All I really knew about the guy across the table in the Woodlawn High School lunchroom was that his first name Greg, and he played football. But he was friendly enough, and he sat with us most days. After a few weeks, I figured out that his last name was Gantt, and he was a kicker.
Once or twice a week, we were joined by a gaunt-faced fellow named David Langner. I knew him mostly as the cousin of Scott Langner, a football player with whom I’d grown up. David and his brother had recently moved to Woodlawn from Pell City.
Both Greg and David did pretty well on the team, and my sophomore year we made it to the playoffs, where Woodlawn got squashed by Robert E. Lee, which had a pretty good running back named Paul Spivey.
About three years later – on Dec. 2, 1972, to be exact — those three players were on the same field again. Only this time, it was Gantt and Spivey who were teammates for the Crimson Tide. Langner, who had been a running back at Woodlawn, took a scholarship to Auburn, where they converted him to defensive back.
Alabama pretty much had the game under control, leading 16-0 well into the Fourth Quarter. Gantt dropped back to punt, but Auburn’s Bill Newton blocked the punt, and Gantt’s old high school teammate Langner scooped it up. I was a freshman, sitting in the Alabama student section at Legion Field with a girl I was starting to really like.
She started scream that the play was illegal, because you couldn’t pick up a fumble and run with it. I explained (as calmly as you can in the middle of an Iron Bowl) that a blocked punt wasn’t a fumble.
“You’re just taking sides with Auburn,” she screamed, and started crying.
It was OK. We were still winning, and I wondered how many folks watching in the stands and on TV would realize that the punter and the guy who ran back the punt were teammates.
A few minutes later, we saw what has to be the most famous play in Iron Bowl history when Gantt punted again. Newton blocked it again, and Gantt’s old Woodlawn teammate Langner ran it back for a touchdown. Again.
The girlfriend now had mascara running down her cheeks. “That’s illegal. Why don’t the refs call it?” She was furious at the refs and at me. She never got over it.
So that’s my Iron Bowl memory. Gantt lost to his old teammate, and I lost a perfectly good girlfriend.
I ran into Greg at the Student Union Building the next spring and just said (without reference to the game), “Hey, Greg, how’s it going.”
“What’s wrong, man?”
“Can’t believe I got both of those punts blocked,” he mumbled, and he shuffled away. I felt really lousy for him. But this felt like one of those times you really couldn’t say, “Dude, it was a game. Get over it.”
Greg eventually recovered a bit and had a nice career as a punter in the NFL. In one of life’s great ironies, he had to have a leg amputated (the left one, not his kicking leg) due to diabetes. He died in 2011 at age 59.
Other footnotes: Langner dropped out of school after the game and never made it to the NFL. The girl and I never got back together.