Pressed Between The Pages Of My Mind
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” (Proverbs 17:17). When I was a young boy, I always wanted a brother, but, it was not to be. One day in the eighth grade at Capitol Heights Junior High School, my life changed in a way that I could not have predicted. My blue and white bicycle with the fenders off, and blue and white stripes on the wheels, was my only means of transportation at the time. One of the members of the football team had a Florida drivers license, which one could obtain at the age of fourteen in those days. He also had an old blue 1948 Plymouth that his Florida grandmother had given him. He was the only person at the school that had a car. So, you can imagine how popular he was. This particular afternoon was no different than most. It was spring. School was out for the day and every one was playing around before going home. But, this day may have been when I started growing up. The boy with the blue Plymouth asked me if I wanted to go for a ride. His name was Durden Lee. He lived around the corner from me, but we had never been close friends. That was going to change this day. I asked another guy that lived in my neighborhood if he would ride my blue bike home, and let me pick it up later. Unknown to us at the time, he would become a star running back at Robert E. Lee High School and play college football at Auburn. His name was Jackie Spencer. I never saw that bike again. I began riding in style with the very popular Durden Lee. Since he was popular, I became popular, I think. For over a year, I didn’t even think about that bicycle. When I went to get it, Jackie and some of his pals had taken the wheels off and made a cart out of my bike and another bike. What did I care? I’m riding around town with Durden Lee and his football buddies.
This was the beginning of a life-long relationship that can only be understood by the previously quoted proverb. Durden’s father was killed in World War II. He had no brothers or sisters either. I had found my brother. We were friends to the very end. We were born to take care of each other...and we did. He was the brother I never had. I was the brother he never had. A few months ago, my brother took his last breath only minutes after I kissed him and told him, as I had thousands of times... “brother, I love you”!
Durden Coleman Lee, 76 was carried to his final resting place in Montgomery by eight former teammates at Robert E. Lee High School. Durden was our center and a captain of the first Lee football team. Another captain, Charles Tatum, came from all the way from Muldoon, Texas to help us honor our great friend. He was a friend at all times, but he was my brother. I could not write this tribute to Durden at the time of his death. There just had to be some time to heal.
Durden left behind his wife Pat, his son Bubba and two daughters, Cathy and Lila, to carry on without him. As a man, he was tough, but sweet. As a football coach he was one of the best. For eleven years he coached his Capitol Heights Bulldogs to many city championships. He sent many players to Lee that were well prepared to wear the red and white of the Generals; Sim Byrd, Terry Beasley, Connie Frederick, Cedrick McIntyre...just to name a few. He could have moved into high school, and maybe college. He was the best offensive line coach that I encountered in my ten years of coaching. He taught me a lot about football and a lot about love.
Durden and I were two of fifteen boys who had the distinct privilege of playing two years as a Lanier Poet and on the first Robert E. Lee football team in 1955. I was just fortunate to come along for the ride. We picked the colors. We picked the nickname Generals. We have been picking each other up for the last fifty-nine years. Most of us are still here. The captain just went on ahead of us to check out the playing field up there. We will be following, though we know not when. Thanks to my brother Durden, it has been a good ride.
“There is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to gain, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:2-8)
During the course of a man’s life, he comes in contact with a few people that have a profound impact on the direction of his life. I had always been drawn like a magnet to the game of football. Until the fifth grade my experience had been limited to sand-lot football with boys from my neighborhood on Vonora Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama. That’s a two block street connecting Madison Avenue and Upper Wetumpka Road, only a nine iron shot from Cramton Bowl. Every time the lights went on at “The Bowl”, I would go over the fence and not stop running until the police were no longer in sight. It made no difference whether it was Lanier, Loretta, Starke or Williams playing, my little skinny body was going to be in the stands.
My first experience on a team was in the fifth grade where I was surprised to find that I was one of the fastest players on the team in the 80 lb. YMCA League. I played right half-back in the Notre Dame Box offensive formation. When we shifted right, I became a wing-back. When we shifted left, I became the tailback. Speed was my only weapon. I was really small. I could have played in the 80 lb. league through the ninth grade but my age made me have to go up to the 100 lb. league in the eighth grade. A serious concussion along with a broken nose knocked me out of football for two years. My weight upon graduating from the ninth grade was 90 lbs. You might say everyone grew up and passed me by. In the junior high school yearbook I wrote that my goal was to be 6’0” tall and weigh 200 lbs. That of course was one of my silly jokes that helped me cope with being so small.
In the eighth grade I had dreams about being as big and strong as a boy that had transferred to Capitol Heights Junior High School named Bobby Spann. He was a well built boy that excelled on the football team. He did well with the girls too. He was also a perpetual practical joker. All three talents I admired. We were not close friends at the time. Later we would become teammates at Lanier High School. I did finally get to be as big as my goal, albeit after getting out of the military. However, I never did grow to be as good as Spann.
Recently Robert Till “Bobby” Spann of Nashville, Georgia died after a short battle with cancer. He was 76 years old. He served as captain and quarterback for the undefeated Sidney Lanier Poets of 1955. He could have chosen to come with us to Robert E. Lee but decided to stay at Lanier. Bobby had scholarships offers to Alabama and Kentucky, but his desire to become an engineer delayed his decision to the point where both scholarships had been given to other players.
He was invited to play for Coach Bobby Bowden’s first collegiate team at South Georgia College. Spann went over there for part of a season, but, he really wanted to play a better brand of football. Besides, he had never heard of Bobby Bowden. Earl Kreis, a local contractor who Bobby had gained his interest in engineering from, called him while he was still in Georgia. Earl told him not to come back to Montgomery, but to drive straight to Troy. He told Bobby that Coach Bill Clipson had him a scholarship waiting on him. There he found a home and a new position on the Troy State Red Wave football team. They were known as Red Wave back then. Bobby Spann started at fullback for two years at Troy where he majored in pre-engineering. But he still wanted to be an engineer more than he wanted to play football. That desire led him to enroll in the University of
Alabama’s Engineering School, where he proudly graduated with his coveted engineering degree. He graduated fifth in his class. Bobby married Melba Lindsey, who he had met in junior high school. Spann played halfback at Capitol Heights under the legendary Coach Kyle Renfroe. In his ninth grade, the Capitol Heights team, led by Durden Lee, Earl Mills, and Wendell Conner, was undefeated and unscored on. Somehow, Bobby learned how to succeed. He put his mind and his training to work and built a very successful business in Nashville, Specialty Converting & Supply Company, which he was CEO of at the time of his death. Bobby Spann was buried in Nashville alongside his wife Melba who died in 2004. He will be missed by many, but most by his teammates from Lanier and from those who chose to transfer to Robert E. Lee in the fall of 1955.