Mike Bianchi: Bobby Bowden: Not even World War II shut down our nation like coronavirus

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Bobby Bowden remembers the day World War II began more than 80 years ago.

He was 9 years old and with his mother, father and sister on leisurely drive home after spending a few days at a family friend’s cabin on the nearby Warrior River.

As they drove through Hueytown, Ala., on their way back home to Birmingham on that fateful day in 1939, some kid was hawking newspapers along the street.

“Extra, extra, read all about it! Germany invades Poland! Extra! Extra!”

Isn’t it frightening that Bowden, the legendary Florida State football coach, has lived through so much in his 90 years on this earth, but he’s never seen anything like this. He’s never seen the sports world go completely dark.

“Not even World War II was like this dad-gum coronavirus,” Bobby says during a phone conversation from his home in Tallahassee. “I’ve never seen everything shut down like this. I’ve never seen every sport shut down like this.”

Even at the height of the Second World War, sports were not completely shuddered. The NBA had not been formed yet, but the NFL continued to play even though some franchises were forced to merge so they would have enough players to field teams.

And within the nation’s most popular sport — Major League Baseball — more than 500 players exchanged their baseball uniforms for military battle fatigues, but the sport continued — albeit with a vastly inferior product. At the time, Frank Graham, a famous sports writer for old New York Sun, said Major League Baseball had morphed into “the tall men against the fat men at the company picnic.”

Recalls Bowden: “Baseball was the national game back then and they thought it was important to keep it going.”

In fact, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt believed baseball would help the nation’s morale during wartime. Roosevelt, writing to baseball Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis in what became known as the “Green Light Letter,” said, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.”

Bowden, however, does remember being without his favorite sport — college football — for a year during the 1943 season. He was a 13-year-old boy in Birmingham when he was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and spent six months in the hospital and another year confined to his bed at home.

He spent most of his days during those lonely times listening to the radio and he distinctly recalls his favorite team Alabama — like many college football programs of the day — not playing during the 1943 season. Most college-age young men were in Europe fighting Hitler or in the Pacific fighting Japan. Bobby was at home fighting for his life and praying he would heal.

“I had to lay flat on my back in that bed and couldn’t even stand up,” Bobby told me. “The doctor told my mother that my life span was only going to be about 40 or 45 years. That’s when I made a pledge to God that if he would heal me and let me play football and do the things the other kids were doing, I would serve him for the rest of my life. It wasn’t long afterwards that we got clearance from my doctor.”

Strangely, here we are nearly eight decades later, and Bobby is again in his house praying and fighting a deadly disease — just like the rest of us. He and Ann, his wife of 70 years, are self-quarantining together, staying home, reading books and watching TV.

As Ann told the Tallahassee Democrat the other day about spending so much time at home with her husband, “It’s a good thing we like each other.”

When I ask Bobby what he spends most of his waking hours doing during the self-quarantine, he cracks. “Sleeping. … When you get to be my age, sleeping becomes an activity.”

His sense of humor is as sharp as it’s ever been, but it’s no secret Bobby is devoutly religious and amazingly philosophical. His faith has always kept him calm in times of trouble and turmoil. Even when he was getting forced out at FSU, he pointed out, “Football has never been my God.”

He knows the risk if someone of his age contracts coronavirus and he is doing everything he can to stay safe, but he says he’s not stressing about his own mortality.

“You get to be 90 and you start preparing for it,” Bobby says. “You start getting for ready for that final exam.”

He laughs.

I laugh.

How lucky are we to still have Bobby Bowden around to give us his advice and wisdom and share his experiences as we try deal with one of the scariest times in world history?

Maybe one reason Bobby became arguably the greatest college football coach of all time is because he’s always been a war historian and studied the strategies and philosophies of the great military leaders of the past. He just finished a book on former president Dwight Eisenhower, who during World War II was a five-star general put in charge of defeating Hitler in Europe.

But unlike World War II, this time the enemy is invisible.

“I’ve never seen anything close to this in my 90 years,” Bobby says. “We need to figure out a way to beat this thing.”

Now, more than ever, the politicians and scientists and infectious disease experts desperately need one of Bobby’s patented Puntrooskies.


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