearly the more physical team, the tougher team. Pat Dye had learned well at Bryant’s side, and the Tigers were much more akin to Bryant-era Bama teams than Curry’s own Alabama teams were, despite Curry’s teams being the ones to wear crimson and white.
Byron Holdbrooks’ single play – he didn’t make another one of note in this game – changed all that. It was the ultimate “we can do this” moment for a team that needed to believe. Because besides making Auburn the tougher team, Dye – who had overseen the end of the Iron Bowl ticket split, the end of neutral-site play, and who had guided Auburn to the superior position in this rivalry – had also grown a bit full of himself. His team carried that same swagger into Birmingham, but Holdbrooks popped the balloon.
If that play doesn’t happen – if Stan White had played the game unaffected by the early hit – there’s no telling what would have happened in the following seasons. The 1990 Alabama loss clearly affected both Dye and the Auburn program as a whole. The Tigers retreated into a shell, barely beating Indiana in the Peach Bowl, and then fell to a 5-6 record the year afterward, which inexplicably included another one-point loss to Southern Miss. Alabama won Auburn’s 1991 “home game” at Legion Field, then drubbed the Tigers in 1992, speeding Dye into retirement. Without the 1990 win, there’s no guarantee Auburn would have begun the decline that led to Dye’s exit and Alabama’s re-ascension to the alpha position in the Alabama-Auburn rivalry. The 1992 national championship itself would have been uncertain.
For that, Byron Holdbrooks, a rotational player on Alabama’s defensive line who was quickly overshadowed by other Stallings-era players like Eric Curry and John Copeland, will always be an Alabama legend. His death at 48 years old came much too soon, and reminds many of us all too well of our own mortality.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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