By Ray Glier, Special for USA TODAY Sports 10:36 p.m. EDT August 26, 2013
For years, Alabama football fans insisted Hollywood — or at least sensationalist media — had perpetuated a myth about the integration of the program.
Followers of coach Bear Bryant said it was nothing but a Hollywood-style script that Bryant recruited blacks because Southern California running back Sam Cunningham had run roughshod over the all-white Crimson Tide on Sept. 12, 1970. Bryant had been painted as a reactionary racist forced to do the right thing only because of wins and losses.
Cunningham’s impact was a myth, because sitting in the stands that night when USC trounced the Tide 42-21 was Wilbur Jackson, a black freshman running back for Alabama. He was not playing because freshmen were ineligible in those days. Bryant had already integrated his team by recruiting Jackson, who was signed Dec. 13, 1969, by assistant coach Pat Dye, who would later be head coach at Auburn.
Now comes another story that further debunks the myth of Sam the Bam.
Dock Rone, a freshman defensive lineman from Montgomery, Ala., who is black, walked into Bryant’s office in Tuscaloosa in February 1967 and asked the legendary coach if he could join the team as a walk-on for spring ball. Bryant told Rone he admired his courage, but he did not immediately say yes.
“I was pretty sturdy, it looked like I had played football,” Rone said. “But I imagine he wanted to make some calls and check me out before he said yes.”
A few days later, the Alabama athletic trainer, Jim Goostree, called Rone and told him he was picking him for a physical. Bryant was going to let Rone walk on.
Dock Rone, seen here in 1967, was an important part of the integration of the University of Alabama football team, a topic that is examined in the new documentary ‘Three Days at Foster’.(Photo: Dock Rone, THREE DAYS AT FOSTER)
The roles of Rone and others in the integration of the Alabama football program are featured in the documentary Three Days at Foster, released Monday. Bryant started a gradual push to integrate the program with Rone in 1967 while fierce segregationist George Wallace was governor of Alabama. Jackson did not suit up for a regular season game until 1971.
Rone had received a full football scholarship offer to Mississippi Valley State, a historically black school, but he wanted to go to Alabama because he wanted to play in the Southeastern Conference. He also felt Alabama had some better academic credentials for what he wanted to study, architecture or engineering.
“I wasn’t trying to make a statement,” said Rone, 66, now a plant supervisor at a production facility in Montgomery.
Asked if he thought Bryant would have allowed him to walk on if he had shown up with political purpose and eager to stick a finger in the eye of white Alabama, Rone said, “I don’t know that he would have. He understood I just wanted to play football.”
Rone held his own in spring practice, especially in a drill where he subbed for running backs. Tom Somerville, a starting guard for the 1967 team, said Rone was a legitimate player. “I have no doubts he could have played for us,” Somerville said.
Rone, who was standard size for a defensive lineman 45 years ago (185 pounds), was walking along University Blvd. one afternoon when Bryant pulled alongside in his car and asked him to get in.
“He told me, ‘I expect you to play for me this coming season,’ ” Rone said.
Rone still remembers walking into the locker room following the first practice and how the normally noisy place suddenly went quiet. It was shock, not disdain, Somerville said. The white players simply had never been in that setting with a black player.
Keith Dunnavant, the writer/director of Three Days at Foster, said the fact the Alabama players in the locker room that afternoon did not reject Rone likely encouraged Bryant even more to ease Alabama’s storied program toward integration.
Rone was joined in 1967 spring practice by four other black players, Andrew Pernell, Arthur Dunning, Melvin Leverette and Jerome Tucker. According to Dunnavant, Rone and Pernell played in the 1967 spring game. Pernell stayed on the team through the 1967 season but never dressed for a game.
Rone never made it to the fall season. He had to drop out of school for reasons he does not discuss. He later returned to Alabama to earn a degree in political science.
According to the film Bryant did have another motive, besides decency, for integrating his team. In 1966, the Crimson Tide went undefeated but finished No. 3 in the final poll behind Notre Dame and Michigan State, which had tied in the regular season. Bryant, the film explains, felt Alabama was denied a third consecutive national championship because poll voters were sending a message about him having an all-white team.