By Lee Davis
As a youth growing up in inner-city Birmingham more than 30 years ago, Bobby Humphrey’s weekends in the fall offered a familiar routine.
On Friday nights, he would play running back for the Glenn High School Hawks in front of small crowds at Fair Park or Lawson Field. On Saturdays, he would sell soft drinks to capacity college football crowds at Legion Field.
From those modest beginnings in football and commerce, Humphrey would emerge to become a star in both fields. Starting with his days as an All- American at the University of Alabama and a National Football League standout to his present position as vice president for marketing with Bryant Bank, Humphrey has never been too busy to stop and smell the proverbial roses.
“I can’t believe it’s been 32 years since I left home to go to Tuscaloosa,” said Humphrey, who turned 50 in October.
Humphrey went to Alabama as a highly recruited running back and produced decent numbers as a freshman under Coach Ray Perkins in 1985.
As a sophomore, Humphrey came into his own, as he earned the starting tailback spot in Perkins’ run-oriented pro-style offense. Humphrey rushed for more than 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns, including 200-yard efforts against Tennessee, Mississippi State and Auburn. He became only the second runner in Crimson Tide history to exceed 1,000 yards on the ground in a single season, and he led Alabama to a 10-3 record.
“That was an exciting year,” Humphrey said. “We had a great offensive line and they had a lot to do with me getting those yards. We were probably good enough to play for a national champion- ship but we lost a couple of close games that we could have won.”
As Humphrey entered the 1987 season as one of America’s most celebrated college running backs, things were changing on the Alabama cam- pus. Perkins departed the program to take over as head coach of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bill Curry was brought in from Georgia Tech as the new Crimson Tide coach. The hire was controversial to many Alabama supporters, but Humphrey said he never saw a drop-off in the quality of coaching.
“Coach Perkins and Coach Curry were both great coaches, and they had different styles,” he explained. “Coach Perkins was very hands-on and was always wearing a headset and getting involved in the play calling. Coach Curry was more like a business CEO and delegated a lot to his assistants. They both were successful and won a lot of games while coaching at Alabama.”
The season’s highpoint may have come in the second game, as Curry’s Tide rolled to a 24-13 win over defending national champion Penn State. Humphrey rushed for 220 yards, including a 73-yard touchdown run that featured a spin-move that was replayed countless times on highlight shows across the nation. The acrobatic run even earned Humphrey a feature story in Sports Illustrated.
“I didn’t think much about (the spin move) at the time,” Humphrey said, laughing. “But when I saw it on film, it looked pretty good.”
Alabama struggled to a 7-5 record, despite Humphrey rushing for more than 1,200 yards and 11 scores. He earned All-American and All-Conference honors and was named Southeastern Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
Humphrey entered 1988 on virtually everyone’s short list of Heisman Trophy candidates. Those hopes were quickly derailed when Humphrey broke a foot in the season’s second game, against Vanderbilt. He missed the remainder of the year and became eligible for the 1989 NFL Supplemental Draft. Humphrey was drafted in the first round by the Denver Broncos.
His impact on the professional ranks was immediate. Humphrey rushed for more than 1,000 yards in his rookie season and led Denver to the Super Bowl. The Broncos were defeated by the San Francisco 49ers in the big game, but Humphrey was named the American Football Conference’s Rookie of the Year.
Humphrey credited the tough competition he faced in college for much of his success as a rookie.
“You have to remember that so many of the guys I played against in the SEC went on to the NFL as well,” Humphrey said. “So we were used to facing a very high level of competition at Alabama … For that reason, the transition from college to professional football was much easier than the transition from high school to college.”
Humphrey followed his rookie season with another strong year in 1990, becoming the first Bronco to ever rush for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. He earned an invitation to the Pro Bowl.
After another season with Denver, Humphrey was traded to the Miami Dolphins. He completed his NFL career with the Buffalo Bills in 1995.
After retiring from football, Humphrey worked in sales and started his own construction company. He kept his hands in athletics by accepting the head coaching position for the Birmingham Steeldogs of the AF2, an arena football league. Despite having no previous coaching experience, Humphrey produced a winning record with the Steeldogs.
“Coaching the Steeldogs was a great opportunity to help guys out who were trying to get into the NFL,” he said. “A lot of those fellows deserved a second chance to achieve their dream, and I was happy to be there to help them.”
As Humphrey delved more deeply into the business world, he learned that many of the ingredients for success in athletics also applied to his new avocations.
“One thing you learn from playing sports is to never give up,” he said. It was the same thing in sales and in business. A lot of people told me ‘no’ at the beginning but that didn’t stop me. There’s no substitute for preparation and hard work and that applies in business as well as athletics.”
Humphrey and his wife, Barbara, have taught those lessons to their five children, including his son Marlon, who starred in the secondary at Alabama before making himself eligible for the 2017 NFL draft. All of the Humphrey children are star athletes.
“I’ve never actually coached my kids once they get to high school,” Humphrey said. “I leave that to the professional coaches. But I do help them with film work and help them study ways where they can improve.”
Although Marlon helped Alabama win the national championship in 2015, Bobby Humphrey looks at the excellence of the Crimson Tide program under Coach Nick Saban from a different perspective.
“Most of Coach Saban’s players graduate on time and many of them actually graduate early,” Humphrey said. “And he gets them ready for life after football. Coming from the viewpoint of a parent, that’s what’s important to me.”
Despite a busy life as a bank executive, Humphrey still finds time to pay his community rent. He is a popular speaker, telling his story of success in football and business to churches and civic clubs, and he coaches a track team on the weekends. And for the time being at least, Humphrey is content with his life.
“I’m thankful for all that I’ve been given,” he said. “I just want to keep on doing what I’ve got going on now.”
The eye-catching spin-moves and long touchdown runs may be in his rearview mirror, but Bobby Humphrey is always looking forward.