By Emmett Burnett
Where were you when Hank Aaron knocked it out of the park? Remember Auburn’s almost unstoppable Sullivan to Beasley football passes, an Alabama football player nicknamed “The Italian Stallion,” or Charles Barkley’s basketball wizardry? These and other athletes made the state proud “back in the day.”
Here are some of them: all from Alabama, achieving athletic greatness, and still going strong.
Raised in Tuscaloosa, Bob Baumhower played for the University of Alabama football team from 1974 to 1976. “Coach Bryant helped change my life,” the former nose tackle recalls. And what a life change it was, from Crimson Tide to chicken with pride.
“Coach Bryant, and my parents, taught me to believe in myself, have a plan, and make it a reality.” Baumhower says. He later played for the Miami Dolphins. In 1980 the professional football player became a restaurateur.
“A friend invited me to a place that served chicken wings, and I thought, ‘Who eats wings for lunch? Are you crazy?’ There were no chicken wings in Alabama until Bob opened Tuscaloosa’s Wings and Things. Not anymore.”
Today Baumhower lives in Fairhope, running 14 restaurants throughout Alabama, serving poultry to seafood. “Starting up in the chicken wing business was a trial and error effort,” Baumhower laughs. “It still is.”
Tom Neville may have the most diverse football resume in Alabama. His work history includes offensive tackle for the Boston Patriots, Denver Broncos, and New York Giants, and being a professional gemologist in Montgomery.
The stand out Mississippi State University player’s pro ball days were tackled in 1979. “My football career ended with a concussion,” Neville says from his Montgomery jewelry/appraisal business. “It was time to give it up anyway. Concussions teach you that,” he smiles.
During Boston football days, the Montgomery native discovered an old wrist watch in an antique store. He bought the fine old jeweled timepiece. And then another, and another. It was love at first bling.
After retiring from football, he moved to California, earning a gemology degree. In 1983, he returned to his hometown of Montgomery, opening Tom Neville, The Source Inc., Jewelry Store.
Today, with a 15,000-plus customer base, Neville is one of the country’s leading experts on precious stones, jewelry and appraisals. “Before 9/11, I traveled to Israel to buy diamonds,” he says. “Now the Israelis come here. It’s just easier.”
One of the most popular basketball players ever, Charles Barkley was named in pro-basketball’s “50 Greatest Players in NBA History.” In addition, he won two Olympic Gold Medals, was named Sports Illustrated’s 2002 Personality of the Year, and in 2008 considered a run for Governor of Alabama. In 2010 he changed his mind, must to the relief of Governor Bentley.
As of 2012, the former Auburn University athlete (1981-1984) lives in Arizona. He is a frequent television basketball analysis and commentator and to date, the only person from Leeds, Ala., to host Saturday Night Live.
Auburn’s storied quarterback, Pat Sullivan, won the Heisman Trophy in 1971. “It’s on his kitchen counter,” Sullivan notes, about the trophy. “Actually, we’ve had it displayed all over the house.”
Sullivan has been Samford University’s head football coach since 2007. “I love it and cannot imagine doing anything else,” the Birmingham native says. “I’m very excited about our upcoming season. If our guys stay healthy, this may be one of our best years.”
When not coaching, Auburn’s former quarterback enjoys life with grandkids in a second home on a lake. “I also try keeping up with former Auburn teammates as best I can and regret not being able to visit the campus more often,” he says. “But I’m a coach, and have my own team to be concerned over. It’s a seven day, all day job.”
Dr. E. Gaylon McCollough
After playing Alabama football [1961-65], Dr. Gaylon McCollough had a difficult decision. “Should I accept an offer with the Dallas Cowboys or pursue Medical School?” he recalls, pondering the decision made almost 50 years ago. He talked with family, and extended family, Coach Paul Bryant. “All recommended attending med school.” He did.
In 1975 the football player-turned physician founded the McCollough Plastic Surgery Clinic in Birmingham. More than 25 years later he moved his practice to Gulf Shores. Today he is recognized in The National Registry of Who’s Who and Woodward and White’s list of “Best Doctors in America.” Dr. McCollough has also written medical textbooks, novels, and a biography, The Long Shadow of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“I don’t regret my decision to go into medicine and not play for the Dallas Cowboys,” Dr. McCollough says. “But I admit,” he chuckles, “There are days I wonder, What if.”
