Paul 'Bear' Bryant's family remembers the legend, and the person behind it

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

Marc Bryant Tyson didn't fully grasp what his grandfather meant to the world until the funeral.

The church service was held in Tuscaloosa, and the burial was an hour away, in Birmingham. Tyson, then 20, got into the car following the hearse and saw people lined up on the streets. They stood out there in the winter cold and waved goodbye, crowds gathered all the way to the interstate. By the time the procession got to the highway and passed under the first bridge packed with well-wishers, Bear Bryant's grandson was drenched in tears.

"Both sides of the interstate was stopped with cars," says Tyson. "Every overpass was covered with people. It hit me how many people truly loved him."

Paul William "Bear" Bryant would have turned 100 on Wednesday, and the grandson made famous by photos of him walking off the field with the man he calls "Papa" is now 50. He says he's asked about the Bear weekly, sometimes daily.

"You don't normally think of birthdays after somebody's passed away," Tyson said Tuesday. "You get to talk about your grandfather almost every day. It's almost like he's still alive."

He is still alive to millions of fans who remember his houndstooth hat, the way he leaned against the goalpost to watch his players warm up, and of course, the six national titles he won. Tyson says he always finds shakers and Coke cans when he visits his grandfather's grave.

To him, though, Papa lives on in his memories, in the time they spent fishing.

"Fishing and quail hunting and playing cards," Tyson says. "Cane pole and crickets, fishing for blue gill bream that weighed a half-pound. His favorite things to eat were fried bream and fried catfish. He'd take a break from steak any day."

Tyson was the only male grandchild, and he got to climb the tower during Alabama practices and watch the Tide get ready. He stood on the sideline during games and walked out onto the field after the final whistle. Bear always wrapped his arm around him, and they walked off together. The coach would collapse in his big chair at home and Marc would try to find an SEC game on the radio. Tyson knows his grandfather was tough on his players, but he remembers the softness too.

"In games, he was very calm," Tyson says. "In the dressing room, he would let 'em have it. But those players knew he loved them and cared about them. That's why they played so well for him."

Tyson says he always felt a deep desire to never let Bear down. Kids weren't allowed inside the 30 yard-line on the sideline at games, and Tyson saw other coaches' children tiptoeing past the boundary. But he treated it like an electric fence.

Now, there's a sort of fence around Tuscaloosa. Tyson's oldest daughter, Lissa Handley, considered going out of state for school.

"In high school I was kind of scared that college in Alabama would be a 13th grade with all the same people," she says. "I was kind of freaking out about that. Initially, I thought it would be cool to go to Vanderbilt or Columbia."

Asked about this, her dad laughs.

"She didn't have a choice," he says. "She just thought she did."

Lissa Handley ended up choosing Alabama, of course, just like all Bear's grandchildren and all the great-grandchildren so far. She went to all the home games and many of the road games. She was elected homecoming queen. And she made a trip to Haiti to help those affected by the massive earthquake there. She wants to become a doctor.

A lot of students knew who Lissa Handley was, but mostly she went through school unnoticed. She was friends with Barrett Jones, now with the St. Louis Rams, and they laughed at how people flocked to the offensive lineman and didn't realize he was hanging out with a direct descendant of football royalty. She liked it that way. She appreciates the legend but doesn't brag about her tie to it.

"My family, the way my parents are, I didn't really understand until I came to Alabama," she says. "We talked about Papa all the time. My dad would tell stories about fishing. His grandfather was very close to him. 'Papa this, Papa that.' It was way more about who was there as a person. I think I took for granted that I got to go to all the games."

These days, both father and daughter are asked about the current Alabama coach, Nick Saban. There's a debate about how Saban compares with Bryant. You'd think maybe the discussion would offend the family. Not so.

"I absolutely love it," Tyson says. "What Saban has done in four years is unmatched by anybody. In modern-day football, with limited scholarships, it will go down in history as one of the biggest runs ever."

He went directly to Saban with his praise.

"I told Coach Saban, I think my grandfather got Alabama to a top-five program, but he has taken them to the No. 1 program in history. We're a top program not just this year but 'til the end of time."

So that begs the question: If he had to win one game …

"Oh for sure my grandfather," he says. "No. 2 would be Saban. Papa would be the head coach and Saban would be the defensive coordinator."

To Bear's family, though, the legacy is about more than winning. It's about all the former players who could count on him, all the former coaches who got their start because of him, and the brave stand he took on integration during a time when many looked to the coach for guidance. Tyson isn't expecting his kids to grow up to be football savants; he's expecting them to grow up to treat people with the fairness Papa showed.

"All of my children have treated people fair," he says. "Respect for others and fairness. That's the trait that has been passed on. The racial times he went through – he saw through that. That was not an issue to him. He wanted good football players."

Papa might have another good football player in his family. Tyson's son Marc Bryant – Bear's great-grandson – has picked up the game and now plays as a seventh grader.

His name is Paul William Bryant Tyson. Marc says it didn't take long to decide whether to give his only boy one of the most famous names in football history.

"That," he says, "was a very easy decision."

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