You can go home again.
It’s not that Antonio Langham ever really left, not in his heart. The former University of Alabama football All-American had deep roots from his days as a small-school star at Hazlewood in tiny Town Creek to his career in Tuscaloosa. Even when he went to the National Football League, Alabama was his home. But he wondered at times if he would be welcome after what was, after all, a youthful mistake.
As a 20-year old, celebrating Alabama’s 1992 national championship win in New Orleans, Langham, a Junior, took $400 from an agent, putting his signature on a cocktail napkin as a “contract.” By today’s standards, that offense would hardly raise an eyebrow — a $400 donation to a charity, perhaps a one-game suspension and the matter would be over. Perhaps it might have been little worse at the time, had the NCAA officials in charge felt that Alabama had handled things correctly.
As it was, that small transgression was the first stone in an avalanche that ended up with Alabama on probation, Langham ineligible, a 1993 season vacated and the beginning of NCAA problems that lasted a decade.
As in any harrowing experience, blame was apportioned, sometimes in anger. Langham heard more than his share of invective and, at 21 years old, one of the greatest players in Crimson Tide history worried that he might be a pariah.
“I always wondered how much weight that situation would carry,” Langham said on Saturday before a black-tie star-studded induction ceremony. “As a young man, you worry. People say things. In the beginning, I had hard feelings about it. I had been a teenager when I started at Alabama and I had laid it on the line.
“I gave everything I had for Alabama and I thought people would might forget that.
“There were times when I didn’t want to go to Tuscaloosa,” he said. “I didn’t want any confrontation or hard feelings. So I stood back to gauge the temperature.”
Time worked its healing magic. Langham acquires a maturity about the situation, expressing remorse but holding his head high. He returned to functions with old teammates, who embraced him. Bygones became bygones.
On Saturday night, the last step on that journey became a reality. It seems too strong to call it redemption, or to refer to Langham as a prodigal son, but his road back to recognition was complete. He had a medal awarded by Gov. Kay Ivey, a rousing ovation as an audience watched video of Langham making a play — his 1992 interception return against Florida — that may have changed the course of college football, turning the first SEC conference championship game from an experiment to a success. He made that history at Legion Field, just a couple of miles or so from thenpodium where he was inducted. Close, but far away until Saturday night
His former coach, Gene Stallings, was there. Langham mentioned his great respect for Stallings in his acceptance speech, as well as his love for his position coach, Brother Oliver, also on the podium as a former inductee. Many of his teammates — Sam Shade, John Copeland, Jay Barker and others — stood with him as Langham’s speech concluded, his voice cracking with emotion as he called them his “brothers, built by ‘Bama forever.”
Langham stood alongside World Series champion Luis Gonzalez, Olympian gold medalist Cat Reddick Whitehall and Super Bowl winner Tommie Agee as part of a standout ASHOF class. All had followed their own paths to the podium but Langham’s might have had the most twists in the road.
“People have come up to me (at the ASHOF ceremonies) this weekend and said “it’s about time, you should have been in a long time ago,” and I tell them ‘No, the time came when it was right.’”
“I’m grateful to every Alabama fan now. Even the ones who said things only were going by what they heard or what they read, but they’ve taken time to look past that and understand more.
“You pray about it and let God deal with it,” Langham said. “This recognition tonight finally said, ‘Antonio, you weathered the storm.’“My grandmother passed when I was 12 years old, but she was the one who told me ‘Son, it will not be roses all the time. But your time will come.’”
On Saturday night, it did.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 295-722-0225.