Mark Clark: Football season is near – time for some Nathanisms

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If you are a fan of local football, you know the stories that have circulated for years of the area’s biggest legend – Nathan Rustin. And when football season starts to close in on that opening kickoff, it is time to begin sharing those stories once more. We do not usually say we have a story about the former Central High and University of Alabama player and longtime Pacelli High coach. We refer to such things as “Nathanisms.”

A “story” may or may not be true. A “Nathanism” is an absolute truth. No one who ever met Nathan Rustin would doubt – no matter how outlandish it may seem – a Nathanism as anything except true.

I never had the opportunity to watch Nathan Rustin play football at Central nor at Alabama. I did get the opportunity to watch him coach at Pacelli. But, I grew up hearing the Nathanisms. Once I met Nathan Rustin, I became a true believer of every one I ever heard. 

What was the first Nathanism I remember hearing? Probably, the one about Nathan being so mad that Alabama lost to Auburn that he threw his television out the door into the yard or it may have been about the coaches at Alabama thinking it was a good idea to have Nathan share a room with another football player from the area – one from Columbus High. That was a big mistake. Central and Columbus had one of the most heated rivalries in Bi-City football history. To say the least, the players from both schools hated the players from the other school. They did not refer to each other as Red Devils and Blue Devils. If you are familiar with the rivalry, you know the names they called each other. Anyway, when Nathan found out who his roommate was to be, he threw everything the player from Columbus had in the room out into the front yard of the athletic dorm. He then announced to the world he was not about to room with a . . . the impolite name that was used to refer to Blue Devils by Red Devils.

Those may have been the earliest Nathanisms I heard, but they are not my favorite. Nathan was just the gift that kept on giving. One of my favorite Nathanisms was from a time long before Nathan ever became a football player or coach. In fact, Nathan was about five years old when this one took place. It seems the Rustins had an old beat up jeep on their farm and every afternoon for a while the jeep and Nathan would disappear in the afternoons. When Nathan returned with the jeep each day, he had a quarter. It may seem impossible to think a five-year-old could drive a jeep, but we are talking about Nathan. How did he come by the quarter each day? Well, Nathan was delivering moonshine for a neighbor. I was told Mr. Rustin put a quick end to Nathan’s delivery service when he found out what was going on.

Randy Daniels, whose uncles were close friends with Nathan, shared a story about when he went into coaching and worked for Nathan at Pacelli. The Vikings had won a game out of town by what fans of the opposing team felt was a bit controversial. When the Pacelli team stopped to get a burger on the way home, one particular fan felt obligated to discuss the matter with Nathan. Nathan, attempting to be the peacekeeper, told the upset fan the call went Pacelli’s way that night. Next time it might go the other way. He asked the gentleman to please allow him and his players to enjoy their meal and that then they would be on their way. Nathan lifted his burger to take a bite and the opposing fan made a big mistake. The guy poked Nathan with his finger as he attempted to resume the argument. Randy swore he barely detected Nathan’s left-hand striking the fan’s jaw. The guy was laid out on the floor and Nathan resumed his meal without further discussion about the game.

Now my all time favorite Nathanism deals with Nathan’s former high school coach – Henry Gresham – trying to break the future Alabama lineman of smoking. Coach Gresham held Nathan after practice to run sprints. He ran Nathan to the point of exhaustion. Coach Gresham told Nathan to take a break and he fell out on the ground sucking wind. The grizzly old coach pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one up. He took a deep drawl on the cancer stick and allowed the smoke to escape his mouth gently, He then thrust his hand that was holding the cigarette toward Nathan and asked, “You want one of these?” Nathan jumped right up and said, “Coach, I thought you would never ask.” Henry Gresham made Nathan start running again. He told me he never could break him of the bad habit.

Years later, when Nathan became an assistant football coach for Henry Gresham at Baker High, things were not going well for the old coach and people were sneaking around behind his back to replace him. There was a group that wanted Nathan to be the replacement. Nathan refused to have anything to do with the plan. He was not about to be disloyal to the man who had given him a job. In fact, Nathan quit coaching at Baker and went to work briefly in Florida. When he got the Pacelli job, Nathan gave his former coach a job helping in his later years, Nathan was one thing fir sure and that was loyal to the people who helped him along the way. That is not a Nathanism. It is pure truth.

Maybe someday later on, I will tell you some other Nathanisms. I’ll probably share the one about Mel Brooks stealing a scene from Nathan’s life and using it in the movie Blazing Saddles. Even a Hollywood director and screenwriter recognized a good Nathanism.

Mark Clark is a local sports writer for 

The Citizen of East Alabama.