The first time that Johnny Nicola visited Tuscaloosa, Ala., he couldn’t have imagined everything the trip would lead to:
The booster club for the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide football team that he would create (in the last town you’d ever expect to find a booster club for the team).
The relationship he’d form with the university’s legendary football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, who led the Crimson Tide to national prominence.
The endowments and the scholarships and the Sugar Bowls and the friendships.
None of that was on Nicola’s radar that weekend in 1969 when he first went to Tuscaloosa. All he wanted was to see some good football.
That was the carrot that Nicola’s brother-in-law, Tony Chiccino, dangled in front of him. Both of them had grown up in Bridgeport, a blue-collar, mostly Italian, mostly Catholic borough near Norristown: Narrow, sloping streets packed with rowhouses. Warm hugs for the neighbors after Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Zeps, not hoagies, grazie. Back then, if anyone in Bridgeport followed college football, he or she followed Notre Dame or Penn State (when they weren’t living and dying with the Eagles on Sundays, that is).
But Chiccino was a fan of the Crimson Tide and of Coach Bryant, for whom Chiccino played in the early 1950s, when Bryant was coaching at the University of Kentucky. You wanna follow a great team, he told Nicola, you gotta head south to Tuscaloosa.
So they did: Tony, Johnny, and Johnny’s brother, Jerry, all of them visiting Tony’s friend Larry “Dude” Hennessey, who was on the Crimson Tide coaching staff. They watched the team practice. They shook Bryant’s hand. And they came away so hooked on Bryant’s mystique and the program’s excellence — Alabama claims 17 national championships — that they invited more friends on a return trip to Tuscaloosa the following year, and the year after that, and the year after that. The size of the traveling party grew annually: Two guys at practice became 10 guys at a regular-season game, which became 25 guys at a bowl game. Thus was born the Bama Booster Club of Bridgeport, now in its 50th year, which has acted as a bridge between the cultures and sensibilities of north and south, urban and rural, red and blue.
“They would show up, always resplendent in their Crimson gear,” said Bill Curry, Alabama’s head coach from 1987 through 1989, in a phone interview about the Bridgeport Bama Booster’s annual pilgrimages to Tuscaloosa. “You could listen to their accents and tell they weren’t from around there.”
Bama Booster member Joe Kekoanui enjoyed the notoriety their accents gave them in the South.
“They just say we talk funny: ‘Yo, hey, oh, the guys from Philadelphia just showed up!’ ” he said. “People know us because we don’t talk like everyone else down there. We were standing in the airport one time, getting our bags, and someone said, ‘You’re the guys from Bridgeport!'"
Johnny Nicola is now 76, Jerry died in 2009, and today the club comprises just 15 members. They no longer meet in the hole-in-the-wall clubhouse they used to years ago, when they’d don white shirts, red striped ties, and red blazers and convene under a homemade banner that read ALABAMA BOOSTER CLUB, SEMPRE AVANTI. (“Always forward.”)
But Kekoanui — who grew up in Bridgeport, is half-Italian and half-Hawaiian, and at 35 is one of the youngest boosters — views the club as a local tradition, a force for social capital and cohesion, and wants to keep the tradition alive. So the members gather once a month or so at a restaurant or pizzeria in town, where their devotion to the program and their pride in their connection to Tuscaloosa remain unflagging.
Member Carmen Scandone’s first visit to Alabama was an eye-opener.
“When I first got down there, I thought I was going to go to Hickville, and it wasn’t,” said Scandone, who joined the club in 1985. “It was amazing. They accepted us with open arms. I think they also thought it was unique — a little town like Bridgeport has a club that comes down and sees Alabama. They basically adopted us.”
The club reciprocated the warmth. In December 1979, Bryant braved a northeastern snowstorm to fly into Philadelphia and speak in front of 500 people at a Bridgeport church hall. His successors did likewise: Ray Perkins, Bill Curry, Gene Stallings. “They never asked for one dime,” Nicola said. (Nick Saban has not made the trip during his 13 years as the Crimson Tide’s head coach.)
After Bryant’s death in 1983, the boosters created an endowment in his name and invested $15,000 in it, one of five endowments the club funds; they now total more than $260,000. Each year, the boosters grant a scholarship, open to any Pennsylvania high school senior who will use the money to attend Alabama.
This year’s recipient was Darius Haynes, who was born with the muscular disease myositis and, while a student at Norristown High School, started a foundation and a T-shirt company to defray children’s medical bills. His scholarship will be worth $2,000 this scholastic year, then between $5,000-$6,000 each year thereafter. “I like it down here,” he said from his dorm room. “It’s always hot.”
He’ll have visitors from home soon. The Crimson Tide hosts Tennessee on Oct. 19, and Kekoanui (himself a Norristown alumnus), Nicola, and the rest of the Bridgeport boosters are flying down for the game. It will be a clash just of two Southeastern Conference rivals, not of cultures.
“When you stereotype people,” former Crimson Tide coach Bill Curry said, “when you say, ‘Those people are Southerners, and they’re dumb,’ or ‘Those people are African Americans, and we have biases against those people’ or ‘We have biases against Catholics,’ or ‘We have biases against anybody’ — invariably, when you meet the people, you find out how damn wrong you are.
“We might speak with different accents. We might have different inflections in our lines. But this ridiculous sport of football pulls us all together." And that was “the beautiful thing” that he enjoyed the most during the trip he made to Philly, back when he coached the Crimson Tide. "I mean, we’re all human beings.”