By Scott Latta, UA Media Relations
Note: The following is the third in a three-part series.
For walk-ons, it’s all about the moment.
Forress Rayford, a senior, has gotten it, and parlayed it on the Bryant-Denny turf into a blocked punt on special teams. Rashad Johnson and Darren Mustin each got it, and turned it into a scholarship and full-time starting job. In his last season on the football team at Alabama, Layne Rinks still waits for it.
The way the moment unfolds varies, but those who have experienced it say a coach, usually in a game well in hand, will grab a walk-on and send him in the game. Maybe it’s on a kickoff, maybe a punt, but in that moment in that brief, exhilarating moment the culmination of the hours spent running an almost incalculable number of laps around the field and the untold number of full-on tackles vaporizes into an adrenaline rush that could send a man right into a frenzy.
The aches vanish, the soreness, the pain all gone with a slap on the back and a push onto the field. It’s an indescribable feeling, they say. Beyond words. It speeds you up almost like an accelerant: in one sudden rush you go from tackling dummy to feeling like a real Alabama football player. You run faster. You hit harder. You’re not a walk-on in the moment.
The moment is not a new thing. It has been there since coaches sent players on trains to California Rose Bowls and to Junction, Texas in the sweltering heat. It refurbishes itself with every new team, with every new crop of freshmen who naively await the sunrise sprint sessions that either motivate or separate. It’s a matter of time; it’s an unachievable goal.
In the case of Herb Wilmot, it was an epiphany. It was fall, 1969, and East High School in Memphis, Tenn. was suffering through a losing season in a lower division of Tennessee high school football. Wilmot, a senior and career backup tailback, had had it.
The realization came in practice. Wilmot turned to his teammate, Bruce Stuart, and spoke his mind.
“Stu,” he said, “I’m a senior and I’m not even starting in high school. Next week I’m going to be starting.” Then he took a moment before he spoke again. “And someday,” he continued, “I’m going to play for Alabama and score a touchdown when they’re the No.1 team in the country.”
Stuart turned to him. “Sure, sure,” he thought.
Living the Promise
After that practice, Stuart said, Wilmot was a changed person. He had snapped. He was triggered forward, blowing through the line like an All-American. A week later, he was the starting tailback for East High School. He was far from conventional, running with a straight-up gait that exposed his body to oncoming full-speed defenders in an awkward style. His coaches said they would see him running on the sidelines, pinned, and know that an oncoming defender was about to get a highlight for the other team.
With Wilmot at tailback, East High finished out their losing season, and Wilmot graduated in the spring, after which he enrolled at Tennessee-Martin for his freshman year to play football. A year later he was enrolled at the University of Alabama, a sophomore, and walked on to the football team under Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“My sophomore year I was working that fall and took off when he was playing for Alabama,” Wilmot’s brother, Tim Wilmot, said. “It was big to him. It was what he always wanted and he was determined to throw on the Alabama uniform and play for the Bear.’”
But for Wilmot, there wasn’t much playing involved with being on the team; he would tell his family of getting to eat with the stars of the team in the cafeteriaguys like John Hannah, Jim Krapf and John Mitchelland of getting to dress with them in the locker room. There was little glory in the work.
The 1971 Alabama season saw the Crimson Tide race out to a 7-0 start before hosting Mississippi State in Tuscaloosa. It was a game the Tide was expected to win in a season they were expected to compete for a national championship, and on Nov. 4, at Denny Stadium, they did not disappoint against the Bulldogs in a 58-14 thrashing.
Later, hundreds of miles from Tuscaloosa, Bruce Stuart would watch the highlights of the otherwise innocuous game. Late in the fourth quarter, he noticed something about one of the players in the game, a tailback, who looked awkward carrying the ball.
“Late in the game this back started running through the line and I thought about how weird he looked runninghe ran straight up,” Stuart said. “A tailback will usually drop his shoulder, but he ran straight up. It looked funny.”
It wasn’t pretty, but Herb Wilmot’s first carry in an Alabama uniform had gotten him 17 yards.
A couple carries later, Wilmot took the ball around the end and broke free. A Mississippi State defender jumped on his back at the five-yard line and Wilmot, with the grit and the will and the just-plain-mean that had gotten him that starting job as a senior in high school, carried the defender the five yards on his back into the end zone.
Finding the Memory
“I didn’t say anything to anybody,” Stuart said. He remembered the promise Wilmot had thrown at him almost off-the-cuff two years before during that losing season at East High and had just seen his teammate fulfill it, and it seemed impossible. Herb just wasn’t that good. He didn’t excel at football. He had been an average student, wasn’t a school leader and hadn’t distinguished himself.
But, his assistant coach at East High said, he was nice.
“His group of friends wasn’t distinguished as people you would eventually see on the Fortune 500 list, but they weren’t kids you were going to see on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, either,” Jim Duncan said. “He was a nice young man. But when we looked down the bench to put someone in the game, Herb Wilmot was not the first guy we looked to.”
The announcers in the Mississippi State game didn’t know Wilmot’s last name when he scored the touchdown; he was so low on the depth chart he had been left clean off it. A local sportswriter after the game wrote an article called “Herb who?” He was an immediate, unknown sensation.
Years passed before anyone had a chance to mention to Wilmot what they had seen. Alabama won four national championships and laid a Bear to rest before Stuart could bring it up the next time he saw his old teammate, at the East High 30-year reunion.
He told Wilmot he had seen the touchdown against Mississippi State, and Wilmot smiled.
“You saw that?” he asked.
Stuart, who is now a senior accounting assistant for Georgia Perimeter College, reminded him of his promise. He remembered the team and the practice and winning the starting job, but not the promise.
Looking back, Stuart could chalk it up to only one thing.
“What happened was just sheer fate,” he said. “It was just something a kid says when he’s 16 and you look back on it and realize it’s pretty amazing.
“He smiled when I said it. He had the biggest smile on his face, like, Man I’m glad somebody else saw that.’”
Living the Moment
Wilmot never brought up the story to friends or family on his own and would talk about it only when asked. After leaving Alabama, his life took him in numerous directions: he worked on the Mississippi and Illinois River as a barge deckhand for Valley Line Company and became a professional pool player and house pro at Bartlett Billards in Memphis.
He produced, directed and hosted a Memphis cable television talk show before working as a marketing specialist for “Beyond The Box Productions” in Hollywood for the movie “Pool Hall Junkies.” He died summer, 2007 while driving a taxi and living in Las Vegas. He was 54.
“We were real close growing up because we were born only 14 months apart, but we were different,” Tim Wilmot said. “Herb was a different guy, wanting to chase his dreams and follow them through, and I was more of the pragmatic type and became a CPA for 30 years, with a wife and kids. Herb was more exotic. He always chased his dreams and continued to do so and chased it until he achieved it.”
Wilmot’s story is one of the ultimate moment. It was all want-to and desire and mental attitude, friends say, that got him in the end zone that Saturday in Alabama. He had come to Tuscaloosa because he felt Coach Bryant gave anyone a chance to play, and it wasn’t until long after his days at the Capstone were through that he shared how true that feeling turned out to be.
The last time Jim Duncan saw Wilmot, Wilmot was tending bar at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. They greeted each other, and Duncan told him he had heard about the touchdown he scored at Alabama years before.
“The proudest moment of my life,” Wilmot told his former coach, “was when I walked off the field after scoring and Coach Bryant came up to me and just said, Way to go, son.’”
The moment, though passed, was never really over.