Mobile opens its doors to the NFL


The Mobile of my childhood drew national attention for few reasons: baseball superstars, the America's Junior Miss Pageant, the occasional hurricane, and the Senior Bowl.

Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige and Willie McCovey, future Hall of Famers all, were born in Mobile. Billy Williams, another Hall of Famer to be, grew up in nearby Whistler. I can still remember the day that Mobile native Tommie Agee, outfielder for the 1969 World Champion New York Mets, came to Mary B. Austin Elementary School, where I served as the resident fourth-grade sports geek.

Oh, how we reveled in the mention of Mobile by Curt Gowdy on the NBC Game of the Week. I have traveled the country covering sports for almost 25 years, and I am still taken aback by the importance fans place on their team, or town, or campus, getting its due from the national media.

Then I remember the outrage in Mobile during the 1970s when, as NBC Nightly News anchor John Chancellor described the damage wrought by one hurricane or another, mispronounced it as "MO-bull," like the adjective, and not Mo-BEEL. As if we didn't have enough to do cleaning up after the storm, but feelings weren't soothed until Chancellor apologized on air the next night.

The Mobile of my childhood isn't there anymore. The paper mills, their pungency drifting across the county at sunset -- the smell of good jobs -- are shut down, a sign of the corporate times. The 7-Eleven where I bought my daily dose of Slurpees and baseball card has been leveled and replaced by a strip center.

The baseball well in Mobile dried up long ago, at least as a source of major leaguers, and the Junior Miss, in which high school seniors from each of the 50 states compete for the title and college scholarships, has migrated from NBC to become a distant star in the cable firmament.

But God love the Senior Bowl. With each passing year, it only grows in stature.

The NFL anointed the Senior Bowl as the first proving ground for college seniors, and the industry that has sprung up around the NFL draft has taken care of the rest. ESPN is not only televising the game, but the team practices as well, jonesing the NFL draft junkies as never before.

The NFL will be there en masse -- coaches, general managers, scouts, and wannabes for all of the above. Try getting a table this week at Ruth's Chris, or at Dreamland, or at a blackjack game in the Biloxi casinos, an hour away.

The progress of the Senior Bowl seems even greater because of the lack of progress that surrounds it.

The Ladd Stadium of my childhood seated 43,000, big enough that Bear Bryant brought the Alabama Crimson Tide 200 miles south every autumn to play a Tulane or a Southern Mississippi. It was good politics, and Denny Stadium, the Crimson Tide's campus home, seated 43,000 as well.

Nowadays, Bryant-Denny Stadium seats 83,818, and Ladd remains the stadium of my childhood. Alabama hasn't played there since 1968. The name has changed, to Ladd-Peebles, and there's a state-of-the-art synthetic playing surface, but it remains a classic example of erector-set stadium design.

It is a relic, and not just any relic. It is the same stadium where I saw Alabama play, saw my Murphy High Panthers play, and saw the Senior Bowl every January.

My mother's parents, Orthodox Jewish immigrants, lived within a mile of the stadium. They bought the bungalow on Catherine St. so that they could walk to synagogue on the Sabbath. If it was a Senior Bowl Saturday, my dad parked at Grandma's, and we walked to my own place of worship.

Through the trees wafted the voice of public address announcer Pinky Grant. Ladd didn't have many bathrooms, but it had a P.A. system you could hear in New Orleans. It would have been an ethereal sound, were it not for Pinky, who sounded as if he had coated his voice in Lucky Strikes and dragged it through gravel.

Ladd held high school games three nights a week, and Pinky worked every one. You could be sitting at any red light in midtown Mobile, waiting for green, and hear, "First-and-10, McGill, at the Davidson 32," sounding as if someone had thrown two rocks in blender and punched "Puree."

Pinky worked the Senior Bowl, too. Surely it was the highlight of his year, as it was for the rest of us. For more than 50 years, Mobile has flung open its doors for the Senior Bowl, and you know how southerners do hospitality.

Until this year, the teams practiced at local high school fields. Now that there's a synthetic surface at Ladd-Peebles, practices will be held there, a great example of how progress can screw things up. You can only imagine the thrill of seeing All-Americans practice outside your social studies window.

There is still a Senior Bowl banquet on Friday night. I have an autograph book from when I went as a five-year-old. The players must have all looked the same to me. I know this because Steve Sloan, the former Alabama quarterback, signed four times. I shoved the book at him.

"I've already signed this," he said.

I stood before him, mute, eyes widened, and he sighed and signed again.

As a child, I begged for autographs. As a teenager, I sold Senior Bowl programs (sell 100, make eight bucks and get in the game free). As a senior in college, 36 hours before the game, two buddies and I decided to embark on a cross-country pilgrimage to see our classmate, Stanford All-American wideout Ken Margerum, play.

Returning to Ladd for that game in 1981, after four seasons of sitting in the majestic cavern of Stanford Stadium, was the first time I saw Ladd through more discerning eyes. Football has grown, and to this day, the stadium remains the same. The press box is new -- Pinky Grant, were he still alive, wouldn't recognize it -- and the field is newer still.

Yet the stadium is as it ever was, my Mobile's last, brightest dot on the national map. The GMAC Bowl is played there in December, and the Senior Bowl follows in January. A city once so identified with baseball has thrown in its lot with football. Forget covering the event itself. Just typing the dateline "MOBILE, Ala. -- " will be thrill enough.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.