When Nick Saban went through Alabama’s injury list at his Monday press conference, not predicting miracles but not exactly denying them either, he tapped into both medical mystery — and Alabama-Auburn medical history.
In other words, this isn’t the first time that Alabama has headed into a critical game against the Tigers with a star or stars on the wait-and-see list. There could be a bit of gamesmanship involved — preparing for an Alabama defense with a healthy (or functional) Christian Miller and, perhaps, Terrell Lewis rushing off the edge is different than preparation has been in their absence. But there’s also a glimpse of the emotions that make the rivalry great. Players come to Tuscaloosa or to Auburn wanting to play in big games and this is annually the biggest. Rest assured that as players go through rehab, the primary goal is to take the field in the games that matter most, the games where championships — the unofficial but all-too-real state championship to the utterly real SEC Western Division championship that unlocks the door to greater potential glory down the road — are settled.
That shouldn’t outweigh doctor’s orders, of course. If more healing is necessary to keep players from being at risk, then patience is the first priority. But at least until Saturday, Saban can keep the opponent wondering.
Oh, and that Alabama history we talked about?
This is certainly set up to be a classic Alabama-Auburn game, given the rankings and the system we currently use for deciding a national champion. Now, imagine the game with both teams coming in undefeated and with a Heisman Trophy winner (which, many years ago, was awarded earlier than it is today).
That’s what happened in 1971 — and Alabama wasn’t certain that the best offensive player could play.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to compare the influence of one man to the vast collection of defensive players, including Minkah Fitzpatrick (likely to play although he sat out last Saturday’s exercise against Mercer). That’s if you don’t recall Johnny Musso.
Alabama ran a raw wishbone attack in 1971 and quarterback Terry Davis was a whiz at knowing when to pitch the ball and when to keep it. But the main objective offensively was to get the football to Musso and let him work his spinning, diving, almost-crawling magic. He had good but not great speed, but if balance had been an Olympic sport, he’d have been a gold medalist.
The problem going into that year’s version of the Game of Games was that Musso had been hobbled. In a physical battle against LSU three weeks earlier (isn’t it amazing how history repeats itself?), Musso’s foot was wrenched so fiercely that his big toe came out of its socket.
For almost three weeks, the state of Alabama wondered if Musso would play. Alabama trainer Jim Goostree improvised a plastic brace that would hold Musso’s toe in place — and Musso took the field. By his own description, he was tentative in the early going but finally adjusted to the brace, relied on his pain tolerance and rushed for 167 yards on a workhorse 33 carries.
There is no way of knowing if any of Alabama’s walking wounded will play, or if they could have a Musso-like impact even if they do. But in this particular series, amazing efforts can come from unexpected players — or from well-known players, if they can make it onto the field.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.