How do I get to see the game?

By Tom Mattingly

Sometimes a casual comment, a throwaway line, perhaps, engenders a response that is totally unexpected.

Lindsey Nelson was set to call the 1958 Tennessee-Auburn game at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., for NBC in late September. Lindsey was staying at the beautiful Tutwiler Hotel in downtown Birmingham and was on the phone with LSU Athletic Director Jim Corbett before leaving for the game. That afternoon, everything centered on the game at Legion Field, 400 Graymont Avenue West.

Nelson, a 1941 Tennessee grad who had worked his way through school doing everything he could for the athletic department, was on his way to a Hall of Fame broadcast career. His visage was well known in broadcast circles as he took the lead in bringing sports to the nation, literally any sport that had a ball.

He was best known for his coverage of the Cotton Bowl, the first game telecast on New Year’s Day in those days, bringing a unique ambiance to that Dallas classic. He also distinguished himself on the Sunday afternoon Notre Dame replay. Wherever there was a game, Lindsey was likely to be there.

There was a special moment at one Cotton Bowl game where the press box elevator malfunctioned and Lindsey darn near missed the kickoff. Asked where he had been when he finally arrived at his broadcast location, Lindsey responded, “I’ve been in the elevator.”

Corbett was one of the first athletic directors who brought a business perspective to college sports, in a position once reserved exclusively for former players, particularly current or former coaches. In those days, many coaches filled both positions. He also seemed to delight in doing surprising things on game day. Nelson found that out under an amazing set of circumstances.

There was a game with great historic portent that night at Ladd Stadium in Mobile between No. 15 LSU and Alabama, the first for returning hero Paul William Bryant. Why that game wasn’t hyped to the heavens and played in Birmingham or Tuscaloosa is a matter for other historians to consider. For Lindsey’s part, he got a second wind after doing play-by-play for Tennessee and Auburn, thanks to Corbett.

He mentioned wanting to see the game to Corbett in passing and thought no more about it. He and colleague Red Grange had business at Legion Field, Shug Jordan at Auburn versus Bowden Wyatt at Tennessee being foremost in his mind. This came in those days when there was only one game televised each Saturday. Fans of other schools were out of luck.

The game rocked along 0-0 until Auburn scored 13 points in the fourth quarter to take the decision. That was the game Tennessee didn’t make a first down.

Here’s where things took an interesting turn. Sometime in the fourth quarter, a mysterious man appeared in the shadows in the back of the television booth.

During a time out, Lindsey asked what he could do to help the stranger. His answer had to have been a total surprise.

“I’m your pilot,” he responded. “Mr. Corbett sent a plane to bring you to Mobile after the game.”

Well, yes. That really was the case, and. as darkness approached, Lindsey was on his way to Mobile and got to the press box just before kickoff. He found Corbett high atop Ladd Stadium in what passed for a skybox in those days. Corbett had Lindsey sit down and then waved a white handkerchief in the general direction of the field.

Thus alerted, Lindsey wrote, the officials brought the captains to mid-field for the coin toss. “How does it feel to have them hold the game for you?” Corbett said, perhaps triumphantly. Many years later, Bear Bryant asked how that all had transpired. Alabama lost that night but didn’t lose many more in the 25 ensuing years.

LSU began a run to the national championship that night under the tutelage of Paul Dietzel. Bryant began a 25-year reign (of terror, opponents said) at Alabama. The backstory to the game was that Jim Corbett had held up kickoff until Lindsey Nelson could arrive.

All because Nelson casually mentioned he would like to see the game. You can’t make this stuff up.

As scripture says, you have not because you ask not.

This story appeared in Lindsey’s autobiography, “Hello, Everybody, I’m Lindsey Nelson.” Overall, it’s a fascinating read.

Over the years, Lindsey often told this story without a great deal of prodding. Dinner with Lindsey Nelson and other Tennessee media at the Ye Olde Steak House on Friday nights before Tennessee home games was always an absolute delight.

It was a memorable part of a memorable career following the Vols.