An All-SCC Auburn Tiger linebacker and 1989 team captain, Quentin Riggins went from playing to the field to reporting on it. After graduation, he entered broadcasting in 1991 as a football radio sideline reporter for the Auburn ISP Sports Network. “I was playing Canadian ball with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers,” recalled Riggins. “Auburn asked if I would consider broadcasting one of their games. I did, they liked it, and signed me up.” He is an Auburn football radio commentator to this day.
Riggins also has 17 years of experience in Alabama government, having worked under three governors. “Gov. Fob James also played football for Auburn,” noted Riggins. “We had a great time reliving game day memories.” But Gov. Bob Riley was, and is, a devout Alabama fan, which was possibly more fun.
“I think it was in 2004, after we beat Tennessee, [Auburn] Coach Tommy Tuberville autographed a football for me,” the former Auburn player remembered. “I took the ball back to the state capital and presented it to Gov. Riley as a “gift.”
In 2011, Auburn’s star athlete became a vice president of government relations with Alabama Power Company. He is the company’s representative when dealing with the state legislature and executive branch. He is also the office’s go-to guy for sports insight. “But not as much Auburn insight as you might think,” laughs Riggins. “My daughter plays high school softball, so I talk about her softball program a lot.”
“Cornelius Griffin is one of my favorites,” says Steve Millburg, author of Gone Pro Alabama. ”This man co-captained Alabama’s Southeastern Conference Championship team, played professionally for two pro teams, started in Super Bowl XXV, but never forgot his Alabama roots.” Leaving the Tide in 1999, Griffin served four years with the New York Giants, and six with the Washington Redskins. But he left his heart in Troy, Al.
Upon retiring, Griffin returned to his hometown, Troy, where he opened an insurance business. Every November, the former NFL star hosts a community Thanksgiving dinner for hundreds of Troy’s elderly and ill residents. “He does this with his own money,” notes Millburg. “And he serves the food – quite a sight seeing this 6 ft. 3, 300-pound good man plate up turkey and dressing for senior citizens.”
Joe Beckwith played baseball in a town known for football. “I’m one of the few Auburn athletes who were born, raised, and returned here,” he says. But the Opelika County resident’s former job required a lot of travel, like in 1985 when he pitched a World Series two inning no-hitter. “That was probably the most exciting event of my career with the Kansas City Royals,” Beckwith recalls.
From 1974 to 1977, he played for Auburn and then the Los Angeles Dodgers, 1979-83, and Kansas City Royals, 1984 – 1985. Today Beckwith has a duel career in sales and broadcasting. He is district representative for Ready Mix USA and radio baseball analysis for the CSS Sports Network. According to the former pitcher, only one sport rivals his passion for baseball: “Golf; I love it.”
During 1969 through 1971, “The Italian Stallion” scored 38 Alabama touchdowns in three seasons, placing him in the College Football Hall of Fame. After graduation, the Birmingham native turned pro with the Canadian and World Football leagues, and the Chicago Bears. “Musso was a kamikaze blocker,” says Millburg. “It takes a toll on the body. As a result of constant injuries, I don’t think he ever lived up to his potential in pro ball.”
The running back left the Chicago Bears for Chicago bucks, as a commodity futures trader, where he reportedly did very well. Today he is retired and lives near Chicago.
An Auburn Heisman Trophy winner, Vincent “Bo” Jackson is the only pro athlete ever named an All-American in two major American sports: football and baseball. Post-Auburn (1982-1985), he played football for the Los Angeles Raiders and baseball for the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, and Anaheim Angels. A 1991 hip injury ended the Bessemer, Ala. natives’ pro career and impaired his baseball one.
In a 2009 Auburn University commencement speech, Jackson addressed the graduates about “Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone,” a creed he lives by. During his stay at Auburn, Jackson held a temporary job as a bank teller. Today near Chicago, he is part owner of a bank.
The man from Mobile, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron not only played baseball, he made history. On April 8, 1974, the Atlanta Braves power hitter broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record. Today Aaron breaks records selling cars. He owns Hank Aaron BMW, an auto dealership near Atlanta. Each buyer receives a Hank Aaron autographed baseball with the purchase of a new car.