ALBANY – Bill Stanfill’s teammates were a heterogeneous group when they arrived on campus a half century ago, but the sameness that made them champions was reflected in their collective presence at the First Methodist Church of Albany on Monday, where they convened to say farewell to one of the truly great football players of our time.
Teammates, especially those who bring about championships, are unalterably connected with bonding that leads to unforgettable moments from which they will never emotionally retreat. All who knew Stanfill didn’t show up, although it looked as they did, as they took up a sizable section of the church.
Among those who came — all imbued with deep and abiding respect — were Billy Payne, whose affiliations make his name household in the game of golf across the globe. Then there were Jerry Varnado, an on-the-field overachiever who once enjoyed a brush with hell-raisin’, but segued, owing to tragedy, into becoming a man of the cloth; Mike Cavan, John Kasay, Charley Whittemore and Steve Greer, who coached for alma mater; Hugh Nall, local and latent friend, another of the whistle-and-stopwatch society who had to switch loyalties but later moved into business and reaffirmed his unimpeachable commitment to the “G;” Sandy Johnson, whose international business success remains under the radar but was extraordinarily signature; George Patton, the other tackle who, with Stanfill, formed an unbeatable tandem, perhaps the best there has ever been at Georgia; a lawyer (Lee Daniel), a doctor (Tommy Lawhorne), a fireman (Tim Crowe), a head hunter, (Wayne Ingle), a bear of a man who dabbed his eyes frequently during the service, a career military officer, the pint-sized lineman, Anthony Dennard; an egg man (Jack Davis), a woodsman (Ronnie Jenkins) who lost his teeth to a forearm long ago but is something of a mascot with his blue-collar, down-home vernacular, one who would forever get your ox out of the ditch.
His adoring coach Vince Dooley was there, which struck a somber note in that life has no defined order. In a perfect world, the coach lives long and abundantly, advancing into old age, crosses the river-of-the-unknown, to be followed afterwards by his charges from those joyful and celebrated days of yore.
All during the uplifting service there was the reminder that successful teammates truly love each other. In Bill Stanfill’s time, there were big guys and little guys, some with special talents, others who got by on energy and heart with the priority always being,“The Team. The Team.” Say it after me, “The Team. The Team.”
They gave of themselves. They were good at playing the game. They were great at winning. Accomplished and everyday men filled up six pews at the church where a man of the soil, a rurally-influenced but gifted athlete, was eulogized in a genial and spiritually elevated atmosphere. There is nothing like football to take a modestly raised country boy with superior skills — to honor, headline, titles, championship rings and fame — exceeded only by the recipient’s modesty, deflection of praise, forever engendering goodwill and harmony to those less successful but were always welcomed in his sphere and in his heart. Any who wore the Red and Black could always “sup” with Bill. They could always pull up a chair to his table.
This was a man who epitomized the long time National Football League adage, “You gotta play hurt.” His inventory of breaks and structural assaults included, but was not limited to: broken left forearm, every finger and thumb on each hand except his ring finger, multiple cracked ribs, two hip replacements, uncountable knee and ankle sprains, back and neck injuries that led to four vertebrae fusions in three different operations.
A ruptured spleen one long ago Sunday sent him to the hospital for a week. However, he was cleared to play the next weekend. He played half the snaps, bringing about this interesting episode. After undressing to shower, he noticed he still had on his hospital bracelet. The team doctor refused to cut it off, saying, “You probably ought to check back into the hospital tonight.”
That is yesterday’s NFL, no medical personnel who stood up to ownership and ownership which treated, even its top players, as a piece of meat.
A couple of years ago, we quail-hunted one sunny January day. It was to be a morning followed by lunch and an afternoon return to the fields. There was hardly anything Stanfill enjoyed more than knocking down a couple of quail on a covey rise, which he did as I watched admiringly. After an hour, he put his .410 away and said, “I’m done.” At lunch, he repaired to his pickup and took his pain-wracked body to a comforting recliner. That was the after-football life he lived.
On another day, we sat in his office at the Merry Acres Motel he owned in partnership with his wife’s family and talked about the licks and sprains and bruises. His Outland Trophy was nowhere to be found. There were no All-America certificates on the wall, no artifacts from a Hall of Fame career.
There was an oil painting of him sacking the great John Unitas in the latter’s declining years, but the essence of Bill Stanfill, the man and the athlete was embodied in a mayonnaise jar which contained his original hip joints, which were replaced. He pointed to the jar and said with humility and pride, “If I had it to do over again, I’d do the same thing.” No man ever loved the game of football more even with living his life in constant pain.
Everybody ought to have a funeral like Bill. The Reverend Thad Haygood officiated, beginning by “calling the Dawgs,” followed by a soloist singing one of Bill’s favorite songs by Bobby Bare, “Drop kick me Jesus through the goal posts of life.” Haygood noted Bill’s lengthy list of accomplishments, which were hallmarks across the board.
Then the associate pastor, Scott Stanfill, the son of the great champion eulogized his father — an most insightful and touching tribute. It was worthy of bronzing.
Scott’s message was discerning, cogent and penetrating, laced with humor. Like the time a water moccasin shimmied up Scott’s boat paddle, seeking respite in Bill’s fishing boat. “That,” said his bemused father, “is the only time I ever heard a preacher cuss.” Scott spoke with such poignancy, a virtuoso delivery without pause, stumble or quivering voice. His tribute was the oratorical equal of his dad’s performance in his prime, helping the Miami Dolphins to an undefeated season. All who knew Bill Stanfill loved him. Scott made us love him more.
His last words, speaking for his siblings, Kristin, Jake and Stan, was to convert the acronym DGD, which stands for “Damn Good Dawgs,” to “Damn Good Dad.”
Fittingly, the organ played “Glory to Ole Georgia” as the church tearfully emptied.
Under my breath, I felt biblical and whispered, “Selah!”